Freeman Hrabowski on Broadening Participation in American Higher Ed

The president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and chair of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans came to campus for a talk.

On Thursday March 24, Freeman Hrabowski, one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” and the chair of President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans, came to campus to offer his views on education. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), gave a talk, “Pursuing the Dream: Broadening Participation in American Higher Education—A 50-Year Perspective,” sponsored by the Office of the President, the Provost, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA).

A much-honored educator who holds a master’s in mathematics and a Ph.D. in higher education administration/statistics, Hrabowski’s research focuses on minority student participation and performance in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). In 1988 he co-founded, with philanthropist Richard Meyerhoff, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC, a nationally renowned mentorship program that provides resources for high-achieving, underrepresented minority students looking to gain advanced degrees in STEM fields—which inspired Haverford’s own Chesick Scholars Program.

Hrabowski’s on-campus talk encompassed his personal experience as a child-leader during the Civil Rights movement and the current state of diversity in higher education. He began by delineating two groups of people in society: those whose dreams are fulfilled, or on the way to being fulfilled, and those whose dreams are, in the words of Langston Hughes, “deferred.” Often the difference between the groups, he said, is education.

At 12 years old, Hrabowski was inspired to participate in the Birmingham march after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at his church about the possibilities for better educational opportunities for African American children, something he already desperately craved. (An accelerated student, he was, at the time, already a 10th-grader.) He said the experience, which included being arrested, was a painful one, yet a rich one, because it “taught us as children to be empowered in the impact we can have on our own future.”

“Why are we talking about this Civil-Rights period as we think about colleges?” Hrabowski asked the crowd. “It’s for this reason: it’s only been in this 50-year period that that we in America have believed that people of all races, men and women, in larger and larger numbers, should and can go to college and get a degree.”

Though Hrabowski said that, as a society we have made tremendous strides in educational access, he cited many issues at the institutional and societal level that have contributed to inequality and decreased participation and performance of minority and low-income students. “Here’s the real problem,” he said, “in the ’60s the probability of someone from the lowest income [bracket] of getting a four-year degree was under 10 percent, and it still is today. In our democracy we still have not shown that we give low-income people a real opportunity to get that degree.”

Hrabowski advocated for creating an environment of trust and openness to talk about issues of diversity, not just on campuses, but in society at large. “As a country,” he asked, “how do we take the time to think through creating an environment that allows for the honest conversations, with an eye towards improving not just the understanding among people, but giving us a chance to examine our values?”

He also encouraged the audience to reflect on statistics that show that most students who begin their bachelor’s degree studies planning a STEM major move away from the natural sciences and engineering by the time they graduate. (Only 20 percent of black students, 32 percent of white students, and 41 percent of Asian students who planned a major in the field, graduate with a STEM degree, he said.) Surprisingly, he said, the probability that students change majors away from STEM fields increases for high-achieving students who may feel discouraged by the prospect of failure or not performing as well as they’d like to. “The higher the SATS and grades, the larger number of AP credits, the more prestigious the institution,” said Hrabowski, “the greater the probability that the student who begins in STEM changes the major,” especially when faced with first year STEM courses which are often referred to as “weed-out courses.”

Hrabowski advocates for a world in which more that just 5 percent of our degree-holders are in STEM and one where the students of color and women who do earn STEM degrees go on to complete Ph.D.s and become part of the professorship to mentor the next generation. So he urged the Haverford audience to be leaders in helping to make this happen.

“Watch your thoughts,” he told the crowd in conclusion, “they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Hrabowski’s talk was followed by a generative Q&A session that covered topics such as cultural sensitivity on campus and reconfiguration of curriculum for more inclusive learning.

Watch Freeman Hrabowski’s entire talk:

-Jenny Ahn ’17

Photo by Elena Harriss-Bauer