Science Summary

Increasing Representation of Ethnic Minorities in STEM Fields
Ethnic minorities are underrepresented in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and efforts to increase diversity in STEM fields have not had a significant impact.  The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County provides a promising model for increasing retention and academic performance of underrepresented minority undergraduates in STEM and for preparing those undergraduates to pursue graduate and professional programs. A new report describes how the positive outcomes from the Meyerhoff program can be replicated at other universities.

The outcomes for African-American STEM majors in the Meyerhoff Program have been extensively documented. Previous research has shown that students who qualified for the Meyerhoff Scholars Program but declined the offer and attended other universities were half as likely to graduate with a STEM degree, and approximately five times less likely to pursue or complete STEM graduate degrees. Despite this documented success, no other predominantly white institution has achieved similar outcomes.

The authors of “Replicating Meyerhoff for inclusive excellence in STEM” explain how an interinstitutional partnership approach can help enable similar outcomes at other “majority universities” with different geographies, sizes, cultures and proportions of underrepresented minority students. The Millennium Scholars Program at Pennsylvania State University at University Park and the Chancellors Science Scholars Program at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were designed to replicate or closely adapt all major components of the Meyerhoff program, including establishment of key administrators and senior faculty as program champions; allocation of space and funding for staff, scholarships, activities, and assessment; recruitment of diverse staff who can serve as effective mentors and bridge cultural divides; targeted student recruitment and selection activities; cohort building, including intensive pre-matriculation summer education and mentoring activities; intensive academic advising and counseling; community service; and regular program evaluations.

Outcomes from the initial cohorts at the PSU and UNC programs closely paralleled those of the Meyerhoff program, and minority participation in both programs grew from approximately 65% (cohort 1) to approximately 80% (cohort 4). The report authors identified several keys to success which included: a commitment to the entire Meyerhoff Scholars Program model; sufficient and sustained administrative support; recruitment of full-time program staff; immersive up-front interinstitutional training and sustained guidance; and breadth of faculty participation.

Recently, a report from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), “HBCUs Punching Above Their Weight,” found that HBCUs are strong producers of black STEM graduates, providing around one-third of those degrees across the study population. The report also noted that HBCUs enrolled and graduated about one-fourth of all black undergraduates across 21 states and territories in 2016, despite accounting for less than 10% of all four-year institutions.

College Matriculation and Graduation Increasing, but Completion Gaps Persist
According to a new analysis by the Pew Research Center, the number of low-income undergraduates has increased “dramatically” over the two decades from 1996 to 2016, and now makes up nearly a third of the overall student population. Using data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, Pew researchers found that community colleges and the least-selective four-year colleges have seen the greatest rise in poor and minority students. The most selective, private four-year institutions have not seen as much of an increase. The report also found that more non-white undergraduates are attending college. However, data released by the National Center for Education Statistics show a 50-percentage-point gap in college-going rates between students who come from the highest-earning families and the lowest earning. According to the data, among students who entered ninth grade in 2009, 78 percent of those from the wealthiest 20 percent of families were enrolled in college seven years later (in 2016), whereas just 28 percent of students from the lowest quintile were enrolled.

A third report by the Center for American Progress showed that while college-degree attainment rates have improved over the past decade in the United States, with the share of young adults with at least an associate’s degree rising by 20 percent, gains are unevenly distributed geographically and by race. According to the report, 35 percent of white adults in the US hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, while only 18 percent of underrepresented adults do. Overall, just 8 percent of bachelor’s degree-holders live in rural counties.

Report on Alcohol and Drug Use Urges More Support from Higher Ed Leadership
A report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) calls for a new level of awareness and collaboration by college presidents and trustees to address college student alcohol and drug use. Addressing College Drinking and Drug Use: A Primer for Trustees, Administrators, and Alumni, jointly authored by Dr. Amelia Arria, professor and the Director of the University of Maryland School of Public Health’s Center on Young Adult Health and Development, and Greta Wagley, ACTA’s editor and research associate, is intended to help trustees and administrators understand the growing problem of substance use on campus, providing the latest data on substance use among college students as well as evidence-based best practices.

The report reframes prevention efforts around the university’s academic mission, and guides trustees and university leadership to change their campus cultures through evidence-based practices. The report cites statistics that show the harmful impact of alcohol and drug use on academic achievement and mental and physical well-being, including diminished cognitive ability, critical thinking, dropout rates, and limited likelihood of employment post-college.

Addressing College Drinking and Drug Use follows the recommendations of the National Institutes of Health College AIM framework, which endorses a multi-level, multi-component strategy that includes both environmental and individual-level interventions to address substance use. Effective environmental interventions include enforcement of underage drinking laws, social host laws, responsible beverage service, and use of campus and local media to promote awareness and enforcement of these laws.

Effective and feasible individual-level interventions include widespread screening to identify students at high risk for developing problematic substance use patterns, and clinical interventions for unhealthy alcohol use and substance use. The authors emphasize that policies that work to strengthen the academic mission, re-norm the campus culture, improve screening, deploy evidence-based clinical interventions, and provide alternatives to consumption are all important components of a comprehensive strategy that is required to reverse the trajectories of substance abuse. Policies must address each campus’s particular student body and culture, and prevalence of substance abuse. According to the report, to be successful, approaches require coordination at various university levels, full support from the president and trustees, and collaboration with the community, other universities, and state government.

University food insecurity and academic performance
Recent data indicate that nearly half of college students at community and public colleges are food insecure. According to, “College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report,” released by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, 45 percent of student respondents from over 100 institutions said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days. The survey found that rates of basic needs insecurity are higher for marginalized students, including African Americans, students identifying as LGBTQ, and students who are independent from their parents or guardians for financial aid purposes. Students who have served in the military, former foster youth, and students who were formerly convicted of a crime are all at greater risk of basic needs insecurity, as are those receiving a federal Pell Grant. Rates of basic needs insecurity are also higher for students attending two-year colleges compared to those attending four-year colleges.

The report concludes with recommendations for colleges and universities, which include: appointing a Director of Student Wellness and Basic Needs; evolving programmatic work to advance cultural changes on campus; engaging community organizations and the private sector in proactive support; and developing and expanding an emergency aid program.

Another recent study published in the Journal of American College Health, “University student food insecurity and academic performance” found that food insecurity is associated with poor academic performance. Using an online survey distributed to 13,897 undergraduates at a mid-sized, New Jersey public university, researchers found that food insecurity increased the odds of being among the lower 10% GPA and reduced the odds of being among the upper 10% GPA. The study also showed that forty-eight percent of students were food insecure, and that rates were higher for women, African Americans, Hispanics, students with partial or no meal plan, commuters, and students receiving financial assistance.

Examining Free College Programs
An analysis by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, found that many “free college” programs, despite “astonishing” growth, are falling short of expectations. Authors Jen Mishory and Peter Granville wrote that there are 22 free college programs spread across 19 states, and funding for the programs has risen by an average of $107 million per year over the past three years. According to the report, “Policy Design Matters for Rising ‘Free College’ Aid,” in some states, there has been a reluctance to commit to truly universal “free college,” and this has meant that as few as five percent of all students may actually qualify for program benefits. Often, the report states, the students most in need are left out because of the eligibility requirements. In a 2018 analysis of free college programs, Mishory wrote, “states often describe their programs as universal, in reality they include extensive eligibility requirements intended to either ration the benefit to bring down costs” or target a specific group of students.

According to a briefing paper released this week by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, despite the fact that twenty percent of college students in the United States are raising children, free college initiatives often “unintentionally exclude” these students. The institute’s analysis pointed out various restrictions and requirements in the college Promise programs that exclude students who may be most in need of support. Among the more than 300 college Promise programs in 44 states, the majority exclude students over the age of 25 – making many students who have started families ineligible for Promise financial assistance. “College Promise programs that just cover the cost of tuition and fees also may not do enough to allow students with children and others with high financial need to afford to enroll,” the paper stated, and recommended allowing aid to help students cover other costs including housing, childcare, food and transportation.

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