Two state flagship universities — Penn State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) — have made strides in retaining and graduating more underrepresented students in STEM fields thanks to a program pioneered by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), according to a new paper in Science magazine.
UMBC has garnered national attention for its Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which has helped raise the graduation and retention rates of its mostly minority students. The university partnered with Penn State and UNC in 2014 to launch a five-year study into whether the program's success could be replicated elsewhere.
About two-thirds (67%) of students in UNC's program and 80% of those in Penn State's graduated within four years, closely mirroring the success of the Meyerhoff program, the study found. What's more, 21% of UNC's cohort and half of Penn State's cohort went onto a doctoral program.
UMBC established the Meyerhoff Scholars Program three decades ago as a way to help more black students earn STEM Ph.D.s. At the time, the paper notes, the university was under fire for its poor track record with graduating underrepresented students, and black students had been holding sit-ins in protest of racism on campus.
The program has since made UMBC a leader in closing equity gaps in STEM. The university graduates more black students who go on to earn M.D.-Ph.D.s than any other college in the nation, and is second only to Howard University in its number of black graduates who complete a STEM Ph.D.
Moreover, Meyerhoff students are 5.3 times more likely to go on to a STEM graduate program than those who were invited to join the program but went to another college instead.
Meyerhoff students benefit from a broad array of supports. They receive a four-year scholarship to help fund their education, attend a summer bridge program to prepare them for the rigors of college, and meet regularly with mentors and advisors.
Replicating those core components has been critical to the success of the programs at Penn State and UNC, even though the institutions varied widely, the paper's authors wrote.
For one, UMBC has a more diverse student body than either of the other two universities. While underrepresented minorities make up 29% of UMBC’s student population, they constitute roughly 15.6% of students at UNC.
At Penn State, the numbers are even lower — underrepresented minorities make up fewer than 15% of the student population — which gave college leaders pause as to whether the program would work on their campus. "There was a prevailing sense among some leadership that the institution was too isolated, homogenous, and underprepared for a (Meyerhoff-like) program to be effective," the authors wrote.
However, the programs soon achieved results "matching or exceeding" that of the original Meyerhoff Program. For instance, minority participation in the duplicated programs has reached 80%, above UMBC's rate of 72%. (The programs are open to all students interested in promoting diversity in the STEM fields.)
The universities credit several elements to their success, including "considerable institutional resources," full-time program staff, training with UMBC and faculty members' buy-in.
"Meyerhoff had already worked all the kinks out," said Amy Freeman, director of Penn State's Millennium Scholars Program, in interview with Education Dive. "We had a great advantage."
Those elements may prove critical as other colleges experiment with the Meyerhoff model. The University of California System's Berkeley and San Diego campuses announced earlier this month that they are building similar programs under the guidance of UMBC, with the help of a $6.9 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
"It's so important to be a part of a professional community that you can share best practices with, lessons learned, (and) how to do it better," Freeman said. "When you're working together as a group to improve that professional practice, it gets better and becomes more replicable at other institutions."
The California universities expect to have their first cohort of students in 2020. And like Penn State and UNC, they will analyze the programs for five years to see how they affect students' retention, graduation and career outcomes.