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minorities in stem
Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, shown in 2010, is a mathematician himself and co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program to advance the achievements of underrepresented minority students in STEM fields. The UMBC program has been successfully replicated at the University of North Carolina and Penn State University, a new study shows. Credit: (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

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There’s a lack of diversity in science, technology, engineering and math programs at most colleges and universities, but the University of Maryland, Baltimore County may have cracked the code on a solution.

In 1989, UMBC launched the Meyerhoff Scholars Program to increase the number of black men with Ph.D.s in the STEM fields, through intense mentoring, financial aid, faculty support and professional development. It has since expanded to include women and anyone interested in increasing diversity in those fields – and has become a national model because of its demonstrated success.

Through the years, most of the underrepresented minorities among Meyerhoff scholars have finished their undergraduate degrees in science and engineering, and 76 percent of all Meyerhoff scholars have gone on to earn a graduate or professional degree; 300 alumni have a Ph.D.

But this is just one school’s success story – until now. In 2013, UMBC partnered with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Pennsylvania State University to replicate the Meyerhoff model. UNC created the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program and Penn State launched the Millennium Scholars Program. The latter two programs have just five years of results, while Meyerhoff has nearly 30, but the results are promising. They are chronicled in a research paper that being published today in the journal Science.

Students must apply to be in Meyerhoff, and those accepted move through the program as a cohort, which can be as few as 20 students or as many as 60. They receive a four-year scholarship and participate in a six-week summer bridge program where they hone their math and science skills prior to freshman year. Once the school year begins, they receive personalized advising, counseling and mentoring. They also live together freshman year. During their undergraduate years, they are introduced to research opportunities and, with the help of Meyerhoff staff, get STEM internships. While many white students come through Meyerhoff, the program focuses on underrepresented minorities. Among alumni, 67 percent are black, 15 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 3 percent are Latino.

In preparation for their own programs, faculty members and administrators from the University of North Carolina and Penn State trained for weeks with UMBC staff and attended some parts of UMBC’s summer bridge session. Penn State and UNC each admits a certain number of students, around 30 or 40, based on various criteria such as essays on their personal interests in a STEM career, grade point averages and stellar scores on standardized tests. At UNC, for example, many students have above a 600 on the math portion of the SAT, in which the highest score is 800.

Related: Five things American colleges need to do to help black and Latino students

Just like the students at UMBC, Penn State and UNC students participate in a summer bridge program to brush up on skills and bond with their cohort. Scholars also receive merit awards to offset the cost of tuition and fees, plus mentoring, professional development workshops, and guidance and encouragement with pursuing research opportunities as undergraduates.

The four-year graduation rate of the first cohort at each school is higher than Meyerhoff’s first cohort was, wrote the paper’s authors, who included program leaders at each of the three institutions. At UNC, 67 percent graduated in four years, and at Penn State, 80 percent graduated in that time. For the first set of Meyerhoff scholars, 31 percent graduated in four years, although now the four-year graduation rate at UMBC for these students is 72 percent.

Each school is also achieving its mission of propelling students, especially underrepresented minorities, into advanced degree programs in STEM fields. Among UNC’s first cohort, 21 percent of students matriculated into a Ph.D. or M.D.-Ph.D. program after four years. For Penn State, 50 percent of students from the first cohort made this achievement. Right now, about 48 percent of UMBC’s Meyerhoff scholars matriculate into these programs.

“Understand that all of the elements matter. No one single element is enough to produce the outcome that you’re seeking.”

The replicates are also winning at diversity. UNC, for example, among students from the six cohorts that have entered, 55 percent are African American, 25 percent are Hispanic, 7 percent are American Indian and 18 percent are white.

“These findings confirm that Meyerhoff-like programs and student outcomes can be achieved elsewhere, even at institutions very different from UMBC,” Michael Summers, the chair for Excellence in Research and Mentoring at UMBC, said in a statement.

UMBC has always been racially diverse, with a student body that’s currently about 18 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 43 percent white, but UNC and Penn State have historically struggled to produce more underrepresented minorities who graduate from STEM fields.

Related: More black and Hispanic science teachers could mean more scientists of color

The report noted that, from 2002 to 2011, about 99 graduates of UNC each year went on to earn Ph.D. degrees in STEM fields, but only six of those 99, on average, were African American. Similarly, Penn State in those years was among the top five U.S. schools in producing undergraduates who went on to earn STEM Ph.D.s, but of the 193 graduates on average who did so each year, only four each year, on average, were African American.

So what does it take for predominantly white schools to boost the number of black, Latino and Native American students who reach the highest levels of academia in STEM fields?

“There’s a Freeman in every program,” Amy Freeman jokingly said. Freeman is the director of the Millennium Scholars Program at Penn State, but no relation to Thomas Freeman, the executive director of the Chancellor Science Scholars Program. And Freeman Hrabowski is the president of UMBC and was instrumental in launching the Meyerhoff Scholars program.

But she also has some serious advice.

“Understand that all of the elements matter,” Amy Freeman said, noting that it’s the mix of the summer bridge program, research opportunities, mentoring and more that helps students succeed. So just installing a summer learning component, for example, probably won’t work. “No one single element is enough to produce the outcome that you’re seeking,” she said.

Thomas Freeman said having students move through the program as a cohort is critical.

“We’ve seen that the cohort is really instrumental in helping students get the four-year support that they need to get through these rigorous STEM programs,” he said. “They have to understand the culture of the program from the beginning.”

UNC’s first cohort had around 20 students; subsequent cohorts have been closer to 40. But a cohort that’s too large can hurt the program’s mission, he said.  “When you start to get too big, and the Meyerhoff program has seen that, you start to really have a negative impact on cohort dynamics and you don’t get the type of cohesion that you would like to see in a group.”

Earlier this month, the University of California Berkeley and the University of California San Diego  announced that they will also partner with UMBC to replicate Meyerhoff.

This story about minorities in STEM was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named one of the University of California colleges that plans to use the Meyerhoff system. Is is the University of California San Diego, not  Davis. 

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