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Institutional capacity change vs. Individual Student Support: porque no los dos?

August 27, 2019

It’s been a while since I’ve put up a blog post, but I was moved to write one today after reading Play The Game, or Change The Rules? at Small Pond Science. My last post also reflected a kind of a disagreement with a Small Pond Science post – I promise not to turn this site into just responses to posts from there. But indulge me.

In yesterday’s post, Terry McGlynn emphatically argues that the central task for institutions seeking to support undergraduates to gain admission to graduate programs is to fix the “rigged system”  – i.e, to make structural changes that do not reinforce biases. In contrast, McGlynn argues that programs like the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars Program  “validate the status quo and reinforce it by tacitly playing by its rules”.

McGlynn’s argument for initiating institutional capacity change is a compelling one. Increasingly, major funding agencies recognize the need that institutions need to focus on changing their culture. One program that has a lot in common with McGlynn’s line of reasoning is HHMI’s “Inclusive Excellence” initiative. See this article by David Asai that discusses the aims of the Inclusive Excellence program. Here’s a block quote from that article that reads like it could have been part of McGlynn’s blog post:

Inclusive Excellence focuses on institutional capacity change. In contrast to supporting activities aimed at the student, Inclusive Excellence emphasizes improving the student’s environment. The objective of the Inclusive Excellence initiative is to help schools find ways to significantly increase their capacity for inclusion so that students from all backgrounds — especially those from groups underrepresented in science — can excel. Increasing capacity can involve helping faculty learn the skills characteristic of an inclusive learning environment, revamping curriculum so that students can successfully enter via different “on-ramps” and large numbers of students can engage in authentic research early in their undergraduate tenure, and reexamining institutional policies and procedures so that faculty and staff will be encouraged to create an inclusive campus climate — and rewarded for doing so.

The National Science Foundation has also showed recent interest in “Building Capacity”, through such programs as Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI Program), launched in 2018. Full disclosure, I am the principal investigator for an HSI Program project at Dominican University. I believe in the stated aims of Building Capacity initiatives and recognize that this work is important.

Focusing on changing student environment instead of directly supporting students, however, can be tricky to get right. See the results of the Gates’ foundations investment in teacher-effectiveness. Prior to the launch of that program, I think Bill Gates could have said to himself the same thing McGlynn states in his post: “[Old models] are designed to fix the students, but the real problem is us.” Despite the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, the Gates’ Teacher-Effectiveness program yielded student outcomes that were not dramatically better than outcomes in similar sites that did not participate in the initiative.

Building capacity projects are best situated alongside individual student support interventions, including ones like the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars program.  I disagree with McGlynn’s view that student support programs like the Meyeroff Scholars Program are “not making higher ed more inclusive” and instead “reinforcing the barriers that are keeping members of minoritized communities out of STEM”. The Meyerhoff Scholars program shares a lot in common with the approaches promoted by the following long-running NSF programs: NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM), and Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) . I’d categorize most projects I am aware of funded by NSF’s Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program as more of a student support oriented than focused on building institutional capacity, but the awarded projects can fall into either category. Instead of taking an institutional approach, the hallmarks of these programs are to target specific individuals and support them in a cohort model.  The bulk of funding isn’t necessarily aimed at things like faculty professional development or curriculum redesign, but instead often directly supports students through scholarships and stipends and high-impact practices dedicated to a defined cohort. Because funding is limited, the size of cohorts can vary from as few as ten to up to fifty to sixty students. Interventions that are defined for a set cohort, rather than institution-wide, are as McGlynn puts it: “designed to create an elite that has the best resources and the best opportunities. This ultimately facilities exclusivity, which sounds a lot like it runs counter to inclusivity.” In essence McGlynn is saying: “why are we focusing on a few trees, when there is an entire forest that needs saving.”

However, direct student support is important and necessary too, because the structural roadblocks that limit the ability of undergraduates to gain admission to graduate programs exist beyond our institutions. Our institutions need to change, no doubt – but that is not all that needs to change. For me, one issue that feels pressing and exerts a huge influence on the scope and direction of higher education in the United States is income inequality .  My home institution regularly exceeds a fifty percent Pell-eligible undergraduate population, and the number one reason students who leave the institution give on exit surveys as to why they were not retained is financial difficulties. Yesterday was my first day of classes and in each lecture I asked for a show of hands about how many students worked a job and I’d estimate 90% of the hands went up.  Nearly all of these are low-paying retail jobs outside of our student’s main career interests. We could transform our curriculum to become more inclusive and offer all the professional development in the world to our faculty about effective practices, but none of that would have any direct influence on our students’ financial well-being. Do you know what does? Giving our students scholarship support moves the needle on student finances. Paying undergraduates stipends to participate in funded research experiences moves the needle on student finances.

Scholarship and stipend support doesn’t come cheap.  McGlynn seems shocked that the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars program has a $4.5 million annual budget for such a “small” number of students. McGlynn considers 43 to be a small number of participants (I don’t), but that is only the entering cohort. It looks like it was a down year given their target of 50-60, but the total number of participants in any given year likely ranges between 150-200 if you include freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Their benefits page notes that all participants receive four year scholarships that range between 5-15K for in-state students and 10-22K for out-of-state students.  This likely provides robust support given that UMBC is a regional campus of a state university system – average net cost was about 16K in 2017 (see for a nice front end to the IPEDS data).

There’s a structural fix for how public education is financed in this country. There are structural fixes for income inequality as well. At least I sure hope there are. But these need to be implemented in the ballot box and are beyond the scope of what administrators at UMBC (or any individual college/university) can accomplish (the annual budget is going to run a lot more than $4.5 million a year). But, barring these structural fixes coming to pass anytime soon, providing students direct scholarship/stipend support is directly addressing a “barrier that is keeping members of minoritized communities out of STEM” – it’s putting dollars in the pockets of our students. And for financially needy students, a major barrier may not be whether or not they need to assimilate to their institution’s culture or whether their institution needs to adjust it’s culture to meet the needs of it’s student body, but rather whether they can have the resources to engage in the culture in the first place.

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