Obama Proposal Seeks to Consolidate Minority Undergraduate STEM Programs

The Obama administration wants to consolidate federal science programs for minority-serving institutions into a single competitive grant program, a plan that is drawing questions on Capitol Hill.

The president’s 2011 budget would take separate small programs for historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, and re-channel them into a single program, which administration officials said would still be aimed at students of color.

With minorities representing a steadily growing percentage of the U.S. population, “We have to find a way to accelerate growth,” said Dr. Arden Bement, Jr., National Science Foundation (NSF) director, to the House Research and Science Education Subcommittee.

“We felt a consolidated approach is far better than a fragmented approach,” added Bement.

Programs affected by the plan include the HBCU Undergraduates program (HBCU-UP); the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation; the tribal colleges and universities undergraduate program (TCUP) and Hispanic-serving institutions program. In their place, the administration would create the Comprehensive Broadening Participation of Undergraduate Institutions in STEM.

Administration officials said the plan would increase funding. The consolidated program would receive $103 million in the president’s budget, while the existing small programs received $87 million in fiscal year 2009, Bement said.

While saving administrative costs, the director said the new approach would promote partnerships among MSIs and majority institutions. It would “help build sustainable partnerships and alliances among institutions with strong track records in producing underrepresented STEM graduates,” he said.

NSF faced detailed questioning about the plan from lawmakers such as Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. While Johnson did not specifically criticize the plan at the hearing, she released a statement raising questions about the idea.

After supporting the current initiatives for 18 years, Johnson said she was “concerned that this proposal may decrease the effectiveness of some of these critical programs, which engage students at historically Black, tribal and Hispanic-serving colleges and institutions of higher education nationwide.”

The proposal would “drastically alter these critical programs” through consolidation into a single, wide-ranging initiative, she added.

NSF officials shared some information on details of the potential consolidation. While discussions are just underway, Bement said the Stokes program—named after a former Congressional Black Caucus member—could continue as a separate track within the consolidated approach.

A second track would focus on “transformation initiatives” that promote recruitment, retention and graduation of minorities in STEM fields. Bement said he would “expect MSIs in a leadership position” in this track along with other universities that have a strong record of graduating minorities in STEM fields.

With a larger single program, he said, the program would draw greater interest from national laboratories, foundations and other federal agencies. Such players would “see [the program] in a much more holistic light,” he said.

If approved by Congress, the consolidation would take place over three to five years and may include renewal of some existing grants, he added.

The House and Senate would have to approve the consolidation in a science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2011, which will begin Oct. 1.Minority student advocates criticized the administration’s minority STEM program proposal, saying that launching a new program could undermine existing efforts at MSIs to educate and graduate minority students in STEM disciplines.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Of all the areas at NSF, why would they pick on these programs?” asked Dr. Daryl Chubin, the director of American Association for the Advancement of Science Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity.

Chubin noted that at MSIs “there are strong communities that have developed around these initiatives.”

“This (new program) will have a devastating effect on them,” he said. “I’m skeptical because more questions are raised than are being answered including what’s going to happen in terms of how will the administration of the new programs work and what outcomes do they expect that they currently aren’t getting.”

Dr. Lorelle Espinosa, director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, says that while the proposal was crafted to foster collaboration and partnerships she’s worried the new program would help undo existing collaborations among institutions.

“(The proposal) is surprising and my initial reaction is not positive,” Espinosa says. “By cutting these programs and putting them all into one bucket, and then asking institutions to compete for the resources, I think that is incredibly problematic.”

She explained that “when you’re asking institutions that are serving populations that have a lot of the same issues and (the institutions) have worked very hard to have a collaborative environment amongst themselves to compete for resource” the risk is that the existing infrastructure may be pulled apart with alliances that benefit fewer people and reduces the total number of participating institutions.

“I think that is a dangerous road to travel,” Espinosa said.

Ronald Roach and Frank L. Matthews contributed to this report.