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Minority-focused STEM Funding Plan Raises Equity Concerns

They may appear as a blip on the federal budget screen, but science programs for minority-serving institutions are at the forefront of a debate over the role of these colleges and how best to prepare more students of color for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

 In its 2011 budget plan, the Obama administration would consolidate several small programs for historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions into one larger initiative that, it says, will give greater visibility to this STEM issue. But since majority White institutions ostensibly could receive grants under this merged program, the issue of equity for MSIs is fast becoming part of the debate.

 “We’re concerned about it in these tight budget times,” said Edith Bartley, director of government affairs for the United Negro College Fund.

 Without dedicated, line-item funding, she said, there is the potential to pit HBCUs against each other or to increase competition among individual HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges.

 “We have concerns about how funding is distributed when programs are merged,” Bartley told Diverse. “Merging of accounts potentially creates a challenge for all our communities.”

 National Science Foundation (NSF) 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 the Hispanic-serving institutions program. Together, the programs receive $89 million.

 In their place, the administration would create the Comprehensive Broadening Participation of Undergraduate Institutions in STEM funded at $103 million.

 However, as an NSF official told Congress recently, funding could go not only to minority-serving colleges but also to other postsecondary institutions with a track record of graduating minorities in STEM fields.

 For some grants, MSIs could serve in “a leadership position” in partnerships with majority institutions, said Dr. Arden Bement Jr., NSF director. Bement told a House Science Subcommittee that merging the programs under a larger umbrella would raise the visibility of the program, potentially drawing more interest from national laboratories, other federal agencies and the private sector.

 With minorities representing a steadily growing percentage of the U.S. population, Bement said, “We have to find a way to accelerate growth. We felt a consolidated approach is far better than a fragmented approach.”

 But the proposal is drawing questions. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, a senior Democrat on the Science panel, said she also has concerns about the plan.

 After supporting the current initiatives for 18 years, Johnson said the proposal would “drastically alter these critical programs” through consolidation.

 Governmentwide, the budget plan is part of a trend toward merging smaller targeted programs into broader initiatives, with implications for HBCUs and MSIs that remain somewhat unclear. Bartley said the administration has made a similar proposal for small programs under the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

 Yet having dedicated programs provides some guarantee of funding, Bartley said. HBCU programs also are rooted in the historic discrimination against African-Americans, she added. They also have deep roots in their communities.

 “In these times when demographics are changing, we can’t afford as a nation to not provide programs to minorities in the communities in which they’re located,” Bartley said.

 NSF officials shared some information on details of the potential consolidation. While discussions are just underway, the Stokes program — named after a former Congressional Black Caucus member — could continue as a separate track within the consolidated approach, Bement told the congressional panel. Also, if approved by Congress, the consolidation would take place over three to five years and may include renewal of some existing grants, he added.

 Bartley said UNCF supports much of the president’s agenda, including provisions to increase Education Department support for HBCUs. “The president has made strong requests for increased funding,” she said.

 Nonetheless, UNCF will ask Congress to protect the current slate of small science programs — and provide a funding increase. With separate programs, minority-serving institutions are assured of funding.

 Otherwise in NSF, she said, “There’s no guarantee funding will increase.”

 The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities also is looking for new NSF funding for its member institutions. Legislation passed in 2007 created for the first time an NSF program for HSIs, but start-up has been slow, the association said. HACU’s fiscal year 2010 legislative agenda asks Congress to provide $25 million in new funding specifically for its member colleges. 

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