Though many within his social circle growing up went straight into the workforce after high school, Dr. Christopher L. Howell, an electronics engineer for the U.S. Army’s Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate, took a different path.
Howell, 41, says he planned to work after he earned his four-year degree. But then his professors at the University of Memphis shined light on a higher education path that goes even further. Specifically, they referred him to the school’s Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program.
Subsequently, in 2010, Howell became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Memphis with a doctoral degree in electrical engineering, according to Deborah Northcross, former director of the school’s McNair program.
“I’m just extremely proud that he made the journey when he didn’t think he could at first,” said Northcross, who currently serves as executive director of the Southeastern Association of Educational Opportunity Program Personnel, or SAEOPP.
Howell said he considered himself a “very educated person” but was “rough around the edges” and didn’t know much about the rigors of research before faculty mentors within the McNair program prepared him for graduate school.
“I knew I wanted more out of life,” Howell said. “I wanted to get a Ph.D. but it was sort of a pipedream until I found McNair.”
Similar testimonials were easy to collect at a recent congressional briefing that featured McNair alumni — including some who’ve gone on to become faculty — as well as experts and program administrators from across the nation.
The hearing was organized by the Council for Opportunity in Education, or COE, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for federal TRIO programs, such as McNair, which are designed to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue higher education.
While the hearing highlighted the achievements of McNair alumni, its primary aim was to drum up support for the program as it faces a slimmer budget and an uncertain future.
The McNair Legacy
Approximately 200 campuses across the nation host the program, named for Ronald E. McNair, the second African-American in space who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.
Whereas the program received $46.2 million in federal funds in fiscal year 2011, in fiscal year 2012 funding dropped to $36.1 million but may be even lower at $30.5 million, according to a U.S. Department of Education document that calls for applications for McNair grants by June 8. Fiscal year 2013 looks the same as 2012. Program administrators and advocates say the decrease represents a step in the wrong direction. At a time when more minorities populate the landscape of higher education, proponents say the McNair program provides mentorship, motivation and role modeling for students who may not otherwise matriculate into graduate school.
Among those proponents is Dr. Orlando Taylor, the former dean of the Howard University Graduate School who was recently tapped to serve as president for the D.C. campus of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Taylor said the McNair program steers more minority students toward graduate school than would otherwise go, many of them into STEM fields, thereby helping to meet a critical demand for more highly-educated STEM graduates in the United States.
“If you place the McNair program squarely in the middle of the national imperative, the national demand, and you compare it to the changed demographics in higher education, it is intellectually indefensible that we can reduce the funding for the program,” Taylor said at the recent congressional briefing on the McNair program.
“It’s not just restoring the $10 million,” Taylor said, explaining what he said should be the priority placed on the McNair program. “It’s increasing that funding for the benefit of the country.”
Earlier this year at an annual COE policy meeting, when COE members voiced opposition to the Obama administration’s decision to shift $10 million from McNair to Upward Bound Math/Science, Debra Saunders-White, the deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs at the U.S. Department of Education, acknowledged the value of McNair but said the administration is interested in producing more STEM graduates.
McNair advocates shot back that the McNair program is doing just that. Some support for that view can be found in statistics compiled by COE and the Council of Graduate Schools’ Joint McNair Committee Data Points on McNair Scholars.
According to CGS-COE committee:
• Seven out of 10 McNair Scholars are underrepresented minorities.
• About 43 percent of McNair Scholars are Black/African-American, about 24 percent are Hispanic/Latino, and 3 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native.
• Two-thirds of all McNair Scholars are enrolled in STEM fields at the undergraduate level (30 percent in the natural sciences and engineering and 37.2 percent in the social and behavioral sciences).
However, finding out exactly where most McNair Scholars ultimately end up is not an easy undertaking, and even the federal government says there are “data limitations.”
“While the Department of Education has reported on the demographic characteristics of McNair Scholars, to date the department has not released any data on McNair Scholars by field of study,” wrote Nathan E. Bell, director, research and policy analysis, Council of Graduate Schools, in an April 2012 paper titled “Data Sources: A Profile of McNair Scholars.”
Be that as it may, Bell’s paper states the information can be gleaned from an annual McNair Scholars Directory that CGS and COE maintain on a password-protected website to enable graduate schools to recruit McNair Scholars.
From a federal standpoint, the most important measure of McNair is its rate of graduate school enrollment, according to a U.S. Education Department documented titled “Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program Grantee-Level Performance Results: 2009-10.” According to that document, the overall three-year graduate school enrollment rate for McNair participants who received their bachelor’s degrees in 2006-07 is 69.8 percent. Supporters note that percentage makes McNair Scholars more likely — more than twice as likely by some standards — as their similarly-situated peers to enroll in graduate school.
At a more granular level, one could examine percentages of McNair Scholars who go on to graduate school by a particular institution. However, the percentages don’t mean much because some programs serve relatively low numbers of students while others may not have data on graduate school enrollment at the time they submit their annual program reviews, the Education Department says.
“Furthermore, the data, at the grantee-level, show that graduate school enrollment rates vary significantly between projects,” the Department of Education document on McNair states. “One reason for this variance is the number of bachelor’s degree recipients reported for each institution.
“The average cohort has only 10.6 students, so each student accounts for a significant change in graduate school enrollment rates.”
The paper notes that one grantee has a 100 percent graduate school enrollment rate, but that’s based on just three students, whereas another institution had a 55 percent graduate school enrollment rate based on five students out of nine enrolling in graduate school within three years.
Setting the Pace
In terms of standout institutions, COE provided Diverse with a list of 25 institutions of higher learning said to have 90 to 100 percent graduate school enrollment rates.
The institutions included a broad range of universities, from Morehouse College to the University of Idaho. However, a random check by Diverse found that not all of those institutions’ graduate school enrollment rates have been so high as of late.
COE also provided a list of institutions by number of Ph.D.s earned by McNair Scholars to date. However, the information is based on self-reported data so it is limited.
Indeed, Howell’s Ph.D. is not included in the list’s 886 Ph.D.s because the list didn’t include the University of Memphis. Overall, since 1986, the McNair program helped approximately 2,500 alumni earn doctoral degrees and secure positions in the academy, according to the COE.
Numbers aside, McNair proponents say McNair helps diversify and replace an aging professoriate, which makes it more likely for more diverse students to enter graduate school in the future. Defunding McNair, they say, hurts those objectives.
“That diversity is very critical to how we are supporting the students, particularly in the STEM fields,” said Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, vice president of research and director at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education.
“Students lose faculty who can relate to them” should McNair funding continue to be cut, Taylor Smith adds.
Taylor Smith said faculty of color have a “particular kind of pedagogy that helps to pull those students.”
“It’s not just what we’re doing but how we’re doing it that’s being undermined when you take this funding away,” Taylor Smith said, adding that the details of that “particular pedagogy” represent a topic for some of her future research.
“We’ve got to do more research on how these faculty who come through McNair are successfully helping those students in the pipeline,” Taylor Smith said.