Competition Has Its Place

According to a 2005 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, there are just over 200 STEM education programs funded by 13 federal civilian agencies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health support roughly half and cover approximately $2 billion of a $2.8 billion total programmatic investment. While much of this funding is disbursed on a proposal basis, there is historical precedence that a substantial portion be directed toward students enrolled at minority-serving institutions (MSIs); the colleges and universities that graduate the majority of this nation’s Black and Hispanic STEM bachelor’s degree holders.

 Nevertheless, the Obama administration’s budget recommendation for the fiscal year 2011 includes elimination of three NSF Broadening Participation programs: the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP), the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP), and the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation. In their place is a competitive grant program that calls for applicants from MSIs as well as predominantly White colleges and universities (so long as they have an MSI partner).

 In addition, the new Comprehensive Broadening Participation program allows Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) into the mix of potential applicants— a far cry from the America COMPETES Act under which NSF serves as the would-be grantor for programs directed at improving the quality of STEM education at HSIs. Instead of creating a stand-alone HSI grant program, the new NSF proposal places HSIs— the largest MSI community with 268 institutions in 2006 —  in direct competition with all U.S. institutions of higher education. The stated 14 percent increase for the Comprehensive grant program is insufficient.

 What is more distressing, however, is the implementation of a now widely adopted model that competition is the best way to promote collaboration. NSF makes this move without sufficient evaluation of its well-established programs. Of course, competition has its place and can produce successful outcomes. Yet, the nation is taking a huge risk in assuming its place belongs at the table of STEM higher education without proper evidence warranting such a shift. Furthermore, the nation’s MSIs have worked tireless years to become partners in educating the nation’s diverse citizenry and have the most positive outcomes in educating minority STEM students.

 MSIs are often partners with majority-serving universities, but the partnership is often unbalanced in resource allocation and recognition. The application process itself will be uneven as well. Resources afforded to the grant-writing process at predominantly White institutions far outweigh those at resource-strained MSIs.

 Of any broad-based disciplinary area in higher education, we perhaps know the most about what works to achieve successful outcomes in STEM. There are thousands of manuscripts, book volumes, conferences and peer-reviewed studies on the topic. We are closer to knowing what works than ever before. Instead of competition, NSF should promote replication. Replication has its place as well.

 Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.