Why Sloan Narrowed its Focus in Supporting Minority Grad Students

Getting more young people of color into STEM careers is a hot funding area right now, and money is flowing to a variety of initiatives aimed at getting educational instutions at all levels to do more to get minority students to connect with STEM fields and stick with this focus. 

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation knows this funding beat well, since it's has been supporting minority Ph.D. students in STEM fields since the 1990s. But last year it shifted its strategy, going all in with funding at a smaller number of universities. The funder just announced two new University Centers of Exemplary Mentoring, bringing the total to five centers funded at nearly $5 million.

Sloan’s plan is to focus on just a handful of schools, building the kind of pervasive environment in which minority students will thrive, having determined that scholarships and individual mentors weren’t enough. Rather than granting specific mentors or departments as the Minority Ph.D. Program previously did, the foundation now focuses funding by creating these mentoring centers at a handful of schools.

Sloan announced this week (pdf for details) that the University of Iowa and University of South Florida would be the latest “UCEM”s, joining Cornell, Georgia Tech and Penn State, which were named the first of the Centers in July. Each university receives about $1 million over three years, which goes mostly toward stipend support and professional development mentoring. 

Underrepresented minorities (which includes African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans) make up a disproportionately small percentage of Americans working in science, technology, engineering and math careers. One recent study placed the number at just 10 percent, while making up 26 percent of the country's population. This number is increasing slightly, but it’s still a problem for the fields in question, and not as simple as offering financial aid.

Sloan, one of the country’s largest science funders, has had a program to tackle this problem since 1995, giving scholarships at more than 60 universities, but in 2012, reevaluated its program. The result is the UCEMs, which attempt to rally school faculty and administration around the issue, mentoring students through all steps of their academic careers and into the workforce. The five Centers have received $4.7 million combined so far. 

The schools were chosen for the program in a competitive selection process, based on their past performance and current potential to serve minority graduate students. The grants will help the school expand their work. 

For example, Iowa is engaging 174 of its senior researchers across 22 departments in the effort, assigning a mentoring team for each student. The other new center at University of South Florida will provide more professional development to prepare graduates for STEM careers, among other tactics. 

The five schools will not receive all of the program’s funding, however, as the foundation also announced smaller grants for Programs of Exemplary Mentoring, awarding $60,000 to ten schools so far.

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation: Grants for Science Education