It’s been a rough year for federal financial aid for graduate students: Congressional budget cuts have ended the Javits Fellowship, a grant program for needy students, beginning this fall, as well as cutting off federal subsidies for graduate student loans .
Now the Education Department has added another cut: the McNair Scholars program, a federal TRIO program intended to help undergraduates prepare to pursue a Ph.D., will lose $10 million of its budget starting this fall, despite protests from colleges and some members of Congress.
Congress slightly increased funding for the TRIO programs, a collection of federal outreach and student services programs that are meant to help disadvantaged students attend college, for the 2012 fiscal year. But the Education Department, which has budget authority over individual programs within TRIO, decided to cut $10 million from the $46.2 million McNair Scholars program, which is on more than 200 campuses nationwide, and use the money for more grants in Upward Bound high school math and science programs.
The Council for Opportunity in Education, which has argued against the change, estimates that about one-third of the McNair programs will lose their grants as a result.
Department officials say that the need for more students studying science, technology, engineering or math in college justifies the change. But advocates for the McNair program worry about a pattern of decreasing support for graduate education, and argue that the program’s work to encourage minority students to pursue Ph.D.s is important.
Because the program’s competitive grants, which go to campuses that use the money to support their students, are awarded only once every five years, the effects of the cut are likely to linger.
“We need more people to pursue graduate degrees,” said Patricia McAllister, vice president for government relations and external affairs at the Council of Graduate Schools. “It seems like some of our policies are going in the opposite directions.”
The McNair Scholars program, named for Ronald McNair, a black astronaut with a Ph.D. in physics who was killed in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, helps prepare college students from underrepresented minority groups for graduate school by encouraging them to participate in research, academic conferences and other activities. The students receive stipends for summer research internships, faculty mentoring and other support. More than half of the program’s graduates in 2007 were enrolled in graduate school the following fall, according to the Council for Opportunity in Education.
But the program is not solely focused on students in the so-called STEM fields; just over one-quarter of undergraduates participating in the McNair program planned to pursue science, technology, engineering or math at the graduate level. (About a third of participants focus on the social sciences.)
Reallocating the money to Upward Bound means the TRIO programs will help about 900 more students over all, an Education Department official said, with more emphasis on preparing students interested in math and science for college.
Given that minority students are historically underrepresented among Ph.D. recipients -- about 12 percent of the American citizens earning doctorates in 2010 were black, Hispanic or Latino, according to the Education Department -- the McNair program plays a vital role, said Kimberly Jones, associate vice president for public policy at the Council for Opportunity in Education.
The council -- which also advocates for more federal money for Upward Bound programs, the beneficiary of the cuts to the McNair program -- has a fine line to walk in its protests. The group hopes to postpone the next round of McNair grants until 2013, not this year, as is currently scheduled, hoping that Congress will increase the program’s overall funding to keep the McNair program at its current levels and also allow for an increase in Upward Bound money.
In letters to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, members of Congress from both parties urged the department to restore the funding. “As America becomes increasingly diverse and students of color continue to enter our nation’s colleges and universities in record numbers, it is vitally important to increase the representation of minority faculty,” wrote Representative Rubén Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat.
The cuts, which the Education Department appears likely to uphold, indicate another decrease in Education Department funding for graduate students.
While many other federal agencies -- including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and others -- help support graduate students, mostly by providing money for research, only McNair and one other program, the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need Grants, are now in the Education Department, said McAllister, of the Council of Graduate Schools.
“We need more people to be pursuing graduate degrees going forward if we want to maintain our competitiveness in the global economy and be supporting our innovation ecosystem,” McAllister said. “Certainly the McNair program is a program that has a pretty good track record.”