College students who come from low-income families and are forced to divide their energy between one or more jobs, domestic responsibilities and coursework are no longer “non-traditional” college students, said sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab during a recent keynote address.
Goldrick-Rab and her team of higher education policy researchers refer to these students as “real college students.” Many struggle to feed themselves adequately, find a consistent place to sleep, and meet other basic needs. Simple interventions, though, such as providing monetary assistance beyond what is covered by financial aid, can have a profound impact on the academic success of these students, particularly in STEM fields, Goldrick-Rab said, speaking at the first-ever S-STEM Symposium.
The National Science Foundation’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) program aims to maintain the United States’ competitiveness in the global economy by supporting talented low-income students in their quest to contribute to the STEM workforce of the future. S-STEM provides grants to higher education institutions to fund scholarships and advance the study and implementation of evidence-based strategies for student retention, graduation and post-graduation success in STEM fields.
The 2019 S-STEM Symposium, co-hosted by NSF and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, brought together more than 600 members of the STEM higher education community, including faculty leading projects supported by S-STEM and 50 of the program’s current and former students, known as S-STEM Scholars. During the three-day conference, held September 12-14 at the Hyatt Regency on Washington’s Capitol Hill, attendees shared and learned about effective STEM education and workforce preparation strategies at plenary sessions, workshops, and informal round-table and networking events, which all addressed the meeting’s theme, “Creating Pathways to an Inclusive STEM Workforce.”
“AAAS has been honored to collaborate with NSF in supporting the work of two- and four-year colleges and universities as they expand opportunities to strengthen and diversify the workforce,” said AAAS senior adviser Shirley Malcom. The three-day conference was organized by Iris Wagstaff, a program director in AAAS's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion unit.
In opening remarks, NSF director and former NASA chief scientist France Córdova highlighted some of the most important scientific advances of recent years. Focusing on her field of astrophysics, Córdova noted NSF’s April 2019 announcement that the Event Horizon Telescope had captured an image of a black hole and its shadow for the first time. Less than two years prior, in 2017, astrophysicists found proof that high-energy cosmic rays originate outside of our Milky Way galaxy, solving a 106-year-old mystery.
“It’s really an exciting time to be a scientist, and it gives us even more motivation to bring more young people into science and engineering, because they too can make profound discoveries,” Córdova said. “People are the cornerstone of the science enterprise, and greater diversity leads to greater success for that enterprise.”
Throughout her keynote speech, Goldrick-Rab painted a picture of the harsh higher education landscape facing 21st-century college students. Much of the talk distilled lessons learned over nearly two decades of research and included in her 2016 book, “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.”
In 2008, Goldrick-Rab began a six-year study following 3,000 recipients of Pell Grants, federal subsidies given to low-income students. She found that 40% of them, all of whom entered college immediately after graduating from high school, were regularly giving money to their families.
“I understand, after spending years in higher education, how easy it is to look at the latest crop of students coming in the door of our classrooms and think, ‘they’re kids,’” she said. “But you know what, they’re not kids. … A lot of young people today have been adultified through a process of financial insecurity that has led their parents to lean on them. They’re growing up in an age of austerity.”
In addition to supporting family members, students must abide by stipulations, added in the mid-90s, requiring them to work at least 20 hours a week to receive food benefits through SNAP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Meanwhile, tuition and living expenses continue to increase, the value of the minimum wage continues to decrease, and the government spends about 25% less per student than it used to, Goldrick-Rab said.
This confluence of factors, she argues, is “a perfect storm.” Her data show that food insecurity affects at least 42% of community college students and 36% of those at four-year institutions. The proportion of students who are housing-insecure — a categorization including everything from couch surfing to homelessness — is at least 46% at community colleges and 36% at four-year institutions.
Luckily, interventions of the type provided by S-STEM have immense potential to address such grim statistics. In a randomized control trial at 42 two- and four-year schools in Wisconsin, Pell Grant recipients who were given $3,500 per year in additional assistance by Goldrick-Rab’s team were 42% more likely than their peers to declare a STEM major and 27% more likely to complete a STEM degree. The data showed that the students who received the extra cash worked fewer hours overall and were far less likely to work graveyard shifts, thus freeing up time to complete schoolwork and maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
In a closing plenary address, Kamau Bobb, founding director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, challenged attendees in a packed banquet hall to rethink the purpose of STEM education.
“The goal is not workforce development,” he said. “Instead it is to develop and cultivate critically thinking citizens.”
Bobb went on to describe the monumental task of 21st-century STEM educators: reconciling the “haves” and the “have-nots.” All stem teaching must be approached through this framework, he said.
“Our challenge is the division in our country at this critical time and the animus for the ‘other,’” said Bobb. “Our only answer is education.”
During a panel session on the second day of the symposium, five students shared their experiences as S-STEM scholars, providing personal stories that corroborated Goldrick-Rab’s data.
After beginning her undergraduate studies at Ball State University in 2011, Bianca Chavis transferred to Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis and eventually dropped out to work. Then, in 2017, with an S-STEM scholarship allowing her the flexibility to quit two of her three jobs, she enrolled in an informatics program at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.
The community and guidance that the scholarship has provided has been as important as the financial assistance, Chavis said.
“My best resource has been my S-STEM program,” she said. “We have peer mentors who are always happy to help each other. They always have my back.”
Just after Nicholas DiTommaso started attending Michigan State University, his family ran into financial trouble and moved in with his uncle. The family still lacks a permanent housing arrangement, and DiTommaso, now a junior with majors in chemical engineering and economics, is largely responsible for the well-being of his younger brother.
On campus, DiTommaso finds it hard to relate to students who seem to have endless free time. Being invited to S-STEM after his sophomore year, however, eased his burden greatly.
“The scholarship has been life-changing,” he said. “I’m spending more time with my family and supporting my family more than I would’ve been able to if I was paying off tuition.”
As an overwhelmed freshman at Gwynned Mercy University in Pennsylvania, Rachel Zobel attempted to drop out but could not get her adviser to sign her withdrawal forms. Instead, the professor suggested that Zobel speak with her S-STEM mentor, who succeeded in helping her get back on track. She ended up graduating with majors in molecular biology and chemistry and is now working toward a master’s degree in environmental biology at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There were many days when I didn’t think that I was ever going to graduate college,” Zobel said. “And then I found myself getting accepted into my number-one graduate school, which still seems like a dream, and I’m halfway done.”
The common thread in these success stories, according to Goldrick-Rab, is that the students were nurtured by an “inclusive culture of caring.” Creating such a culture is key to removing boundaries to participation in STEM and in higher education as a whole, she said.
“My grandmother always told me that sociology is the statement of the obvious,” Goldrick-Rab said. “So here we are: I’m going to say to a group of scientists that students are humans first.”