The Council of Graduate Schools selected the University to participate in a study that will assess how institutional policies affect attrition rates for underrepresented minority graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The study, called the Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion, comes with a $30,000 grant for each participating university and is supported by a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
The race disparity in higher education is an ongoing national concern, said Medeva Ghee, executive director of the Leadership Alliance and project director for the study. Attracting minority students to graduate programs and ensuring that they graduate will be essential to maintaining a competitive workforce and economic productivity, Ghee added in an email to The Herald. Underrepresented minorities currently make up 15.6 percent of enrolled graduate students at Brown.
Many universities, including Brown, offer resources for minorities to both increase enrollment and reduce dropout rates in STEM graduate programs. But these resources can vary widely among universities. The purpose of the study is to identify which policies are most effective at helping minority STEM graduate students successfully complete doctorate programs, according to the Council of Graduate Schools' request for proposals.
"We anticipate that if the study is able to make the link between the disparate institutional programming and different student outcomes, that will be an important contribution to our understanding of the positive and the negative factors that impact STEM graduate education, particularly for underrepresented minorities," said Jessie DeAro, PhD program director for Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate at the NSF. "And then that will be the basis for working to mitigate the negative factors and also enhancing the positive factors."
The University will collect data over the next year on completion and attrition rates of underrepresented minority graduate students in STEM fields from 1992 through 2012. This data could identify variables such as gender or academic discipline that correlate with lower graduation rates. Brown will also hold focus groups and distribute an electronic survey to receive direct student feedback on mentoring programs and other support systems for minority graduate students.
Ghee said she looks forward to hearing the comments that arise in the focus groups.
"What's really impactful is hearing the impressions of the students and also the faculty," Ghee said. "I think it will help us understand how we can improve on the various practices and programs that are currently being provided for graduate students of color."
Ghee said she believes the University was selected because of its strong commitment to mentoring underrepresented minority graduate students.
"I think that's what made us super competitive because when we put the proposal together we were actually able to identify a number of mentoring activities that Brown already had in place to support students of color," Ghee said.
One mentoring program at Brown is the Leadership Alliance program, which brings minority undergraduates to Brown for a summer research program. The program works to expose minority students to "the graduate student experience" before enrolling in a doctoral program, said Erika Alexander GS, a graduate student in cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences. Alexander, who participated in the program in 2005, said the Leadership Alliance teaches minority students how to write grants, network and apply to graduate school, among other things.
"I think that the study is going to show that there's more work that needs to be done," Ghee said. "It's a conversation that we need to continue to have."
Alexander said she believes she sees the national trend of higher attrition rates for underrepresented minority graduate students reflected at the University.
"There are some mentoring programs for students of color (at Brown), but not as many as I would like," Alexander said. "A lot of time is spent recruiting students of color and just making the pool as big as you possibly can, but not a lot of time is spent supporting them and making sure that they aren't dropping out for reasons that are varied. There's no point in bringing in this huge amount of students if nobody stays."
Minority graduate students at Brown face the added pressure of trying to "fit into the puzzle" as a minority on top of the other academic, emotional and physical stresses of graduate school, Alexander said.
"I think that people nowadays are starting to realize the importance of making sure that the students are supported and have a place to go, and I think Brown is actually doing a really great job of trying to assess what it is that students need to complete their programs," Alexander said. But she added that the University could offer more resources.
"If that moment never comes of, 'I do fit here, I belong here, I contribute to this place,' then I think that people have a lot greater chance of them just saying, 'you know what, I don't belong here, so I'm just going to quit,'" Alexander said.