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October 15, 2018 Higher Education

USJ program aims to graduate more low-income STEM students

Photo | Contributed Melissa Marcucci, associate professor of biology at USJ, is leading a new program that provides financial and mentoring support to lower-income STEM students.
Matt Pilon

For years, educators and researchers have studied why low-income, minority and female students are underrepresented in college majors and jobs in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Now, the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford is hoping to put its mark on that discussion. USJ recently launched a federally-funded program in which it will provide scholarships and extra mentoring and support to an incoming cohort of biology, biochemistry and chemistry students with hopes it will lead to better grades and higher degree completion rates.

In all, two cohorts of 10 students this year and next — who come from low-income backgrounds but have been high academic achievers — will each receive $5,000. If they participate in mentoring and networking events with faculty and senior students in their major, and maintain a 3.0 grade point average, they will receive an additional $5,000 per year for the remainder of their four-year program (a potential total scholarship of $20,000 per student).

The project, which goes by the acronym CATaLYST, is funded by a $650,000 National Science Foundation grant.

Melissa J. Marcucci, USJ associate professor and biology department chair, said she and her colleagues will track students' educational performances and outcomes, with an eye toward grades, graduation and retention rates, and how many students later enter the STEM workforce or graduate-level programs.

The scholarship money is important, but Marcucci said extra and earlier mentoring and research experience will be crucial.

“The idea is that we're mentoring them as professionals and adult peers, so that they understand how to envision themselves in a professional role in STEM,” Marcucci said.

Low-income students in STEM bachelor's degree programs have higher rates of attrition than those who come from higher-income families, research shows. Using 2003-2004 federal data, the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 30 percent of science, technology, engineering or math majors in the lowest-income bracket did not complete their degree, a stark difference from the highest-income bracket, which had a 15.4 percent attrition rate.

USJ has long been focused on liberal arts, but that's started to shift in recent years. It launched a graduate pharmacy program in Hartford in 2010 and is aiming to grow its overall STEM enrollment. USJ also just started enrolling male undergraduate students for the first time in its history.

The NSF grant is actually the university's first since the 1990s, according to federal records. Marcucci said the grant program was competitive and that the Obama administration's efforts to increase the number of STEM graduates in the country has helped create a new push among colleges.

She expects USJ to compete for more NSF grants in the future.

“To be competitive and to do things well, federal monies are necessary,” she said.

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