The Latest Big Push to Keep College STEM Students on Track

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is the second-wealthiest foundation in the United States, and while it’s perhaps best known for its biomedical research grantmaking, the funder gives a ton to STEM higher ed. While the foundation’s research mantra is “people, not projects,” its STEM education approach is more like “programs, not individuals.” It’s more about helping schools find ways to improve overall instruction, whether by research or initiatives like mentoring programs. 

With that in mind, HHMI has announced the launch of a brand new, $60 million science education initiative designed to keep college students engaged in STEM courses at a time of growing diversity on campuses. Even though more students from diverse backgrounds are entering school to get on a STEM track, many of them are changing their major or dropping out, overwhelmed by the challenge.

HHMI aims to change that by fortifying the infrastructure that supports undergrads on a STEM track. "By sophomore year, most of these students have switched to non-STEM disciplines," said David Asai, HHMI's senior director of undergraduate and graduate programs. "The window for engaging and supporting these students is incredibly short, and we need to do better in confronting these challenges."

HHMI expects to award 60 grants through the program, which has two “wings,” if you will: one called Building Capacity Within the Institution, for colleges and universities that are new to the concept of supporting STEM undergrads; and Helping Others Build Capacity, for colleges and universities that have already put programs in place to help STEM students, and want to teach other schools to follow their example.

Unlike previous HHMI education initiatives that were by invitation only, this program is open to more than 1,500 four-year schools.

"We are taking a new approach because the pathways to and through higher education have changed and are not as 'traditional' or as linear as they once were," said HHMI president Robert Tjian. "These days, a large number of students are arriving at college through remarkably diverse pathways. The scientific leader of tomorrow may be in a community college today or she may be a first-generation college student. Higher education should acknowledge these differences among students and create programs that offer diverse entry points and pathways to STEM degrees."