The Sloan Foundation is one of a number of funders sending serious resources to increase the rate of minority students pursuing STEM careers. But the shortage of Native Americans and Alaska Natives in STEM is particularly striking, most recently leading the foundation to pool the efforts of four universities to tackle the issue.
One of Sloan’s signature focuses in STEM higher ed is the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership, a program that has helped around 200 grad students so far, who have then gone on to provide expertise in their communities. The program exists at the University of Arizona, University of Alaska, the Montana University System and Purdue. The funder recently announced that it would back a $2.4 million partnership to link the schools’ efforts together, coordinating efforts to start building a national presence.
Most of the funding will go toward stipends for master’s and PhD students, with remaining funds going to recruitment and retention programs, and efforts to collaborate and share best practices, including with a student exchange program.
While there are significant challenges facing underrepresented minorities in STEM, including limited role models in the fields and high costs of education, it’s particularly tough for Native American students, who tend to experience an extra layer of cultural isolation on college campuses. The number of students earning doctorates has actually declined over 20 years prior to 2012, when they made up just 0.3 percent of graduates. American Indians and Alaska Natives make up 1.2 percent of the U.S. population. That year, only 48 research doctorates went to students from this background, out of the 11,764 doctorates awarded in the country.
So while the $2.4 million partnership focuses on just 20 PhD students and 59 master’s students, those numbers are actually meaningful. Not only that, by building a community of leaders over time, the realm ideally becomes more welcoming, with a more diverse set of role models.
Sloan’s plan to solidify and sync up the programs in these university systems takes the approach of really focusing on specific communities, find what works, and then start to expand it. Rather than spreading out scholarships or stipends out across several schools to individuals, the funder prefers to bolster the overall community in limited places. We’re seeing a similar tactic with the rest of its minority PhD program, which recently focused itself to fund five mentoring centers.
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