Need-based grants may tip scale toward STEM majors for low-income students

A study conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice finds that low-income college students who receive need-based grants are more likely to major in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, or math) than their peers who do not.

Seeking to better understand the impact of grant aid on college students’ field of study, researchers analyzed the records and survey responses of 266 students awarded the Wisconsin Scholars Grant (WSG) during the 2008-2009 academic year. To qualify for the WSG, students must demonstrate extreme financial need and attend a state college or university. Because WSG recipients do not apply for the grant—it is awarded via lottery early in students’ first postsecondary semester—they “are representative of the population from which they are drawn” and an appealing sample for studying the effects of financial aid, the researchers note.

Funding matters when it comes to major selection

After tracking the WSG recipients across three years—comparing them against 353 students who were eligible for but didn’t receive the WSG—researchers found that the grant recipients were 42 percent more likely to pursue a major related to STEM fields. The study authors conclude that “need-based grant aid appears to be one avenue for increasing the share of undergraduates pursuing STEM fields and promoting the socioeconomic mobility of students from low-income families.”

“A STEM degree, in fields such as computer science or petroleum engineering, can lead to a high-paying career for just about anyone,” writes The Hechinger Report. “But for low-income students, this kind of degree can be life-changing.” However, concerns about the resources required for STEM majors—for instance, additional study time or expensive textbooks—may be deterring low-income students from selecting those fields of study, the researchers note. Ultimately, the authors say, need-based grant aid may be an effective lever “to promote the national priority of increasing the share of STEM majors needed to contribute to a competitive and prosperous workforce.”

How Georgetown supports underserved students in the sciences

Georgetown’s Regents Science Scholars Program seeks to address the critical shortage of underserved and first-generation college students who successfully complete degrees in the sciences. The program combines in-person instruction and mentoring with online technologies that facilitate student engagement and understanding in fluid ways, especially across holiday breaks and summers. By providing more support, more structure, and more opportunities for these students, we hope to create an equitable scientific community in which all scientists feel welcomed and valued. Learn more about the Regents Science Scholars Program.

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