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More Financial Aid + Less Need to Work = More STEM Graduates?

Students who major in the sciences often spend more time in out-of-class work—in labs or field research—than other students do. That means less time to earn money while in college, and sometimes it’s the reason financially needy students switch out of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, the STEM fields.

Would an extra $1,000 a year in financial aid help some of those STEM-inclined students stick with it?

That’s the essence of a new study getting under way next fall at 11 Wisconsin colleges. With $4-million from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation, which will make possible the extra $1,000 a year, and a $1.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation, Sara Goldrick-Rab will study the effects of the extra aid by comparing the academic paths of 1,000 students who will get the money with 1,000 others who won’t.

The grants won’t displace other financial aid that the students are otherwise due to receive, and when students are told they are getting the money, “it’s not going to say, ‘You’ve got to do STEM,’” says Ms. Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The idea behind the project is simply to see if giving students fewer reasons to work, and no other requirements, makes a difference in helping more lower-income students pursue STEM majors.

To succeed in STEM fields, “it’s super-important not to be working that much,” she says.

Nationally, many experts worry about the paucity of minority students who major in STEM fields, and while the new project is based on students’ incomes, not ethnicities, there is a substantial overlap between students who are lower income and those in minority groups.

For the study, researchers will identify 2,000 accepted students who fit the financial profile, have indicated an interest in STEM fields when signing up for the ACT, and appear likely not to require much in the way of remedial education. The researchers will study at least 80 students in each group at eight public colleges, one private college, and two community colleges. (The participating colleges have been selected, but their names won’t be released until all the paperwork is done.)

The researchers will randomly assign half of the students to receive the extra aid. The researchers will then track both sets of students over the next three to five years (depending on what kind of college they attend), to see if there are differences in the students’ courses of study and how they spend their time.

The study will be undertaken through the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a new center that Ms. Goldrick-Rab is founding with a separate $2.5-million gift from Great Lakes. The HOPE Lab will study ideas aimed at helping more low- and moderate-income students afford and complete college.

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