Here’s how to increase diversity in STEM at the college level and beyond

Jerome Adams is the 20th surgeon general of the United States and former Indiana state health commissioner.

Angelique Johnson is a co-founder and CEO of MEMStim, a company that produces implantable electronics to treat brain disorders.

Isaac Kinde is the chief scientific officer at PapGene, Inc., a company that sells molecular tests meant to detect cancer early. He is also a recognized national expert in molecular cancer diagnostics.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams is a graduate of the Meyerhoff Scholars program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
All three graduated from the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. The program was co-founded by Robert Meyerhoff, a Baltimore philanthropist, and University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski in 1988 with the goal of increasing representation of minority students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs at UMBC.

Since then, about 1,500 students have gone through the program and pursued careers that range from public health practitioners to entrepreneurs. Many alumni are professors.

What makes the Meyerhoff work?

The Meyerhoff Scholars program has been called the “gold standard” for providing a path into STEM research for African Americans, Hispanics, and economically disadvantaged white students who are underrepresented in the field. It has also been credited with changing the culture of the campus at UMBC.

Based on the success of the Meyerhoff program at UMBC, we wondered if the program could be successfully replicated on other college campuses, particularly in light of the fact that earlier attempts at other schools did not succeed.

In a study published April 26, we conclude that the answer is: yes. We conducted the study with funding and advisory support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute. We are part of the inter-institutional research team that has tracked the academic performance of the students on our campuses.

Before we get into the details of our findings, first here’s a bit of background on the Meyerhoff Scholars Program and how it works.

Practice for success

For the past 30 years, minority students who are part of the program are coached to sit in the front rows of their classes, raise their hands to ask challenging questions, and stay after class to engage their professors. These cohorts of students attend a summer bridge program before their first semester in college, live on the same residence hall and form study groups. They also volunteer in communities, work in laboratories on campus during the semesters and off-campus during summers throughout college.

Kristen Gardner, student in the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lars Sahl / UNC Chemistry, CC BY
Faculty and campus leaders serve as champions for their success until and after they complete bachelor’s degrees.

The cohort-based program recruits high achieving high school students to work closely and excel together. Critics have said that practice of picking top students is “elitist.” But Hrabowski, the co-founder, has defended the program as being responsive to students who want to earn an advanced STEM degree.

The program includes 13 key program components designed to provide academic, social and professional support to equip students for STEM graduate programs. These components include advising and counseling, tutoring, quality research experience and mentorship.

Payoffs and benefits

Evidence shows that African American Meyerhoff scholars earn higher grades in STEM majors – 0.25 points higher on a 4.0 GPA, to be exact. Evidence also shows that African American Meyerhoff scholars are twice as likely to graduate from STEM majors than similar students. They are also 7.5 times more likely to pursue and complete advanced degrees versus those who decline the scholarship.