Four area colleges have received $5.6 million in federal grants for programs to help cohorts of underserved students graduate and succeed in the workplace.
Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University, Ferris State University and Calvin College each received grants for programs that together support education from middle school through doctorate degrees, each using mentorship and hands-on learning to improve results.
Each program each year works with a new cohort of students, who attend most classes together and often form relationships and support networks, program leaders said.
GRCC received a $2.1-million, six-year grant from the U.S. Education Department to partner with students in Wyoming Public Schools, as well as Wyoming’s Godfrey Lee, Godwin Heights and Kelloggsville school districts.
GRCC was the only Michigan college to receive funding for GEAR UP, meant to promote college awareness and improve math and writing, high school graduation rates and transitions from middle school through college — particularly for at-risk, low-income and first-generation students.
“I think we need to help our general population understand the importance and the value of higher education,” said Laurie Chesley, GRCC provost and executive vice president for academic and student affairs.
Whether a college degree or some type of certification, she said higher education often is needed to obtain family-sustaining jobs.
“It's not a luxury anymore,” Chesley said. “Higher education, to some degree, is a necessity.”
The program begins in seventh grade, following the students from middle school to high school and off to college or career training, offering college scholarships to low-income students.
She said the more involved GRCC can be during grade school, the more they can make students aware of their options.
Chesley said focusing efforts on traditionally underserved students is important to GRCC because of its openness to all in the community who want to try.
“I think we've always had a heart for improving the lives of students who wouldn't normally think about considering a college,” she said.
Calvin College and FSU each received grants from the National Science Foundation to provide scholarships for low-income, high-achieving students interested in STEM-related fields, as well as to fund documentation of the programs’ results.
Calvin College received a six-year, $1-million grant to provide annual $4,200 scholarships to three 12-student cohorts.
The program involves mentoring and enhanced, research-based courses.
Herb Fynewever, associate professor of chemistry at Calvin College, and some colleagues have seen success in recently testing research-backed methods in their introductory classes, and this grant will help them continue those tests.
Similarly, FSU’s $1.2-million grant is to establish the four-year Project S3OAR program, which aims to provide up to $10,000 in scholarships to each year’s new cohort of 36 students.
The grant builds on the lessons Northern Kentucky University learned from previous STEM grants awarded by the NSF.
The FSU program includes documenting results, including the effectiveness of job shadowing STEM professionals on the first- to second-year retention rate of the students.
Kristi Haik, dean of the FSU College of Arts and Sciences and co-leader of the program, said there are a lot of different practices colleges claim keep students in school, but many of them are not documented, so the NSF wants concrete evidence.
“We want to be able to show using research methods that certain interventions are stronger than others,” she said.
Haik was a leader in the previous efforts at NKU. She said she had gained a lot of knowledge from the program and, after two years working at FSU, saw gaps a similar program could fill.
She said giving these low-income students opportunities allows the industry to tap into potentially greater talent, which is important to battle the nation’s lack of STEM majors.
“We know that many of them have the aptitude for STEM,” Haik said. “How can we help them not only get into school and pay for it, but how can we also help them be successful?”
Some employers, including Pfizer and Gentex, already have agreed to provide opportunities for the students involved. That should keep many of these STEM majors in-state, Haik said.
“Once these students get that experience in the company, that's a foot in the door for an internship. Once the students get an internship, a lot of them get hired,” she said.
Students interested in either school’s undergrad STEM programs must first complete FAFSA forms.
GVSU received a five-year, $1.3-million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund a TRIO McNair Scholars Program, which will support doctorate studies for cohorts of 34 underrepresented, or first-generation and low-income, students.
McNair Scholars receive mentorship, conduct research and receive assistance preparing for grad school applications.
Susan Mendoza, director of the GVSU office of undergraduate research, said underserved students often lack representation in jobs that require doctorate-level degrees. This was highlighted in 1986 when astronaut Ronald McNair, the second black person in space and the program’s namesake, was killed when the space shuttle Challenger broke apart seconds after launching.
Mendoza said many first-generation students may not even realize doctorate degrees are obtainable for them, what types of careers are available with those degrees or that STEM graduate school often can be funded.
“(Many) don't have family members in their world who receive four-year degrees, let alone went to graduate school,” she said.
GVSU is recruiting undergrad students now for this summer semester’s start.
Chesley said supporting all students in their education endeavors goes beyond its direct impact.
“It's not just the right thing to do to encourage higher education,” Chesley said. “It's a really good thing to do for our community.”