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McNair: Honor Astronaut, Support Graduate Education

By the age of 35, my late husband, Ronald E. McNair, had earned his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became an accomplished physicist and gone on to serve as the second African-American astronaut in our nation’s history.

After his first space shuttle mission, he made a commitment to educate and inspire our youths to achieve their dreams and further their education, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

After his untimely death aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, Congress honored my husband’s life and legacy by establishing the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program — or McNair Scholars Program.

The program was developed to encourage and prepare thousands of low-income and minority students to pursue postgraduate study and careers in academia, especially in STEM, as these fields are essential for our nation to remain globally competitive. Since then, thanks to grants from the Education Department, about 2,500 McNair alumni have earned doctoral degrees at more than 200 institutions.

Traditionally underrepresented among undergraduate and postgraduate degree recipients, these low-income and minority students have benefited enormously from the McNair Scholars Program’s emphasis on undergraduate research opportunities, faculty mentoring, workshops, financial aid, assistance with applications and other support. According to recent Education Department data, almost all McNair Scholars complete their bachelor’s degrees, with more than half furthering their education in graduate school. McNair Scholars participants have also been shown to enroll in graduate programs at a higher rate than other first-generation, low-income students across the country.

These positive statistics illustrate the great success the McNair Scholars Program has achieved in a much-needed area. So it was very disheartening for me to learn that the Education Department — using its budget authority over the federally funded TRIO programs under which McNair falls — recently cut $10 million from the program’s $46.2 million budget in fiscal 2012. If Congress fails to halt the department’s action, more than one-third of McNair programs will be eliminated this fall and hundreds of undergraduates will no longer be served.

This comes on top of recent moves by the department to eliminate support for graduate education, including the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship and in-school interest subsidies for graduate and professional students.

This cut would compound the loss of 80,000 low-income and first-generation students from the federal TRIO programs since fiscal 2005.

The department justifies this cut by arguing that the country needs to address the issue of increasing our number of STEM graduates, especially among minorities and other severely underrepresented groups, earlier in the education pipeline.

But this reasoning ignores the fact that a large number of students tend to opt out of such fields of study by the end of their second year in college — an issue the McNair Scholars Program has tackled head-on and effectively. Two-thirds of McNair students pursue STEM fields of study at the undergraduate level, and many McNair college graduates go on to earn STEM doctorates and then come back to campus as role models for minority undergraduates.

Likewise, the department’s reasoning fails to consider the ability of these low-income, minority and underrepresented students to fund a higher education. Without assistance from the McNair Scholars and other programs, many of these potential leaders would not be afforded the opportunity to pursue such education, especially in these hard economic times where the cost of education and student loans are increasing exponentially.

Thus, while the desire to increase the number of minorities and other underrepresented STEM graduates at an earlier stage has merit, the college component cannot be neglected — all earlier efforts will be in vain if the students cannot afford to pursue higher education.

It is this cause that brings me to Capitol Hill this week to defend the McNair Scholars Program.

In recent years, we have seen programs such as McNair Scholars increase the numbers of low-income and minority students earning doctoral degrees. Such an increase is crucial to our country’s future competitiveness. Yet these groups remain underrepresented despite the fact that they are a growing portion of our overall student population.

Rather than cutting back federal assistance for this critical and highly effective program, we should be doing everything we can to support a new crop of graduates who have the potential to drive the U.S. economy of the future and soar to great heights like my husband.

Cheryl M. McNair is the widow of astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

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