President Donald Trump’s education budget released on May 23 calls for a $9.2 billion rollback in spending for several educational programs. Among them, the McNair Scholars Program may face the steepest cut.
The McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement is a federal scholarship offered to first-generation, low-income students or those who belong to underrepresented minorities in the United States. By pushing these students toward doctoral degrees, the program hopes to diversify faculty in universities across the country.
UC Santa Barbara began the McNair program in 2007, and it has since guided over 50 students to masters and Ph.D. programs. Though UCSB houses a smaller department than other universities, current and former McNair scholars say their education would have been impossible without it.
Jamelia Harris, a first-year doctoral student at UC Los Angeles, graduated from UCSB last year with the university’s highest honors — the Thomas More Storke Award. She began her first year at UCSB as a biochemistry major, but she said the McNair program guided her to understand the impact of research as a social scientist.
“Ph.D.s are nonexistent in my network of family members and friends,” Harris said. Growing up in a predominantly black, low-resource community in Lancaster, Calif., she said she was always “tracked” into higher level courses.
Her experiences, and those of her family, led her to pursue research in segregated education within the same community. She now focuses on black female’s vulnerability to policing and discrimination in schooling.
“I have not met a student of color across all six schools [I was admitted to] who was admitted directly from undergrad without the support of McNair,” she said. “I think that speaks volumes to the level of support that McNair offers for many of us who are first-generation college students.”
Though McNair has guided several students from their second undergraduate year to a Ph.D., the White House believes its progress is inefficient. In an off-camera briefing on May 22, the Office of Management and Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, said the McNair program had not accomplished its objectives.
“The last time the Department of Education looked at this, it was 6 percent effective — 6 percent,” Mulvaney said. “I can’t do that anymore. We can’t do that anymore. We cannot defend programs like that — 6 percent just doesn’t cut it.”
Beth Schneider, UCSB McNair program chair, said Mulvaney’s statement lacks context. When she read the proposal, she said, “I was shocked — but not surprised.”
Approximately 1 percent of undergraduates graduating in 2005 earned their doctorate by 2015, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In comparison, Schneider said, a 6 percent doctorate rate for McNair scholars is a vast improvement.
Still, the U.S. Department of Education (D.O.E.) report says “McNair is a high cost per-participant program that serves relatively few students.” There is limited evidence of effectiveness for both of these programs,” the report reads.
Schneider acknowledged that this is true — the McNair program serves a niche group of students at a high cost — but explained that it is essential to prompt students toward a graduate education if they are to return to UCSB as a diverse group of educators.
Syrian Truong, a transfer student who plans to apply to graduate school next year, began the McNair program after moving to Santa Barbara from Fresno. Truong is gay, a first-generation student and a multiracial Asian-Latino American. For people who don’t experience educational barriers as a part of their daily life, he said, the value of structural support is difficult to explain.
“There’s a certain amount of condescension as you start moving higher and higher up … you look around and you start seeing less and less of people that look like you,” he said. “For me, that was never a problem before, but it starts to get grating.”
The concept of graduate school appealed to Truong as a first-year at UCSB, but he said it would have been “a much harder road” without the McNair program. He now does research in theoretical physics, specifically through condensed matter theory and statistical mechanics, and is looking toward a Ph.D.
“If that support was given to other students … maybe it doesn’t bring the next Einstein,” he said. “But it could bring a lot of good change, inventions and a lot of progress in the world.”
The D.O.E. currently allows McNair scholars 10 years to complete their Ph.D. Each university records and submits its own data, but according to McNair supporters, the D.O.E. has not consolidated this data properly. As a result, the D.O.E. report used possibly outdated information spanning from 1989 to 2000.
Schneider said the D.O.E. study does not match trends at UCSB, where each cohort since 2007 has either surpassed the 6 percent doctorate rate or is well on its way to meeting this percentage.
Last year, Harris and several other students spoke to UC President Janet Napolitano to push for a more proportionate number of faculty to match the amount of black Californians.
“If we have the president of an entire University of California admittedly saying that these programs are necessary for the improving the retention and recruitments of faculty of colors, I personally don’t see why our actions aren’t embodying those sentiments,” she said.
After the federal budget was proposed last week, Napolitano spoke out against the proposed cuts. Though she focused on rollbacks to the National Science Foundation and energy science programs, she said the proposed cuts could affect more than 133,000 UC students.
“As president of the nation’s largest public research university, I urge Congress to immediately begin work on a revised budget proposal that makes meaningful investments to help our students, protect our patients and keep America’s research enterprise preeminent,” Napolitano said in a statement.
A version of this story appeared on p. 1 of the Thursday, June 1, 2017, edition of the Daily Nexus.