In 1986, The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during its 10th mission run. Ronald E. McNair, namesake of the McNair Scholars Program, was one of the seven crew members killed onboard. Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

President Trump’s 2018 federal budget proposal aims to eliminate the McNair Scholars Program, a Federal TRiO Program designed to prepare undergraduate students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds for doctoral studies at UTSA and around the nation.

The proposal asserts there is limited evidence of effectiveness for the program and cites a 2008 Department of Education analysis, which reported that only six percent of McNair participants between 1989 and 1998 had earned doctorates by 2003. It also claims McNair is a high-cost program that serves relatively few students. Furthermore, the proposal suggests colleges and universities can use institutional resources to support the McNair objective.

The statistics, well over 19 years old, and justification for eliminating the TRiO program flustered the McNair community.

“They’re cherry picking data to support their case to dismantle these types of programs,” said Darrel Balderrama, director of retentions programs and TRiO programs at UTSA. “All federal TRiO Programs are required to submit annual performance reports. So, there is accountability for these dollars being spent.”

Ronald Erwin McNair was an American physicist and NASA astronaut. He was the second African American to fly in space and died during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. His academic achievements, including three honorary doctorates of Science and a Ph.D. in laser physics, inspired Congress to fund the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program commonly referred to as the McNair Scholars Program.

Currently, the McNair Scholars Program at UTSA receives $250,000 a year for 25 students. This money supports graduate school visits, summer internships, research opportunities and students’ travel expenses when they present their research at professional conferences.

“As a McNair Scholar, I’ve been able to travel to Stanford, UC Berkeley and the University of Maryland to present my own research and network with faculty, staff and students of other universities,” said Yesenia Yanez, a current UTSA McNair Scholar. “I’ve also been able to establish a timeline for the graduate application process, which requires a lot more preparation than I would’ve thought.”

Annual performance results of the McNair Program between 2010-2014 report that 70.1 percent of participants between 2007-2011 enrolled in graduate school within three-years of obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

While acceptance to graduate school may constitute a success for many McNair Scholars, it does not constitute a success in President Trump’s federal budget proposal.

The 2008 analysis used by Trump and his team is the only one of its kind. It is similar to the performance results McNair Programs submit annually. The difference is the analysis also includes doctoral degree attainment percentages of McNair participants.

For the McNair community, the analysis reports that only six percent of McNair Scholars between 1989 and 1998 had received their doctoral degrees by 2003. This information is used in the Trump budget proposal to support its claim that there is limited evidence of McNair’s effectiveness. The proposal doesn’t include the 62 percent of McNair participants enrolled in graduate school at the time of the study.

“There are some issues within the way the information is tracked,” said Sonia Valencia, program manager of the McNair Scholars Program at UTSA. “It doesn’t really capture who finished and who didn’t.

Only 11,116 of the 23,749 participants enrolled in the McNair Scholars Program during 1989 and 2003 were included in the 2008 Department of Education analysis. Of those, 667 of them were awarded a Ph.D. within the 14-year period. The study excludes McNair participants who graduated with master’s degrees, juris doctorates and other doctoral degrees equivalent to Ph.Ds.

Trump’s 2018 Major Savings and Reforms section of his budget proposal, where the 2008 Department of Education analysis is cited, also excludes McNair participants. According to the study, the purpose of the McNair Scholars Program is to prepare participants for doctoral studies and increase the attainment of Ph.Ds.

Furthermore, the annual performance results and the 2008 Department of Education’s analysis of the McNair Scholars Program do not consider key factors that affect doctoral attainment and enrollment rates.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” said Balderrama. “Graduate studies can take a number of different years, and it depends on the individual student. Each student has a different background. Some of our students are nontraditional.

“All of our students are first generation and low-income. Some of them have to work. Some of them have families. Some of them may only take one class at a time or two. And so, it delays that process for them to complete their education.”

Some students can take up to 12 years to graduate with a doctoral degree, according to Balderrama. The McNair Scholars Program tracks students for only 10 years after they complete the program.

The McNair Scholars Program at UTSA was recently funded for a five-year cycle. The potential elimination would be heart-breaking for some current participants.

“The program serves as hope for students like me who, despite growing up with minimal resources, desire to make a difference in the world and to their families,” said Yanez. “Like many other McNair scholars, I’m striving to be the first in my family to attain a Ph.D. and while we’ve come so far, there’s still a lot more we need to learn. Elimination of the program would hinder our growth as individuals and as underrepresented groups.”

The proposal suggest eliminating McNair could be offset by using institutional resources to provide the same objective. The McNair Program manager at UTSA thinks otherwise.

“Historically, programs that are eliminated aren’t revived under a different name at public institutions through institutional funds,” said Valencia. “Whether McNair could work to continue on into the future or not, there is a need to institutionalize programs like McNair.”

In the Budget Message of the President, Trump expresses a need to return decisions regarding education back to the state and local levels. The McNair community believes this action comes at a high price.

The budget includes $639 billion for the the Department of Defense—a $52 billion increase from the 2017 annualized continuing resolution level. This increase would be offset by targeted reductions elsewhere, including at the Department of Education.

“I don’t think we need to be spending more money on national defense,” said Valencia, expressing her personal views unaffiliated with the McNair Program. “Our educational institutions are under attack in terms of not being funded. Not just in terms of universities, but even at the K-12 level. It just continues to happen.

“As a country that seems to be very concerned with ensuring its stature as the ‘most powerful country’ in the world; I think that not investing in education to make sure that we continue to be innovative is a mistake.”

Since the release of Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, concern has inundated the McNair community including alumni.

“I think it’s dangerous and a slippery slope to start cutting funding for people who have been historically marginalized in education,” said Amanda Hernandez, a UTSA McNair alumna and current Baylor doctoral student. “I don’t think people should ignore that.”

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