The U.S. Department of Education rejected UC Berkeley’s grant proposal for the McNair Scholars Program, causing the loss of more than $2.5 million in potential undergraduate research funding.
The McNair Scholars Program provides federal research grants to undergraduate institutions to amplify first-generation students, those receiving financial aid and students from underrepresented groups in graduate education programs, according to the department of education’s website. After 30 years as a major grant recipient, campus will shut down the program to current and future participants.
“The UC Berkeley McNair Scholars program was the only place where scholars of color and low-income students were able to conduct research under the supervision of a faculty mentor,” said McNair at UC Berkeley director Juan Esteva Martínez.
Martínez noted that campus was historically one of the largest McNair grant recipients nationwide, receiving $437,772 of federal funds each year with a 3% annual increase in funds.
Campus cannot reapply until the next five-year cycle opens in 2027. At that time, campus will compete for half the annual funding amount awarded in previous years, according to Martínez.
Martinez was “puzzled” by the decision given campus’s consistent participation in the program. Since 1992, campus has produced 900 McNair scholars, including well-known researchers and professors across the country, Martínez added.
“I don’t see the reason behind deducting from a university who has provided so many consistent results,” Martínez said. “UC Berkeley was one of the oldest programs in the nation.”
In previous years, up to 30 first-generation and low-income students received funding and faculty mentorship for independent research projects, which are personalized to reflect their “lived experiences”, according to the campus program website. Scholars historically received publication in The Berkeley McNair Research Journal and presented at a national conference.
In the federal evaluation of grant proposals, campus routinely collected “priority experience” points for their long-term participation, Martínez said.
This year, however, campus’s proposal received major point abductions in the “objectives” and “needs assessment” categories. UC Berkeley received zero out of nine possible points for failure to state an institutional baseline with “obtainable and ambitious” goals, according to Martínez.
“We have a program that consistently has met the objectives every single year,” Martínez said.
He added that graders scored nine out of 16 points in the “establishing needs” section after campus submitted national, rather than institutional, data, Martínez added.
According to Martínez, UC Berkeley received full marks for all other eligible categories, placing them 4.5 points below the funding band cutoff and in a position unable to appeal the decision.
An anonymous source, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, alleged the narrow point deduction was “suspicious” and called for reevaluation.
Now, students and faculty grapple with the future of the program as scholars from last year’s cohort work to prepare graduate applications in the fall, according to Dean of the Graduate Division Lisa García Bedolla. Bedolla said campus McNair staff received extended contracts using campus Graduate Division funds to continue mentorship services for current scholars beyond the grant’s Sept. 30 end date.
“It seems a shame,” said Robert Hass, campus professor emeritus of English, in an email. “The McNair program has done wonderful work giving undergraduates the best possible opportunities to take advantage of what a great research university can offer them.”
However, Bedolla added campus’s need for faculty mentorship exceeds what the McNair program could offer. She said underrepresentation in graduate school education starts with inequities in K-12 education, which limit first-generation and low-income student populations in higher education. These students are less likely to receive research opportunities and advising for graduate studies once they get to college, she added.
Bedolla said future campus efforts to enhance graduate diversity include expanding summer research for affected students at external campus locations and making the Getting into Graduate School program more “robust” to serve 150-200 students for a longer period of time.
“While the grant non-renewal was disappointing news, we have pivoted to make certain we’re doing all we can to diversify the pool of Berkeley students choosing to go to graduate school,” Bedolla said in an email.