Study Argues Mellon Program Has No Effect on Minority Ph.D. Degrees

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program — an initiative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that works to boost the diversity of faculty at U.S. colleges and universities — has "no significant effect" on Ph.D. completion rates, a study by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute finds.

Published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the report, An Evaluation of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship's Effect on Ph.D. Production at Non-UNCF Institutions, found "no evidence that participation in the program causes a statistically significant increase in the Ph.D. production rate." While "about a quarter of MMUF students will eventually complete a Ph.D., compared with around 4 percent of underrepresented minority students graduating from MMUF institutions in years their school was not participating in the program," the high rate of Ph.D. completion cannot be attributed solely to the program given that fellows "presumably apply to the program because of their own interest and are selected based on their potential as scholars." In a 2007 survey, the report notes, 67 percent of current and former fellows said they "would have or might have aspired to earn a Ph.D. absent the program."

According to MMUF director Armando Bengochea, the paper's conclusion "stands in sharp contrast to regularly gathered student testimony and annual reporting from the leaders of the forty-six participating MMUF institutions that the majority of their undergraduate fellows first thought of pursuing an academic career only when prodded by outreach from the program."

"The problem of underrepresentation of faculty of color in higher education is so dire that a program like the Mellon Mays shouldn't be looked at to kind of 'solve the problem' and achieve parity," said Besenia Rodriguez, a former MMUF fellow, associate dean of the College for Curriculum at Brown University, and coordinator of Brown's MMUF program. "The goal of the program is to work intensively, and over a long period of time, with a smaller group of people to provide those people with as many resources as possible to not just get them through the research experience but...all the way into their careers, to tenure," she told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. "I think it has to be evaluated with that distinction in mind that it really is about a pipeline, not just making a short-term splash impact but really making a deep impact."

Jamaal Abdul-Alim. "Study Strikes at Core of Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program." Diverse Issues in Higher Education 08/17/2015.