The Price of STEM Success: Explaining the Impact of Need-Based Financial Aid on STEM Student Behavior

This study investigates whether, how, and why need-based financial aid affects the behavior of students in key science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (STEM) programs by contributing to their chances of success.

Specifically, researchers examine the pathways through which aid affects students’ selection of, continued enrollment in, and successful completion of associate and baccalaureate degrees in STEM.

Leveraging an extraordinarily uncommon research opportunity, researchers will compare the educational outcomes of 900 undergraduates from low-income families enrolled in the University of Wisconsin System to 900 comparable students assigned at random to receive additional financial aid from a private foundation.

The study will track both groups for four years, and an integrated longitudinal database will capture their behaviors and outcomes using administrative and transcript data merged with student surveys and detailed time diary data obtained via text-messaging. Then, researchers will conduct average and disaggregated analyses of the aid’s impact on accustomed outcomes (e.g. choice of STEM major, completed credits in STEM, year-to-year persistence, completion of STEM degree, and in the case of two-year college students, achievement of employment in a STEM field), as well as largely unexamined aspects of the STEM behavioral experience, such as work-study balance, time use, depth of commitment to studies, interaction with faculty and peers, and participation in undergraduate research.

Differences across underserved populations, i.e., race/ethnicity and gender, and types of STEM program will be examined to detect any differential benefits. Disseminated in part through STEM education journals and professional and education meetings, the results will help higher education experts understand how students’ financial constraints restrict STEM pathways, and assist those funding financial aid to strategically disburse it to enhance the success of underserved populations in STEM. 



Jed Richardson


Completed on August 31, 2018

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Jed Richardson