UMBC receives $1.3 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to diversify economics Ph.D.s

The UMBC economics department has received a $1.3 million grant from the  Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to increase the number of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups who complete highly competitive doctoral programs in economics. This five-year program will support students through scholarships, mentoring, research experiences, and finally, entry into post-graduation programs specializing in doctoral preparation.

“This grant will help increase the diversity of the profession. The students in the program will go on to become academic economists who will, in turn, inspire future generations of underrepresented ethnic and racial minorities,” explains David Mitch, director of the new program and economics department Chair, who said he was thrilled by the news.

Through this grant, UMBC will become a partner in a larger effort by the Sloan Foundation to provide resources to diversify the field of economics by creating interventions from the undergraduate level through the post-baccalaureate level. The UMBC program prepares students to apply for and participate in a two-year post-graduation paid fellowship in Sloan-supported programs at New York University, Harvard University, or other highly selective institutions. UMBC will become an integral part of establishing a national pipeline for underrepresented students to understand, get excited about, and pursue careers in economics.

Top tier economics graduate programs require rigorous academic preparation often well beyond the traditional economics major, including coursework in high-level math courses. This coursework, which students are often unaware of until their junior year, is a major barrier to many students, including those from underrepresented groups. UMBC’s program will help students overcome this and other challenges by focusing on recruitment efforts, educating students about opportunities in economics, intensive personalized mentoring, and placement in high-quality and prestigious research experiences at academic and other partner institutions. The most involved students will also have the chance to receive scholarships during their senior year and help to apply and pay for post-baccalaureate programs. This program helps UMBC provide financial support but also the infrastructure needed for underrepresented minority students to succeed in managing the social and academic demands of a rigorous Ph.D. program.

Across the nation, a host of academic fields including economics lack ethnic and racial diversity. Surveys by the American Economic Association indicate that fewer than ten percent of newly minted Ph.D.’s in economics or related areas are earned by underrepresented minorities. For 2015, the American Economics Association reported that only two percent of new Ph.D.s that year were awarded to African American students and six percent to Hispanic/Latino students. If the percentage of African Americans completing Ph.D.’s in Economics were to increase by just one percentage point, the number of African Americans entering the job market would more than double.

UMBC, with its national reputation for inclusive excellence and the academic success of diverse students, is the ideal university to join the larger Sloan initiative. UMBC’s economics department has already begun creating a more supportive institutional culture by providing undergraduates with rigorous coursework and high-level internship and research opportunities. They also work closely with the math department to evaluate how to design or adapt courses to make the process easier for students to navigate. The department also has a history of success helping underrepresented students gain admittance to post-baccalaureate and doctoral programs in economics at NYU, Duke University, MIT, Harvard, and the University of Chicago, some of whom have already indicated an interest in being a resource or mentor for new students in the Sloan-supported program.

Brandon Enriquez ’17, economics and mathematics. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.

Brandon Enriquez ’17, economics and mathematics, is among them. A current student in the Ph.D. program at  MIT, he didn’t know anyone with a Ph.D. before coming to UMBC. He agrees, “UMBC is an ideal place to cultivate new diverse scholars in economics because of its strength in math.”

He acknowledges that there weren’t other students of color going on to competitive economics Ph.D. programs and he found it extremely valuable to work with Isaiah Andrews, a professor of color in the economics department at MIT. “It helps to have a role model who is a person of color in economics that knows what kinds of challenges there can be and how to adjust,” explains Enriquez. “UMBC is very strong in the STEM fields and has a proven record with Dr. Hrabowski and the Meyerhoff Program of cultivating minority Ph.D.s.”

M’Balou Camara ’15, political science. Photo courtesy of Camara.

M’Balou Camara ’15, political science, is currently a student at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy Ph.D. program, with a concentration in economics. For Camara, the Ph.D. Excellence Initiative (PHDEI) at NYU was a bridge between where she was and where she wanted to be. “I wanted to get more hands-on research experience and hone my mathematical skills,” she said. Working with NYU professor Peter Blair Henry “made me a more competitive candidate and able to manage the rigor and course load of my first year of graduate school.”

She is clear, though, that success is not only skills dependent. Having the support of mentors of color at UMBC, NYU, and Duke has been crucial to her success. “It is really important to me to have people of color that I can look up to, come to, and connect with me on that level. It can be hard to understand what you are capable of doing if you don’t see a lot of people in this higher level of academia that look like you being successful,” said Camara, who hopes to be a mentor to future women of color economists in a way similar to the mentorship she received from Jacqueline Hrabrowski as a Jacqueline C. Hrabowski Endowment recipient. “I can inspire people like me to go through with a dream in academia.”

Banner image: UMBC  Winter Commencement 2016. Photo by Marlayna Demond ‘11 for UMBC.