Northeastern launching innovative effort to increase STEM-degree attainment

Bolstered by nearly $9 million in government and philanthropic funding, Northeastern University’s Lowell Institute School will become the first-in-the-nation school focused on degree completion programs in science, technology, engineering, and math fields for non-traditional students who have some undergraduate experience and want to matriculate to a bachelor’s degree.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Northeastern will receive a four-year, $3.9 million award through the First in the World grant program, which was created to fund the development and testing of innovative approaches and strategies at colleges and universities that improve college attainment and make higher education more affordable for students and families. A recent $4 million gift from the Lowell Institute facilitated by William Lowell, a member of the Northeastern University Corporation, laid the groundwork for Northeastern to leverage this federal grant. An additional $1 million from the Ruby W. and LaVon P. Linn Foundation was also received that will be used to provide scholarship aid to veterans and active duty personnel enrolled in the school.

“This is an excellent example of how the synergy of private philanthropy and government funding can solve urgent challenges and make a difference,” said Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern. “The combination of this grant on top of Bill Lowell’s deep support for the Lowell Institute School will enable us to do much, much more to change students’ lives for the better.”

Northeastern was one of 24 colleges and universities selected from nearly 500 applicants to receive federal grants totaling $75 million for projects that address at least one of the following priorities: increasing college access and completion, increasing community college transfer rates, increasing STEM enrollment and completion, improving college affordability, and reducing time to completion. The grant program, announced in May as part of President Obama’s agenda to increase postsecondary access and completion, is focused on driving innovations in higher education that increase college completion, value, and affordability.

William Lowell

William Lowell

Northeastern’s effort to increase degree attainment in STEM fields comes as the country looks to strengthen its global competitiveness in this area, which is seeing job growth at three times the rate of other fields. What’s more, the number of females and underrepresented minorities is low in college-level STEM degree programs and the national STEM workforce.

The Lowell Institute School is housed in the College of Professional Studies. Originally founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the school transferred to Northeastern in 1996 and at that time was aligned with the university’s undergraduate engineering and technology programs. It moved to CPS in 2009 and has since focused on the college’s mission to serve working adults. With this new grant, the school is expanding its focus to support students in completing bachelor’s programs in a wide array of STEM fields. The program will also feature a robust career-advising component.

The Lowell Institute School also will leverage the university’s leadership in experiential education and the development of hybrid, flexible curricula that meet students’ needs. Full-time students will be able to take a co-op, a signature Northeastern program that provides students with valuable real-world work experience, while part-time students will be able to integrate experiential project-based work into their current positions. The program also features a blend of online and on-campus courses so that these non-traditional students—including working professionals, veterans, and service members—will be able to progress at their own pace.

“As the economy has grown and shifted, this program has adapted by modernizing its curriculum to make it more career-driven and relevant to the industry and the educational needs of working adults,” said John LaBrie, dean of the College of Professional Studies. “Students will graduate better prepared to make a real impact in STEM fields.”

The new degree-completion program aims to fill the growing need for skilled workers in these fields, particularly in Massachusetts. In building the program curriculum, Northeastern officials met with organizations in key STEM industries including the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Boston to learn what various sectors need from future employees and what Northeastern can do to fill those needs.

“Working professionals will be able to move into high-demand science, technology, engineering, and math careers that strengthen the economy,” said Lowell, co-chair of the Wealth Management Group at the law firm Choate, Hall & Stewart in Boston, whose family was also involved in the founding of the Museum of Science and the WGBH Educational Foundation.

Northeastern’s First in the World grant will enable the Lowell Institute School to further expand its mission by strengthening access to degree programs in the STEM fields to students specifically from underrepresented populations. Through this federal grant, Northeastern will enroll approximately 200 to 250 community college transfer students. Northeastern will also launch an education innovation incubator within the Lowell Institute School where faculty and industry practitioners will collaborate to conduct primary research validating and advancing evidence-based models that will improve the engagement, retention, and achievement of STEM-degree students, particularly for students from underrepresented populations.

Recent research findings suggest that retention-enhancing interventions in the form of adaptive learning and gamification, coupled with appropriate experiential learning opportunities, will make a significant impact on increasing student engagement and degree completion. The Lowell Institute Innovation Incubator will serve as a learning laboratory where these and other innovative principles will be integrated into courses and delivery modalities. Ultimately, the goal would be to lower the cost of delivery to students while also increasing learning retention and degree completion rates.