Merit-based financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants is intended to ease the burden of a student’s debt load, but is it possible to have too much a good thing? Some studies suggest that students who receive merit-based aid may be deterred from pursuing a major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields for fear that subpar grades could cost them their scholarships.

Meg Blume-Kohout, visiting assistant professor of economics, has been awarded a three-year $230,647 grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate this problem. Her research project, titled “Evaluating Impact of Student Debt on Early Career Choices,” aims to determine whether merit-based aid has an impact on the college majors of women and minority students, and, in turn, their career paths after graduation.

“If students are on the margin about whether they can stay in school from a financial perspective, they can’t always afford to take STEM classes — in which the average grade distribution is lower — if they need to maintain their scholarships,” Blume-Kohout said.

The project assesses the effects of two types of merit-based aid: lottery scholarships, which are awarded to students of all majors, and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) grants, which are awarded to students who pursue majors in a science-related field.

Using two existing data sources — one from a large, public minority-serving institution (MSI) and the other from the NSF’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics — Blume-Kohout will first evaluate whether SMART grants and merit-based aid affect undergraduates’ retention in and completion of STEM degree programs. She’ll then compare the effects of such scholarships and other types of financial support on students’ cumulative debt loads and early career paths.

The grant will also fund the work of four undergraduate research assistants who will conduct literature reviews, perform statistical analyses, and have the chance to test their own hypotheses.

Blume-Kohout hopes the results will help to inform policies that aim to retain women and minority students in STEM fields.

“STEM graduates in higher-paying occupations could help address socioeconomic inequality and social mobility, which are some of the reasons we’re concerned about the effects of student debt,” she said.

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