Notre Dame College is earning about $892,000 in “Choose Ohio First” funding.

Northeast Ohio has a pipeline problem. ‘Choose Ohio First’ is trying to help fix it.

As jobs in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) fields continue to grow, a statewide initiative wants to increase Ohio’s talent pool in these areas while strengthening the ties between industry and higher education.

It’s a two-pronged goal. It aims to boost the amount of students studying these in-demand fields at Ohio’s institutions. Enrollment struggles hit many during the pandemic. Plus, the decline of high school graduates is forecast to continue in Ohio.

The hope is these students will stay after graduation, too. Northeast Ohio has a pipeline problem. The region reportedly retains fewer than 47% of its college graduates each year. Increasing that number by 10 percentage points would add 3,130 more bachelor’s degree recipients to the region, according to a 2020 Team NEO report.

Enter Choose Ohio First. More than $69.8 million will be awarded in the latest round of its competitive multiyear grants. The money is going to 57 colleges and universities across the state but is earmarked specifically for student scholarships. A portion of it will go toward new students. A separate pool supports current students.

All award recipients must be graduates of an Ohio high school and major in a STEMM offering. While each college has some amount of flexibility to implement additional requirements and structure individual campus programs differently, it’s more than a scholarship. Mentoring, advising and internship opportunities are baked into many offerings.

“It’s kind of like being in an honors program or an athlete,” said Avis Brown, the University of Akron’s academic and retention support director. “You have this specific support that’s there for you.”

Choose Ohio First (COF) was created in 2008. The state has held a handful of requests for proposals since then, including this most recent one late last year. The Ohio Department of Higher Education’s (ODHE) website said the effort “funds higher education and business collaborations that will have the most impact on Ohio’s position in world markets such as aerospace, medicine, computer technology and alternative energy.”

The strongest proposals saw a higher share of funding requests fulfilled, though no institution received its total ask, according to ODHE officials.

ODHE chancellor Randy Gardner said colleges are committed to the effort. Institutions’ own funding is used, too.

“It’s not just sending a college or university a check and hope that they educate students in the STEMM fields,” said Gardner. “When they send back an RFP, they have to show connections to the business community, they show an effort to support underrepresented populations, the work-based opportunities. All of that is part of their mission.”

Gardner added the effort gives institutions of all sizes a chance to compete. Community colleges and private colleges received funding in addition to larger four-year publics. In fact, Gardner said he was really excited by the proposal from Cuyahoga Community College.

Tri-C proposed attracting high school students, undeclared students and adult learners to its COF program. It’s slated to receive $1.2 million, though official grant agreements haven’t gone out to institutions yet. The college’s proposal focused on strengthening its health career, IT and manufacturing offerings.

“Those are the three main areas because they fit into industries in Northeastern Ohio and the need for workers,” said Rebecca Stolzman, director of honors and scholars programs.

The college’s proposal included letters of support from local companies in those sectors, as did Notre Dame College’s application. Students at the South Euclid campus will be offered internships by local companies such as Alloy Bellows, Medical Mutual, Synthomer and Frantz Medical Manufacturing.

“We don’t do higher education just for the sake of higher education,” said Notre Dame president Mike Pressimone. “We know that our students, in particular, see this as a stepping stone to a better life. I think our partner companies also see this as well, and they’re looking for talented young people to join their companies.”

The college will receive $892,000. Officials plan to offer annual scholarships ranging from $1,500 to $7,995. These awards come as the pandemic’s economic impact continues. The amount of first-year students nationwide dropped 13% in the fall compared with the previous year.

“This kind of stimulus can really help kind of counteract that trend so that students say, ‘OK, maybe higher education is possible for me,’ ” said Pressimone.

Students of color saw big enrollment drops across the country in 2020. Those students, along with women, have long faced gaps in these industries. Another COF priority is to recruit and retain underrepresented students.

Officials at the University of Akron work to do that by connecting with high schools in urban and rural areas, as well as Appalachian Ohio. There’s no minimum GPA or standardized test score to be eligible for its COF scholarship.

“We began to see that there was an opportunity for us to find talented students in these areas, students who with a little push could really go into these fields and do more,” Brown said.

Students receiving the scholarship must take part in UA’s programming. Brown plays a big part in that. And as a Black man who earned a STEMM undergraduate degree, he said he understands what many students are navigating.

“A lot of times we aren’t told what the hurdles or the barriers in front of us are,” he said. “So when we meet with students, we try to be as honest with them as possible and talk about some of those unsaid challenges that they’re having.”

Akron got $5.8 million in this latest COF funding round. It’s the biggest award across the state. Brown said the campus’ program is now being used as a model for some of the university’s other initiatives.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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