Bridges to the Future

The payoff of being an administrator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is seeing a research project, a young investigator, or a new initiative succeed. So this November (2001), when I met 50 or so Bridges to the Future students at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, I was thrilled. I share NIH's strong commitment to increasing the number of minority scientists, and I have directed Bridges for 4 of its 8 years. However, this was the first time Bridges students from around the country came together and I had the chance to meet them.

These students had discovered science in community colleges, been nurtured and advised by outstanding faculty members, worked in research labs, and learned the skills to enter a baccalaureate degree program with confidence. Each student had an individual story about his or her experiences, but there were common themes, too. Several students came from homes where education, especially college, was a luxury. Many had been uninspired students in high school; many had dropped out to work for a few years. Numerous students had families, jobs, and other personal responsibilities. Most were older than the typical college student. All were excited about science and research and about the possibilities ahead.

This encounter was one measure of the success of Bridges to the Future. Enthusiasm and commitment are critical on the long road to a research career in the sciences. It certainly warmed my heart to hear from the students, and I am pleased that the facts about the program's performance are just as impressive.

Current State of Bridges to the Future

NIH started Bridges to the Future in 1992 with the goal of facilitating the transition of students from associate to baccalaureate degree granting institutions and from master's to doctoral degree granting institutions. The program promotes partnerships among colleges and universities to improve the quality and number of underrepresented minority students being trained as the next generation of scientists.

The current 1400 Bridges students fall into the following groups:

  • African-American (45%)

  • Hispanic (31%)

  • Native American (10)%)

  • Pacific Islanders (5%)

  • other minority groups (9%)

In fiscal year 2001, the Bridge to the Baccalaureate Program (associate to baccalaureate bridge) supported 315 educational institutions in 73 partnerships. The Bridge to the Doctorate Program (terminal master's to doctoral bridge) served 102 educational institutions in 23 partnerships.

How Have Bridges Students Done? First, let's look at the baseline data. Nationally, 39% of community college students who wish to transfer actually do so. We don't have good data on the graduation rates of these students or on their progression to advanced degrees, but we know the numbers are small. Seventy percent of the students who were in a bridge program 5 or more years ago have transferred to a baccalaureate degree program. Of the students who have transferred, 35% have completed their baccalaureate degrees, and 60% are still enrolled in a baccalaureate degree program. Of the students who have received their degrees, 33% are in graduate school, and 5% have received graduate degrees.

The data for master's to doctoral degree programs are less compelling in part because the numbers are smaller. Nationally, 20% to 30% of master's students transfer to doctoral programs. Among the students in the doctoral bridge program 5 or more years ago, 37% have transferred to doctoral programs, and nearly 5% have received doctoral degrees.

Why Is Bridges Successful?

The single most cited reason for success is teamwork. Each Bridges to the Future grant consists of a partnership among institutions committed to student success. The programs are student oriented, and they aim high. The Bridges program staff members from all the institutions gather annually to share ideas, plan new activities, and find out how to do things better. They hold symposia and discussions about course articulation, working with college administration, recruitment and retention, pedagogy and curricula, and evaluation.

I think about the vision of the Bridges to the Future program when I meet the students it produces:

We will know we have succeeded when students who would have received terminal predoctoral degrees see new opportunities for careers as scientists and their ambitions are supported by the highest possible quality of education and training.

You can find information about Bridges to the Future at this NIH Web site.

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