In a renewed effort to boost the number of college graduates in fast-growing fields, Massachusetts has awarded $2 million in scholarships to public college students pursuing degrees in science, business, and health care.
The initiative, the first time the state has broadly encouraged career choices through financial aid, seeks to help students complete their education and enter professions that often face critical shortages of skilled employees.
Governor Deval Patrick will formally announce the program at a ceremony Tuesday at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Out of some 5,000 applicants, 800 students across the state learned last week they had received as much as $3,250 for this semester to defray their tuition and fees.
Patrick has encouraged greater cooperation between colleges and the business community in hope of training more workers to compete in a high-skills economy.
Many students begin college with plans to major in engineering, computer science, and other high-demand fields. But a substantial number wind up struggling academically, sometimes switching fields or dropping out altogether.
As part of a broad effort to meet the demands of a fast-
changing job market and reduce unemployment, the Patrick administration and state lawmakers have sought to align college programs more closely with industry needs.
The new initiative, known as “high demand scholarships,” goes straight to the source, giving college students in specific career paths a direct subsidy. In doing so, the program seeks to help students overcome a key barrier to graduation, the often prohibitive cost, and spur future students to pursue science- and technology-based fields.
“This will create an incentive to persist,” said Richard Freeland, the state’s higher education commissioner. “The hope is students can stay the course.”
One of the students receiving a scholarship is Farha Mithila, a biochemistry major at UMass Boston, who is taking six classes as she looks toward a career in medicine.
“It’s really exciting,” she said Monday. “This will really help me with my education.”
A first-year student, Mithila said she will use the money to avoid taking out so much in loans. She previously had worked as a cashier, but with her heavy class schedule could not keep the job. Many days, her classes and study sessions run from 9 to 5 with almost no break.
A native of Bangladesh who came to the United States with her family three years ago, Mithila takes the bus and train from Lynn each day, a commute that takes well over an hour.
She has her sights set on a future in medicine, but said she thinks the scholarships give other students extra incentive to pursue certain professions. At UMass Boston, for example, the grant covers nearly half the $7,000 per-semester cost.
Students who attend the University of Massachusetts system receive $3,250, while students who attend a state university receive $2,750. Community college students receive $2,000.
Of the available scholarships, 52 percent were awarded to UMass students, 28 percent to state university students, and 20 percent to community college students.
Winners had an average grade-point average of 3.7. Many are from low-income families and relying on financial aid to pay for school.
State education officials consulted with the state’s labor and workforce development agency to determine what fields of study to include. Along with the sciences, they include nursing, engineering, and finance.
“We are significantly underproducing graduates in these fields,” Freeland said.
The vast majority of public college students remain in Massachusetts after they graduate, and their career choices directly affect the state’s labor needs, he noted.
Education officials hope to continue the program, which was approved by state lawmakers last year, and plan to measure its success at steering more students toward degrees in designated fields.
Frustrated by the lack of skilled job applicants, business groups have called for greater coordination between colleges and industries and say the scholarships take aim at a persistent gap.
Tricia Lederer, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said that in a job market that is becoming increasingly high skilled, training will be even more critical in coming years. “More and more, you need a postsecondary degree,” she said. “That’s why this is important.”
Within five years, nearly 70 percent of jobs in Massachusetts will require postsecondary education, a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found. The number of jobs for high school graduates and dropouts, meanwhile, is expected to increase slightly.
“Step by step, we are better aligning our public colleges and universities to meet the workforce needs of our growing economy,” Patrick said in a statement.
Keith Motley, chancellor of UMass Boston, said he was thrilled that the university had more winners than any other school, edging UMass Amherst. He said more students are enrolling in the science-based programs, drawn by the promise of jobs, and are often staying on campus for graduate school.
“That’s a new shift for us,” he said.