Six universities, including the University of Washington and Washington State University, are getting federal money to expand a promising engineering program for low-income students.

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A program to help more low-income and minority students major in engineering has been so successful that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is expanding it.

The federal agency has awarded $5 million to six universities, including the University of Washington and Washington State University, to expand or create “academic redshirt” programs. These programs enroll promising engineering students from low-income households — many of them women and minorities — and give them an additional year of math and science courses before they enter the engineering major. Redshirting is an idea borrowed from college athletics, in which student-athletes get an extra year to mature.

The award will make scholarship money available to 800 students studying engineering at six schools, including three that already have the program — UW, WSU and the University of Colorado, Boulder — and three new schools: Boise State University; the University of California, San Diego; and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The UW will be the lead university guiding the program expansions.

In this state, the program is known as Washington State Academic Red Shirt program, or STARS, and it has an 80 percent retention rate, said Eve Riskin, associate dean of diversity and access in the UW College of Engineering.

Of the 91 students who enrolled through STARS at the UW, four-fifths are still on track to graduate. That’s better than the national average, which shows that fewer than half the students who intend to get an engineering degree actually earn one, she said.

Riskin said 67 percent of the students in STARS at the UW are the first in their families to go to college, 37 percent are female, and 45 percent are underrepresented minorities — black, Hispanic, Latino or Native American.

The NSF grant includes money to research and evaluate the program to see how students do when compared with a group that doesn’t get the same academic help. Researchers will also study the best ways for faculty members to mentor students.

And they will also examine whether academic redshirt students are helping to convince faculty members that students who come from high schools with less-rigorous academic programs can do just as well as students from demanding high schools, as long as they get help in the first year of college.

This story, first published on Sept. 9, has been corrected.  Ninety-one students have enrolled through STARS at the UW, not 73.  Researchers will study the best ways for faculty to members to mentor students, not a UW faculty member.