When Karen Panetta tried to sell undergraduate engineering students on getting a master’s, she often became discouraged. “The students were telling us they couldn’t afford to stay another two years,” said Panetta, associate dean for graduate education at Tufts School of Engineering. But an advanced degree opens up more job opportunities at generally higher salaries, and many companies are eager to diversify their workforce. “High-tech companies want someone who can hit the ground running,” Panetta said. “A graduate student who has skills and research experience is a win for them.”

The School of Engineering responded with the combined B.S./M.S. program, which allows students to earn the two degrees in five years, instead of six—saving a year of tuition. The program has seen a significant uptick in enrollment over the past three years, from a handful to the current forty-six, Panetta said.

Now a new program, FAST-TRAC, is designed to entice more low-income students to consider graduate study. FAST-TRAC will provide financial, academic, and social support to economically disadvantaged students who pursue the five-year program.

Thanks to a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Tufts can fund FAST-TRAC through at least 2020. In addition to scholarships, FAST-TRAC students will have access to research mentors, skill-building workshops, and other support as they make the transition from undergraduate to graduate study.

“This is a huge opportunity for the School of Engineering to develop a model” for encouraging more low-income students to consider continuing their education, said Darryl Williams, the school’s associate dean of for undergraduate education.

Engineering undergraduates who started their junior year last fall were the first to be eligible for FAST-TRAC. Accepted students begin their graduate program this summer, either working on a research project or doing an industry internship, said Panetta, principal investigator on the NSF grant.

For employers, FAST-TRAC also fills a need, and the school wants to attract industry support. Mitre Corp., headquartered in Bedford, Massachusetts, has already signed on to provide funding and internships, Panetta said.

“The landscape for entry-level engineering jobs is changing significantly,” Williams said. “The more competitive applicants have master’s degrees.”

Helene Ragovin

Helene Ragovin, senior writer at Tufts and editor of Tufts Dental Medicine, can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.