The University of Illinois and five other universities will receive National Science Foundation grants to create or expand academic "red shirt" programs.

About 25 students will be red-shirted when the program launches in the fall of 2017 at UI. The NSF grant will cover $800,000 of the cost of the program over the next five years.

Grainger Engineering Library at the University of Illinois. Source: University of IllinoisGrainger Engineering Library at the University of Illinois. Source: University of IllinoisBoise State University and the University of California, San Diego also will begin academic red shirt programs in 2016 as part of the total $5 million NSF grant. The University of Colorado, the University of Washington, and Washington State University will expand existing programs.

Grant funds also will be allocated to conduct research to see how students in the program are succeeding compared with students not receiving the additional assistance.

In U.S. college sports, players may “red shirt” their freshmen year. Doing so gives them an added year of eligibility while they adjust to the rigors of college study and athletics. At UI, the NSF grant will give aspiring engineers from low-income families an added year of study their freshman year to better prepare them for the engineering degree program.

The aim of the program is to help level the playing field for students coming from lower-income families whose high school education may not have been on par with that of better schools.

"We're very concerned that students who maybe didn't get to benefit from a great high school education, a high school that offered advanced placement courses, might not be able to come here and really succeed," says Kevin Pitts, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the UI College of Engineering.

"We would bring them in to a five-year program where the first year would really be that program that would bridge from high school to college to help prepare them for an engineering program," he says.

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