This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.
Ph.D. programs are one of the few parts of higher education where admissions decisions are made without admissions professionals. Small groups of faculty members meet, department by department, to decide whom to admit. And their decisions effectively determine the future makeup of the faculty in higher education. Politicians, judges, journalists, parents, and prospective students subject the admissions policies of undergraduate colleges and professional schools to considerable scrutiny, with much public debate over appropriate criteria. But the question of who gets into Ph.D. programs has by comparison escaped much discussion.
That may change with the publication of Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, out this month from Harvard University Press. Julie R. Posselt, the author and an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan, obtained permission from six highly ranked departments at three research universities to watch their reviews of candidates, and she interviewed faculty members at four others. All the departments were ranked as among the top programs in their disciplines.
To obtain this kind of access (not to mention institutional review board approval), Posselt had to offer complete anonymity. While her book identifies comments as coming from people in particular disciplines, she reveals nothing about where the departments are, and she also hides most details about the applicants they reviewed.
To judge from the book, the faculty members she observed did not present her with a scripted and idealistic view of admissions. They were frank about things that they are unlikely to have shared in public.
For instance, those whose programs were not at the very top of the rankings frequently talked about not wanting to offer spots to people they believed would go to a higher-ranked program. They didn’t want their department to be the graduate equivalent of what high school students applying to college term safety schools. In this sense many of these departments turned down superior candidates, some of whom might have enrolled. Many of the professors sound insecure about their programs even though they are among the very best.
Across departments and disciplines, Posselt tracks a strong focus on ratings, a priority on GRE scores that extends beyond what most departments would admit (or that creators of the test would advise) and some instances of what could be seen as discrimination. Of the latter, she describes a pattern in which faculty members effectively practice affirmative action for all applicants who are not from East Asia, effectively having one set of GRE standards for the students from China and elsewhere in East Asia and another, lower requirement for everyone else. And she describes one instance in which a candidate was strongly critiqued and eventually passed over in part related to her having attended a religious undergraduate institution. (More on both of those issues later.)
The book paints a picture of faculty members who are deeply committed to their disciplines and their scholarship. But Posselt also writes that this seems to make many professors on these admissions committees risk averse in ways that limit the diversity of those admitted. And this starts with who gets to be on admissions committees. (The book is based on interviews with many of the committee members, not just the observations.)
Department chairs were aware of the “somewhat political task” of serving on the committees, Posselt writes. While they aimed for thoughtful appointments (and invited back people who were seen as having been especially helpful in previous years), other factors come into play. Appointments to the committees are made “to downplay internal conflicts, protect specific programs’ interests or buffer the process from program faculty with outlying perspectives or difficult personalities,” Posselt writes.
White males “dominated” the admissions committees, and Posselt writes that chairs cite diversity as a value in appointing members in only two of the 10 departments she studied.
Relatively few of the departments in any public way would say they have minimum GRE requirements. But the book talks about considerable interest in scores. In an interview, Posselt said her consideration of “de facto” policies and not just explicit ones revealed that every department had a GRE cutoff. Posselt said this is particularly surprising since all of the departments boast of “holistic review,” in which each applicant is evaluated on a range of criteria and not a formula. Further, she noted, the Educational Testing Service, which produces the GRE, has never suggested that departments use cutoffs the way departments routinely do.
Many committee members said they simply had too many applications to review and that they needed a simple measure with which to compare applicants and to exclude some. Prestige of undergraduate program counted for a lot. But grade-point average? Not so much. One astrophysicist Posselt quotes said, “Grade-point, most people said it doesn’t affect them very much because basically everybody in the pool—everybody in the final pool—has such high GPAs that it’s not meaningful.” A sociologist said this was especially a problem with the many finalists from top colleges. “Grades are increasingly a lousy signal, especially at those elite places that just hand out the A’s. So you don’t even have that anymore,” he said.
One professor told Posselt: “I have impressions that some of my faculty—senior members—were simply looking for the GRE. They have a threshold such as, ‘If it’s not over 700, I won’t read anything.’ And that cuts usually two-thirds of applicants.”
Posselt writes of asking committee members why they were so focused on GRE scores and whether applicants attended elite undergraduate institutions, even when these criteria minimized diversity of the accepted applicant pool. She heard in response much talk about how much graduate admissions is “gambling” and how important it is to admit students who will succeed. With small admissions cohorts and faculty members who depend on graduate students to work with them on research and other tasks, any attrition is viewed as a disaster, and committee members want to avoid the risk.
Committee members also seemed to generalize from the experience of past graduate students who failed, wanting to avoid anyone like them in the future. They spoke of “being spooked” by seeing such applicants.
The admissions committee members generally assumed applicants were getting Ph.D.s for careers like theirs—faculty jobs at research universities. So they were looking for signs of research potential. And they were also unabashed elitists.
“This is an elite university, and a lot of the people at the university are elitists,” one professor said with a laugh. “So they make a lot of inferences about the quality of someone’s work and their ability based on where they come from.”
In most cases Posselt observed, the committee members used banter and “friendly debate” when they disagreed with one another. They didn’t attack one another or get too pointed in criticizing colleagues. She describes one discussion she observed—in which committee members kept to this approach—that left her wondering about issues of fairness.
The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.
“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”
The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background—high GRE scores, homeschooled—than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”
Other committee members defended her but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics. One noted that the college had a good reputation in the humanities. And another said that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking.
At the end of this discussion, the committee moved the applicant ahead to the next round but rejected her there.
When Posselt probed on diversity, she found that many professors said they felt an obligation to diversify their graduate student bodies and thus—eventually—the collective faculty of their fields. In some fields, there was discussion about seeking more women, not just underrepresented minority groups. For example, Posselt found this to be the case in philosophy, a field that has of late been struggling with a perception (many say reality) of being hostile to women.
Many faculty members, however, appeared more comfortable considering race and ethnicity as slight tips among otherwise equal candidates who had advanced to finalist rounds. One professor said, “I try not to pay too much attention. I try to admit students that are the best in my intellect with no regard for gender and race.” Only with two applicants who are “equal on intellectual merit, then I will prefer a minority,” the professor said.
Others spoke of diversity in terms of “opportunity.” They said they wanted to admit minority applicants, but they regularly spoke about fear of seeing their yield—the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll—go down, as they assumed that the best minority candidates would end up at just one or two programs. Posselt writes of hearing comments such as, “Who are we going to get? It’s a gamble,” and “We’ll lose him to Princeton and Caltech.”
One economist put it this way: “Gender is an issue that we get good—we get top-notch women as well as top-notch men. Black—we get fewer blacks. It’s true. But we do try—in the past we’ve tried to attract them. But then they get the same attractive offers from Columbia and Yale and Stanford and Berkeley and so forth. So it’s a small group typically who get a lot of attention.”
Many graduate departments—particularly in science fields—rely on international students. The departments observed by Posselt appear to practice a form of affirmative action for everyone who is not an international Asian student in that professors de-emphasize the (typically extremely high) GRE scores of such applicants to avoid admitting what they would consider to be too many of them. This is in contrast to the attitudes of many professors with regard to considering American applicants of various ethnicities—and who insisted on a single (high) standard there.
Referring to international applicants, one scientist told Posselt, “The scores on the standardized tests are just out of sight, just off the charts. So you can basically throw that out as a discriminator. They’re all doing 90th percentile and above. The domestic students are all over the place so there was actually some spread, some dispersion … so you could use that more as one of the quantifiers.”
A philosopher said, “There certainly is a kind of stereotypical …” and then he paused, appearing to catch himself, before saying, “Chinese student who will have astronomical scores.”
The professors said their view of international applicants’ test scores was not discriminatory but based on the preparation of students in countries that place more of an emphasis on testing than does the United States.
Many professors also expressed fears that Chinese applicants are also inflating test scores through cheating. One professor, Posselt writes, lowered his glasses during an interview to ask her, “You know about the cheating, don’t you?”
The concerns about cheating are “pervasive,” Posselt writes, with regard to tests designed to demonstrate English proficiency. The faculty members on admissions committees pay a lot of attention to this issue and report feeling burned in the past by applicants whose scores indicated proficiency but who arrived in the United States with very poor English skills. Several departments that do not interview all applicants require interviews of international applicants.
Chinese applicants appear especially challenging to many American professors, who report that they “seem alike” and hard to distinguish, when the admissions process is designed to do just that. One humanities professor told Posselt, “How do you compare six students from China, who all have the same last name?” (It is true, Posselt notes, that the 100 most common last names in China are the names of 87 percent of its population, and presumably of much of the Chinese applicant pool, while the 100 most common last names in the United States account for only 17 percent of the American population.)
While departments are trying to do a better job of understanding Chinese applicants and are certainly admitting many of them, Posselt writes of a “troubling tendency to think of students from China not as individuals but a profile of group averages.”
Posselt said in an interview that she wanted to study graduate admissions because it is so little understood and is so important. While admissions leaders constantly talk about the value of holistic admissions, Posselt said, it is rare to see up close just what that means. She saw much to admire, she said, in the devotion of faculty members to their disciplines and their intellectual traditions. And she believes holistic review has the potential to help graduate programs (and other parts of higher education) to identify and admit more minority talent.
But she also has worries. “If it’s not executed with care, it can lead to reproducing the status quo rather than seeking diversity,” she said.
If higher education is going to focus on holistic admissions to preserve affirmative action, Posselt said, admissions committees need to be open about what they value and consider whether those values should change.
Even with the questions Posselt raises about whether graduate departments are doing enough to promote diversity, she said her observations suggest that race and (in some programs) gender do count. If the Supreme Court should limit or bar the consideration of race in admissions decisions, as could happen this year, Posselt predicted a much more white graduate student body (and subsequent faculty) in higher education.
Regardless of what the Supreme Court does, Posselt said graduate departments could admit more diverse classes if they reconsidered the way they use the GRE. She said her research doesn’t suggest the GRE should be abandoned but that the departments she observed are “misusing the GRE” and looking at scores “without context of the applicant.”
The one place where departments do consider context—international students—gives her some hope departments could, if they wanted, think more about the context of all applicants.
In the meantime, she urged departments to reflect on their practices and to try to improve them and be more open about them. While the departments reviewed in the book remain secret, the general process used by elite departments would now appear to be more open as a result of Posselt’s book.