Dwindling Support

Report finds that programs for minority Ph.D. students are so afraid of legal and political challenges that they are broadening their missions.
May 26, 2005

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of affirmative action in college admissions. But the political controversy surrounding affirmative action, and the limits placed on its use by the Supreme Court as well as by various state entities, has had a major impact on graduate education, according to a report released Wednesday.

According to the report, from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, many of the groups that support minority Ph.D. students have broadened their programs to include other students as well. As a result, the report warns that the cohort of new Ph.D.'s -- and in turn the cohort of new professors in the years to come -- may lack the racial and ethnic diversity many colleges want for their faculties.

The foundation's report has two main parts. One part summarizes data showing how few Ph.D.'s are awarded to black and Hispanic students. In 2003, the report notes, one in three Americans was black or Hispanic, but only one in nine American citizens who received Ph.D.'s that year were black or Hispanic. The data in the report largely come from the studies conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and released in December.

While the data are not new, the foundation also conducted interviews and research on programs to diversify the graduate student population. The foundation studied efforts by the government, foundations and individual universities, and found retrenchment and shifts just about everywhere -- with money for minority Ph.D. students getting cut.

"Programs intended to improve diversity in doctoral education have shifted decisively away from financial support, focusing more on efforts to recruit and prepare students for graduate study," the report said.

At the federal level, the report noted that the Education Department and the National Science Foundation have both abandoned fellowship programs for minority doctoral students, the NSF doing so under the threat of a lawsuit.

At the university level, the report said, "almost every program surveyed has modified its structure, its eligibility requirements, or even its name following recent legal challenges to university minority support programs."

While the interviews with program managers found that most of them continued to have strong commitments to diversifying graduate student populations, it found that even where policies hadn't been overhauled, people are reluctant to draw attention to their efforts. Program managers said that they had been urged "to maintain low public profiles," the report said.

The foundation acknowledged that in many cases, fellowships that were once for minority students still exist, but are now open to low-income students from all racial and ethnic groups. And the report said that such fellowships serve a valuable purpose. But it added that such fellowships couldn't replace minority-specific programs.

"A need-based model implies that low minority representation in doctoral programs results solely from economic deprivation, with no consideration of social and cultural factors that may make minority students less likely to enroll or persist in doctoral programs," the report said. It added that not all minority students are poor, and that professors generally come from "middle-income and professional family backgrounds." As a result, shifting graduate fellowships to emphasize low-income backgrounds "will inevitably divert recruitment energies away from precisely those groups that offer the most promising potential members of the academic community."


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