Admitted -- to College and Grad School

June 22, 2007

The chancellor of the City University of New York floated a unique approach this week to dealing with the long lamented problem of low enrollments in the sciences: Offer promising students conditional acceptances to top Ph.D. programs in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) as they start college.

“This is an idea that was created in my own mind after reflecting on a problem that nobody really seemed to be able to capture and shape in a way that would have the results that we would like to see,” Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said in a phone interview Thursday.

“The fact is, when you go into laboratories at major universities today, laboratories for graduate students, you see a paucity, at best, of American students,” Goldstein said. As international students return home with the knowledge they've gained, “We, making the investment here, are not seeing the benefit in our own economies.”

He added: “As a result of that, it impedes our ability to be as competitive certainly on a going-forward basis, in an economy that is going to be more and more demanding of highly technically skilled people."

In a speech Monday, Goldstein envisioned a national effort in which students identified for their aptitude in middle school would subsequently benefit from academic enrichment programs that their own local high schools might not be able to provide (The chancellor described the proposed program as one that could have a particularly strong impact on increasing woefully low minority enrollments in the STEM fields).

Upon entering college, students would be offered a spot in a top Ph.D. science or math program, provided they meet certain performance requirements throughout their undergraduate years.

“It sends a very strong statement to students who have not necessarily had the encouragement … that very elite places genuinely believe in them and, at an early age, they are prepared to make an investment to serve as an incentive for those students to continue to do very good work,” Goldstein said.

Such a program would obviously require a very heavy investment on the part of colleges, donors and government, and Goldstein said that while he has had some informal conversations with other college presidents on this matter, he has not formalized any plans. He does intend, however, to begin fund raising to launch such an initiative at CUNY, with the idea that middle school students identified and nurtured early on would eventually obtain a conditional Ph.D. program acceptance right alongside admission to the system's William E. Macaulay Honors College.

Such a proposal is not entirely without precedent: Some medical schools have long offered conditional acceptance to admitted undergraduates. But applying that idea to the Ph.D. is something new -- and very different, said Carol Lynch, the senior scholar in residence at the Council of Graduate Schools and former dean of the graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“I’m a little bit skeptical," said Lynch, who added that she had not heard of such a proposal in the past.

“A Ph.D. is not like the professional schools. It’s not like medical school. We’re increasingly becoming aware of an array of non-cognitive abilities that you can’t really test for that tend to be predictive of success in Ph.D. programs,” Lynch said -- citing, for instance, the skills needed to handle the stress of independent work.

Plus, there’s the problem of individual fit, as Ph.D. programs are obviously much more specialized, and a student admitted to a certain institution may not ultimately fit there for a number of reasons, including what specialties a program does and does not offer, Lynch said. “A high school biology student says 'Oh, I love biology.' But they don’t know if they want to do molecular biology, cancer research, ecology, evolutionary biology.”

Lynch was, however, a strong proponent of the early and sustained intervention component of the chancellor's proposal, and suggested that the mentoring could continue throughout college, and could incorporate graduate school advising and independent research opportunities.

“I love the idea of identifying kids early and saying, ‘Wow, you like science. Let's keep you on track for a career in science,' " Lynch said. “I personally would like to see this [mentoring] continued through college. We do have a lot of data: The pipeline’s leaking all the way along.”

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