Rigor or Snobbery?

Philosophy professor's research raises the question of why top doctoral programs seem to favor students from a small subset of undergraduate programs.

November 1, 2011

Not all 3.9 grade-point averages are the same, most faculty members would agree. After all, different colleges have different standards and different student bodies. But in an era when some of the most rampant grade inflation has been documented at elite colleges and universities, is it fair to assume that the grades earned (and education absorbed) at top colleges are necessarily superior to those found elsewhere?

Broadly, that's the question raised last week in a provocative blog post -- "Sorry Cal State Students, No Princeton Grad School for You!" -- that has generated considerable discussion among philosophers. The post was by Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Riverside. He analyzed the undergraduate backgrounds of graduate students at top philosophy Ph.D. programs and found that a relatively small number of elite colleges and universities dominate the group.

Of American students at the top programs, he found that 29 percent came from just eight universities (the U.S. News & World Report top 10, minus the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), another 18 percent came from other universities in the magazine's top 25, and another 11 percent from elsewhere in the top 50. With another large group coming from leading liberal arts colleges, the analysis found that only 19 percent came from the 3,000-plus colleges and universities that don't sit on the top of anyone's rankings. (While the programs did admit a decent share of non-Americans, they also tended to come from elite institutions, in particular the University of Oxford.)

The blog post has prompted a wide range of reactions. Many philosophers appear uncomfortable with the idea that institutional pedigree may be trumping other factors, especially given the reality that plenty of great minds never make it to the Ivies. One comment said: "Suppose we ask the average grad admissions committee member whether it should matter where a student went to high school, what a student's parents' income is, or whether a student took an SAT prep course. Those are factors that significantly influence undergrad admissions. A shame they appear (in effect) to influence graduate admissions too!"

Graduates of universities that don't top the rankings traded stories about being told that their undergraduate faculty members were deemed inadequate, of being rejected despite great scores on the Graduate Record Examination, and of the implication that their backgrounds were somehow unworthy.

While some speculated about the possible superiority of top undergraduate programs, others were strongly critical of what they see as unfair bias in graduate admissions. "Why can't we draw from this data the obvious conclusion of elitism?" wrote one anonymous person. "Why do we have to bend over backwards to try to offer excusing explanations for this garbage? The same trend continues when one applies for jobs, and it is shameful, deeply unjust elitism, through and through. Let's call it what it is instead of looking for all kinds of justifying reasons for it. Those who perpetuate this trend deserve to be shamed."

Schwitzgebel's research focused on philosophy, but at least one other study has found a similar clustering in the students who enroll in graduate programs in history -- programs that are generally much larger than those in philosophy. Robert B. Townsend of the American Historical Association published a study in 2005 in which he found that about 100 generally elite undergraduate institutions produced the students who make up 55 percent of the graduate enrollments in Ph.D. programs. The history study found that the share of Ph.D. enrollment from those undergraduate institutions had been a bit lower during the 1980s, but increased again during the 1990s.

So what does it mean -- for graduate education generally or for disciplines -- when such a small share of undergraduate institutions dominate graduate enrollments?

Joanne Canyon-Heller, senior director of admissions at Roosevelt University and president of the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals, said that the key thing about admission to Ph.D. programs is that "it's really faculty-driven, and because it's faculty-driven, they are going to be looking for their own goals, their sense of the mission of the program."

David Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, said that many graduate programs "get many more superbly qualified applicants than they can admit" and that the "standard body of information that graduate schools use in determining acceptances [is] limited and limiting."

He said that one reason students at non-elite colleges may be at a disadvantage is not because of any perception of the quality of their institutions, but because their professors are not well-known. "When a member of the admissions committee at, say, Rutgers reads a letter of recommendation from a Princeton colleague whom she knows and whose work she admires, that letter is likely to carry more weight than an equally glowing letter from Sam Houston State University," Schrader said. He called that "an unfortunate fact, but it is a simple consequence of the basic human phenomenon that we place more confidence in the word of friends than of relative strangers."

Schwitzgebel, whose blog post set off the current discussion among philosophers, wasn't drawn to the issue by his own history. He attended Stanford University as an undergraduate, and earned his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley -- fitting the pattern he described last week. He was prompted to do his research after he provided some advice on his blog for those applying to graduate school, and someone responded with a comment saying: "Eric, looking back at your posting on admissions it is remarkable how much the whole process is guided by pedigree. Shouldn't we as a profession at least try for some degree of equality in opportunities? (This point towards weighing the writing samples more than other factors, for instance, a point you also seem to make.)"

It is possible, Schwitzgebel said in an interview, that there are good reasons to favor a Stanford graduate over one from a Cal State campus. "It might be the case that it's harder to get a good G.P.A. [at an elite college] than at a Cal State school, in which case G.P.A. might say more, but I don't know that for sure," he said. It also might be the case, he said, that undergraduates who study in a department that awards doctoral degrees "could be better prepared for advanced graduate study." But he said that he was troubled that he could not point to empirical evidence to back up those possibilities.

Riverside, where he teaches, is not considered an elite graduate program like those Schwitzgebel studied. But having served on the graduate admissions committee there, he said that he saw some of the same attitudes that appear to prevail in the top programs. "My experience is that a student from a really elite institution like Stanford or Princeton -- that person's G.P.A. will be viewed more charitably. A student there who has A-minuses might be considered quite seriously, where a Cal State student with that grade would be considered less seriously."

Once they are enrolled, Schwitzgebel said, he doesn't see any particular difference in the performance of students from elite and non-elite undergraduate institutions. "I tend to forget where students came from," he said.


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