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When I was in my first semester of study for the Ph.D., I met a famous professor. I was at Princeton University, the only working-class, public university–educated student in my program in comparative literature. I had slipped in through a side door, after some time at the University of Toronto, where I worked on an M.A. until my mentors left for greener pastures and suggested I leave as well.
I had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in a tiny town in the New Mexico desert, a town dominated by Pentecostals and members of the John Birch Society. I escaped after high school, worked, studied at the state university in Albuquerque and worked some more. At Princeton, I was an older student, married, and my department chair knew I owned a car. So he dispatched me to the train station to pick up the famous professor, who was coming to town from another Ivy League campus to give a distinguished lecture.
The famous professor immediately recognized me. I had applied to his program the year before, from Toronto, and been accepted but had chosen instead to come to New Jersey to complete my studies. He revealed that my rejection of his program’s offer had taken the faculty aback somewhat. They had assumed I would join them. Their program was more famous and cutting-edge than Princeton’s was, and anyone who rejected them, he hinted, must be a fool. I muttered something about needing a fellowship to survive, but he belabored the topic, bragging and shaking his head in disbelief at my folly. Finally, in a rare moment of self-assertion, I pushed back.
“You know,” I said. “You won’t remember this, but I applied to your program once before, three years ago, from my home in New Mexico. You turned me down. I’m still the same person now that I was then.”
He leaned over and put his hand on my arm.
“Listen, Tim,” he said, lowering his voice, even though we were alone in the car. “We can’t let people like that into our programs. We don’t even know them. Who are their teachers? We don’t even know those people.”
The conversation was soul crushing. I came from one of the poorest and most isolated spots in one of the poorest states in the country. All I could think of were my college friends, from similar backgrounds, who had wanted to go to graduate school and who, despite excellent grades and laudable ambition, couldn’t get into top programs. My friends were the ones my guest had just called “people like that.”
This painful encounter with the bleak snobbery of elite education has been much on my mind in recent months. Since the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in university admissions, the question of who studies where has been much discussed. Most selective colleges have already moved away from required standardized testing, and some private universities are even rethinking the baleful tradition of legacy admissions for undergraduates, on the assumption that this will result in a fairer admissions process. Recent research by the Opportunity Insights group at Harvard University, featured in The New York Times, has shown that the mere fact of family wealth vastly improves one’s chances of being admitted to an elite college.
Yet none of these conversations adequately addresses the situation of the humanities. For students in the humanities, the career trajectory is more complicated than it is in many other fields. The move from undergraduate study to professional success is less direct than it is in the sciences, engineering or the social sciences. Students who want to pursue careers in the humanities—as professors, researchers, archivists, librarians, journalists, curators or even lawyers—inevitably have to move from the B.A. through some type of graduate study. For these students, the crucial juncture in their career paths isn’t where they go to college: it’s where they go to graduate school. This means that the current debates over access and fairness in university admissions miss a pivotal link.
My employer, the University of California, has worked hard over recent decades to diversify its undergraduate population. It proudly—and rightly—showcases the successes of racial minority students and those coming from modest economic backgrounds or immigrant families. Yet, how well do graduate programs in the humanities and arts serve these communities? My observation and research suggest they don’t do a very good job at all.
Some of my impressions are anecdotal. When I began teaching at UC Berkeley, several decades ago, the humanities departments in which I was appointed (three in number) and where I often helped out with feedback on applications (another three or four) routinely admitted new graduate students from a wide variety of undergraduate institutions, ranging from other UCs to public research universities, exclusive private institutions to small liberal arts colleges. In recent years I have noticed that the range of students we admit has become much narrower.
To test out my impressions, I recently began developing a data-based picture of our arts and humanities applicant pool, and, more important, of the institutions where successful applicants for graduate study did their undergraduate work. I requested data on graduate admissions at three top University of California campuses, including my own. I wanted to know where applicants to our graduate programs apply from and who gets in. I received stacks of figures, going back several years.
If you care about fairness and education, it makes for depressing reading. For example, in the application pool for the 2018–19 academic year, the students admitted to Berkeley’s excellent graduate humanities and arts programs were overwhelmingly from elite private undergraduate institutions: out of 79 who applied to Berkeley from other campuses in the UC system with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, only five were admitted. Berkeley, of course, did better than the other UCs, as nine of 43 UCB applicants were successful.
Our sister system, the California State University system, which often feeds the top UCs with excellent undergraduate transfers, generated 41 applications for graduate humanities study. One student was admitted. Among 26 applicants from the Cal State system who already had master’s degrees (and who were, thus, presumably somewhat more experienced and better prepared, a bit as I was when I moved to Princeton), only one was admitted.
Further afield, the record was just as bad. Out of 70 applications from students who earned undergraduate degrees at eight top flagship state universities around the country—the Universities of Colorado at Boulder, Michigan at Ann Arbor, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Texas at Austin, Virginia, Washington at Seattle, Wisconsin at Madison and the State University of New York at Binghamton—only six were admitted to graduate school at Berkeley in the arts and humanities in 2018–19.
By contrast, if you went to Yale University (current tuition $64,700) your chances of being admitted to graduate study in the humanities at Berkeley in 2018–19 were about one in two. Applicants from Brown (current tuition $65,000 plus) had just over a one-in-three chance of admission. While it’s true that applicants from some Ivies did strike out (one Ivy had zero admits out of eight applicants in 2018–19, and another had zero of nine), applicants from Harvard University (tuition $54,000 plus) went about one in three, with five of 16 applicants gaining admission. One private Midwestern liberal arts college, Kenyon (tuition roughly $69,000), sent five applicants, of which three were accepted.
My reading of the data from subsequent years revealed a situation more or less commensurate with the 2018–19 crop of applications I’ve just described. Of course, there were variations in the application pool: a year later, in 2019–20, Yale did worse, while Stanford University and Swarthmore College (roughly $62,000 tuition in both cases) did better, with 50 and 40 percent admit rates, respectively. But the contrast between expensive private colleges and public universities remained stark. Top public state universities were present but did not fare particularly well: the eight flagships mentioned above collectively placed nine out of 54 applicants. Several UC campuses were shut out completely—including UC Riverside, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz— and the Cal State system placed one student out of 36 who applied.
The data I received from UC Los Angeles was less finely grained than the data from Berkeley, precluding this level of analysis; however, my scan of bios of graduate students posted on four departmental websites revealed that enrollments in some humanities departments seem tilted toward alumni of private colleges, while others, refreshingly, are more balanced between publics and privates.
Meanwhile, my look at data from UC Irvine suggests that their humanities departments, compared to those at Berkeley, were more open to graduates from the Cal State system (with nine admits out of 44 applicants in 2020); also in 2020, Irvine’s graduate humanities programs accepted six total students from the UC campuses beyond Berkeley, UCLA and its own. Meanwhile, applicants from Johns Hopkins, Princeton and Yale Universities enjoyed a 50 percent admit rate, and those hailing from the University of Chicago had a 100 percent admit rate (though it’s worth noting the number of students applying from each of these institutions was small, at just two each).
Writers about university admission patterns often tiptoe around the topic of who gets into graduate school, on the assumption, I suppose, that this is a confidential matter, a matter of professional judgment. And of course, as we know, every candidate is different and every department is different. Certainly, it’s easy to object—“Of course the Ivy Leaguers all get in; they are the best!” Yet no one who has taught in a top public university (or in the Ivy League, as I have) seriously believes that students from elite private undergraduate institutions are uniformly better. They are simply slicker, more polished, at home in the jargon.
Thus there is a blind spot in the national conversation about higher education, the humanities and diversity. Whatever elite humanities programs may understand when they say, “diversity,” in the area of graduate study, it doesn’t appear to include economic diversity, since elite institutions overwhelmingly favor the wealthy. The broader implications of this situation for public universities are worth considering. The striking exclusion of public university applicants—“people like that”—from programs at universities like Berkeley means that a public resource is increasingly placed in the hands of students from private school backgrounds. When faculty in public universities complain about the privatization of the university, this fact isn’t usually what they have in mind. But perhaps it should be.
The reasons for the disfavoring of public university graduates are not hard to fathom. The unremitting pressure on public university budgets, the downsizing of graduate humanities programs and the pressure placed on the arts and humanities in a difficult job market may lead graduate admissions committees, understandably, to offer their limited admission slots and few fellowships to “safe” students who they know are well trained—that is, to students already in positions of privilege. And while the Ivy League student may be excellent, she already enjoys the resources that a top-quality graduate education aims to provide—access to excellent faculty, training in sophisticated critical thinking, opportunities for research abroad, etc. The applicant from a Cal State or a land-grant college likely does not have those advantages. Those students whose lives would be dramatically changed by access to advanced training in the humanities are being shut out. This is an unspoken feature of debates about educational opportunity.
It matters that the imbalances I’ve been describing come about in the arts and humanities. These are fields that, almost by definition, study hierarchies of value—from the critique of aesthetic judgment to the constitution of canons of reading. Many STEM fields rely heavily on numerical criteria and other types of measurement to judge applications. The humanities are about discernment. And the failure of humanities faculty to discern the social hierarchies facilitated by their programs constitutes a failure of intellectual imagination. For the social hierarchies that shape the field, we now know, are deeply inflected by economic privilege. The formula is clear: to get into a top program, you should go to an elite college. To go to an elite college, you should arrange to come from a wealthy family.
At Princeton, I was a clerical error, an exception. Whether the traditions of exclusion evoked by the famous professor at universities like his have changed in recent years, I can’t say. I doubt it. But, either way, one can at least urge top universities to admit more public university students for graduate study in the humanities, and one can urge one’s colleagues to wake up to the broader social implications of their choices for admission to their programs. Such openness is crucial to the diversification of the professoriate, and to any claims we might make about the relevance or public mission of our work.
My encounter with the famous professor ended without drama. Following his expression of scorn for “those people”—the public school kids whom his elite program could not see its way to admit—he seemed to sense that he had leaked one of the state secrets of the meritocracy. After all, he was sitting next to a desert rat who had somehow slipped past the gatekeepers. So he softened his tone. He followed up his comment with a gentle expression of interest in my own trajectory.
“So, you went to the University of New Mexico,” he said. “Now that’s interesting. Is that the one in Tucson or the one in Phoenix?”