In a closed-door meeting on Nov. 5, Yale University President Peter Salovey admitted to students of color, “We failed you … I think we have to be a better university. I think we have to do a better job.”
Protests over racism at Yale prompted this meeting and all but eclipsed a major announcement that week: administrators there had approved unprecedented funds -- $50 million -- to diversify their faculty.
Few universities can match Yale’s investment, but almost all need the change that Yale seeks. Even at flagship universities of ethnically diverse states like Texas and Florida, people of color make up less than 25 percent of the teaching force. It’s in part a supply problem. Only 26 percent of doctorate recipients are black, Latino/a, Native American, or Asian-American, and their share is even lower in the highly ranked Ph.D. programs from which colleges and universities like to recruit faculty.
To increase racial diversity in the professoriate, we need to build the pool of Ph.D.s of color, and that means confronting barriers in the graduate admissions process. As admissions season ramps up and the U.S. Supreme Court debates Fisher v. University of Texas, the timing to do so is ideal.
First, the obvious question: Is bias a barrier? A recent field experiment found the answer may well be yes. Faculty members were less likely to hit reply when email inquiries from prospective advisees had names that suggested they were Indian, Chinese, Latino, African-American and/or female. And when professors did reply, it took them longer. If racism can creep into these early interactions, then those responsible for admissions and recruitment should take steps to avert the risk.
The public policy that governs admissions presents barriers, too. State affirmative-action bans have reduced graduate and professional-level enrollments in several fields of study, including medicine. These findings are especially important as the Supreme Court again weighs evidence in Fisher. The equivalent of a nationwide ban on race-conscious admission hangs in the balance, and if implemented, it would likely decimate the already small professoriate of color.
Finally, the admissions process creates its own barriers. I witnessed that firsthand through a major study of doctoral admissions that I recently completed. It involved two years of fieldwork with 10 highly ranked doctoral programs in three well-known research universities. I had the privilege of observing admissions committees deliberate in a variety of disciplines, and I interviewed 68 thoughtful professors who were charged with reviewing applications.
Overrelying on Scores and Pedigrees
Despite their good intentions to increase diversity, broadly defined, admissions work was laced with conventions -- often rooted in inherited or outdated assumptions -- that made it especially hard for students from underrepresented backgrounds to gain access.
From philosophy to physics, nine out of 10 committees made the first cut of their large, highly qualified applicant pools through race-neutral or “colorblind” methods. Some did so by requirement; for others, it was voluntary. The common standard at this point consisted of very high GRE scores and very high grades, ideally from tough classes and a name-brand college or university.
A sociologist summed up the process: “First you have to be above a bar. Then we can ask the diversity question.” In using this sequence, many believed they were achieving a standard of “pure merit,” as one economist called it.
In principle, race neutrality means excluding race from the criteria on which students are judged. But in practice, it can be much more powerful than that. I saw how colorblind admissions could effectively shut down any discussion of race or ethnicity -- even that which is well within the law, such as GRE scores’ uneven distributions by race.
Ironically, colorblind review made professors myopic. When they failed to see race, they also failed to see that the bar they set to reduce the pool had much to do with diversity, even if they did not actively ask “the diversity question.”
The priorities I observed are consistent with national trends. In the most comprehensive study available, two of the three strongest predictors of graduate school admission were high composite GRE scores and degrees from selective institutions. However, black and Latino students’ odds of enrolling in the most selective undergraduate institutions are declining over time, relative to white and Asian students. And a recent analysis in Nature concluded that the median quantitative GRE score in American physics programs (700, or 166 on the new scale) eliminated almost all black, Latino, and Native American test takers and about 75 percent of female test takers. However, it retained 82 percent of white and Asian-American test takers.
Heavy reliance on high GRE scores and college pedigree thus systematically excludes some of the very groups that an institution’s diversity commitment implies they wish to attract -- people who might rise to the top in later rounds of review. This apparently neutral, even desirable, criterion carries disparate impact.
U.S. courts have not yet considered whether using admissions criteria with disparate impact constitutes unlawful discrimination (as it does in South Africa), but they have taken up similar questions in employment law. The Fifth Circuit Court ruled the consideration of age in determining pay to be constitutional only when implemented for the purpose of "business necessity."
Is selecting students with very high GRE scores a matter of business necessity for graduate programs? It’s hard to make the case with current research. In a recent ETS study, only 43 percent of graduate students in biology departments with combined GRE scores in the top quartile also earned first-year grades in the top quartile. Correlations between GRE scores and first-year grades meet levels that testing proponents hold up as statistically significant and skeptics dismiss as practically insignificant. And the test poorly predicts longer-term outcomes, such as graduation and time to degree.
A Standard of Pure Merit?
It’s time for professors to acknowledge the GRE’s limits and put scores in their proper place. Setting high cut scores and reading scores devoid of context not only undermines diversity. It runs contrary to ETS directives and promotes a false sense of security in admissions investments.
Make no mistake: when the admissions committees that I studied reviewed their short lists, merit meant something very different than it did when they made the initial cut. Only in one case -- a student dubbed “freaking genius” for his perfect Harvard grades and perfect GRE scores -- was conventional achievement sufficient to secure an admissions offer. More often, admitted students had “interesting,” “unique” or “cool” profiles rooted in personal or professional experience. One committee excitedly moved to admit a retired CIA operative, a contributor to a hip magazine and the department’s first-ever applicant from Malaysia. They mockingly compared a solid Midwestern student to a Ford: “He’s everything you look for and nothing you weren’t expecting.” They rejected many accomplished students from China.
Indeed, judgment of students from Asian countries, especially China, reflected a common exception to the norm of colorblind review. A linguist stated it bluntly: “If a kid from China does not have essentially perfect GRE scores … they’re regarded as probably brain-dead.” Professors attributed high scores of students from China to a test preparation industry that is a “well-developed machine” and “second to none in the world.” They mused openly about suspicions of rampant cheating. Memories loomed large of students who arrived on campus with terrible English skills.
President Salovey wasn’t talking about graduate admissions when he acknowledged Yale had “failed” students of color. But he might as well have been -- and many other top university leaders could say the same -- so wide is the gap between diversity rhetoric and usual means of identifying academic talent.
To “do a better job” educating college students means not only taking a strong stand against overt forms of racism on campuses. We also need to see the subtle ways that racial inequalities are institutionalized in standard operating procedures and the ideals of “pure merit” through which college students become graduate students and graduate students become professors.
Julie R. Posselt is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan and a fellow with the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation. Her book, Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, is now available from Harvard University Press.
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