Inside Graduate Admissions

Fenster writes:

A new book takes a look at the admissions process in graduate schools.  It’s Inside Graduate Admissions by Julie Posselt.

And here’s an article about the book from Inside Higher Education.

And further commentary from the insightful Megan McArdle.

Most of the furor over admissions in the United States concerns undergraduate admissions.  More specifically: undergraduate admissions at highly selective colleges.  Most colleges are not all that selective, or selective at all, and most of the hand-wringing over questions like holistic criteria, merit or the benefits of diversity do not apply.  Graduate admissions, even at prestige programs, has been terra incognita.

Admissions is as a general matter a black box proposition–you can see what comes out but you don’t get to see how the sausage was made.  That’s true for undergraduate admissions, where the fate of college seniors is often in the hands of twenty-something staff people, and it’s true for graduate admissions, where the fate of potential scholars is in the hands of faculty sitting in judgment.

Given the black box, Posselt’s method is simplicity itself: listen.  It has been said of public service that you can learn a lot about it just by listening to the people who practice it.  That applies here as well, to faculty involved with graduate admissions.  This straightforward approach, mostly unencumbered by theory, is often the right method to use when looking at something for the first time.  It would be wrong-headed to bring too much ideology or too many hypotheses to black box situations.  Start by listening.  There’s ample time to generate hypotheses after getting a sense of the meaning of things as understood by participants.

That does not mean people should always be taken at face value, to say nothing of the fact that even when carefully listened to people can often appear unfathomable.  But wisdom starts in listening.

What does Posselt hear?

For me the picture that emerges is one of serious scholars who have a hard time balancing their commitment to their field with the demands of their ideological commitments, and in the face of defects in other parts of the higher education world.

Graduate programs are a lot smaller than undergraduate programs and they can be more uncompromising.  There’s less room for error.  And since the process is run by actual faculty rather than callow youth there is an honest sense of obligation to the field that runs through deliberations.

That extends to a heavier reliance on GRE scores than would ordinarily be considered correct.  In part, such a reliance reflects a recognition on the part of faculty that grade inflation and related factors have worked to corrupt academic quality at the undergraduate level.  How much can you trust that 3.8 average, even from a prestige undergraduate school?

Graduate admissions is also where the rubber hits the road on diversity and quality.  Faculty clearly care about diversifying their institutions and their fields–but at what cost?  Highly talented minority candidates are highly prized and as a result possess leverage to move up the quality scale in terms of institutional reputation.  Where does this leave the very-good-but-not great graduate department?  The minority candidates it would select decamp to the next level up and there is some hesitancy at accepting what are perceived to be candidates of lower quality.

This does not render faculty in graduate admissions total realists.  The Force is strong in higher education, and it will come out.

(Posselt) describes one discussion she observed — in which committee members kept to this approach — that left her wondering about issues of fairness.

The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.

“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”

The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”

Other committee members defended her, but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics. One noted that the college had a good reputation in the humanities. And another said that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking.

As McArdle puts it “academics are so lefty they don’t even see it.”

This seems to go not only for the faculty that Posselt observes but probably for her as well.  In the end, Posselt emerges from her encounters with a call for . . . a more holistic approach to graduate admissions.

While admissions leaders constantly talk about the value of holistic admissions, Posselt said, it is rare to see up close just what that means. She saw much to admire, she said, in the devotion of faculty members to their disciplines and their intellectual traditions. And she believes holistic review has the potential to help graduate programs (and other parts of higher education) to identify and admit more minority talent.

But she also has worries. “If it’s not executed with care, it can lead to reproducing the status quo rather than seeking diversity,” she said.

If higher education is going to focus on holistic admissions to preserve affirmative action, Posselt said, admissions committees need to be open about what they value and consider whether those values should change.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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4 Responses to Inside Graduate Admissions

  1. agnostic says:

    These discussions always ignore the main problem, which is the volume of admissions rather than the selection process for how that volume got in out of the total volume of applicants.

    Faculty hem and haw, go back and forth, turn from joking to serious to joking again, all over the selection criteria.

    As for the matter of, “Should we admit 10 times as many applicants as will be able to use their degree to support a family?” — fuhgeddaboutit.

    The explosion in admissions — undergrad or grad — cheapens the value of the degree obtained, sends prices and therefore student debt through the roof (demand increases geometrically while supply only arithmetically or not at all — e.g., “spots at a top school”), and corrodes every sector of the economy due to collateral damage from the heightened intensity of combat among degree-holders striving to get a job.

    We don’t hear about the discussions on this main problem because there is no disagreement, conflict, or drama among the faculty. They’re all 100% agreed to admit huge numbers in a pyramid scheme (get a degree, and one day you too can earn a living from other degree-seekers paying tuition). They’re frank and cynical about the whole thing — as well as having no intention of ever exiting the job market themselves. Did we forget to mention that when you applied?

    This distraction stuff about selection criteria is just shower nozzle masturbation material for those who have invested a large amount of their persona-crafting energies into associating with academia.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fenster says:

      Very good point about non-attention to supply and demand. I have put in for the book and will see if that shows up anywhere in it. It certainly did not show up in the articles, which emphasized the criteria side. I would be surprised if it did show up as something that occupied the attention of the faculty for the reasons you cite.

      That said, I would not go as far as saying questions of criteria are just shower nozzle masturbation material. Even if we are turning out too many doctorates, who gets a doctorate and what that means for society overall is more than a trifling question, even if you are not crazy about the nature of what passes as scholarship. The humanities can be kicked at for irrelevance for sure, but the sciences and other professional programs do have a real impact. Plus, the book deals with graduate school and that includes masters programs as well as doctorates. The issues you cite of too many scholars chasing too few jobs is much more acute at the doctoral level. Who gets to have an MBA is not inconsequential.


  2. peterike says:

    My main beef with higher ed are the enormous numbers of foreign students they let in. I could live with all the affirmative action nonsense and Liberal politics if they at least maintained some bit of nationalism in admissions. This is especially true at the top tier schools. Face it, a seat at MIT or Harvard for grad school is a hyper-valuable commodity, and the real “product” there is the person who graduates. Why do we give thousands of these seats out to foreigners, who either will take jobs from Americans or, even worse, go take their valuable knowledge and go back to their countries with it, only to use it to compete against us.

    I fully understand that this point of view would be mocked and derided at 99% of our universities, but it really burns me up. Trump should put into his platform that he would block foreign students from attending American universities, even if just for the fun of watching university Presidents lose their minds.


    • Fenster says:

      Trump may be making the world safe again for thinking in nationalistic terms and you are right that this could well extend to higher education, and also that it would (will?) be fiercely resisted.


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