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.