Elite vs. disadvantaged institutions, and NSF Graduate Fellowships: a peek inside the mailbag


I’ll be soon be sharing specific ideas about what can be done about the disadvantages experienced by talented students who attend non-prestigious undergraduate institutions. But first, I thought it would be useful for me to share how this topic has affected my inbox.

I barely get any email related to this site. Aside from the site stats, and some interactions on twitter, I wouldn’t have any other indicator about readership. So when I receive the occasional email related to this site, it stands out.

In relative terms, I got several metric tons of emails about last week’s post about NSF graduate fellowships.

I did not write this post to push people’s buttons – I wrote it to point out some obvious facts to people who don’t face these obvious facts as a part of their day-to-day job. (That’s why this blog was created.) Entitled people are entitled; disadvantaged people are disadvantaged. Academia is not as much a meritocracy as those who are in a position to select based on merit imagine it is. And NSF focuses heavily on broadening participation in its mission, but their graduate fellowships aren’t a big part of that. Apparently, that last fact ended up pushing a lot of buttons.

I think there’s a lot to be learned about our community from thinking about these emails, and the motivations behind the people who wrote them. I received an equivalent measure in each of the following four categories:

1. Gratitude. People representing all kinds of academic demographic groups wrote to me to just thank me for taking the time to write the post to call attention to this serious problem. Your positive feedback counts a lot. Thanks so very much.

2. Requests for advice. A number of people – graduate students and faculty at major research institutions – asked for specific ideas and recommendations to improve the subway between underfunded public universities and doctoral programs. I shared some ideas – and have more to share – but also recognized the fact that many of us know exactly what needs to be done, but it requires resources that are not being allocated. A lot of resources. It’s a systemic problem, and patchwork fixes are, well, just small patches.

3. Personal stories. These were eye-opening emails. Some stories were from grad students who had recently left their underfunded public universities. They explained how a lucky opportunity allowed access to graduate school, and how they realize that success should be predicted by ability and hard work, it’s that is not the case because of the stigma working against their undergraduate institutions. I also received emails from people who have served as panelists for NSF, who explained how they saw how institutional biases manifested during the discussion of applications. It’s now quite clear to me that some — if not many – panelists think that a high GPA from a highly-ranked university is more impressive than a high GPA from an underfunded public university. (There were some people who shared review snippets on social media, as well, but the emails were very stark about the matter. I can understand why people don’t want to come forward and report these incidents, which are downright appalling. I can’t imagine that the emails I received describe the only times this kind of thing has happened.) I realize that I’m often shielded from directly critical or minimizing remarks, because many people often are aware of my institutional affiliation when speaking to me. But when a panel is filled with research-institution types, then these biases are spoken more overtly. This, I learned from these emails. Thanks to those of you who shared with me.

I wrote this post thinking that the problem was not in reviewer bias, but in overall funding priorities. I went in thinking that reviewers did a great job delivering the charge delivered to them. But these stories definitely gave me the impression that the generally low opinion that scientists feel about universities like mine provides a very real and damaging drawback to our students. Our 3.9 students with stellar research records and have a major setback compared to with Ivy League 3.9 students with stellar research records. Even though our students with that record have gotten to where they are with a much greater quantity of perseverance, a quality that makes great scientists. I realize that other scientists look down on me as a researcher because of my institutional affiliation. I live with that lack of respect every day. Again, that’s why I made this blog. But I find myself newly surprised at how much our university’s lack of clout in the research community damages the prospects for our students, and I thought this kind of stuff wouldn’t surprise me anymore.

4. Paternalistic advice. I got a bunch of mail from white men just like myself. We all have well-paid permanent academic positions and a history of doing good science and student mentorship. The difference between me and the guys who wrote me is that they work at research institutions and run laboratories with doctoral students. These emails became very predictable. They had most of the following elements:

  • An explanation that I was looking at the wrong variables, because I wasn’t taking into account the number of applicants from each institution. Clearly, the disparity between Harvard and the CSU is probably merely because so few CSU students are applying!
  • A great concern about explaining why so few CSU students are applying, but scant concern about the underlying conditions that creates these circumstances.
  • A token expression of admiration for the work that I do, and a recognition that the conditions that I deal with at work are unfamiliar to them.
  • A detailed list explaining the reasons why students who do their undergraduate work at small liberal arts colleges and research institutions are better prepared for graduate school than those who attend CSUs.
  • A set of recommendations about what I and my colleagues in underfunded public unviersities should be doing to increase the preparation and fellowship application rates of our students. As if these things had not occurred to us.
  • Tips explaining what a funded proposal looks like, accompanied with the false tacit assumption that I haven’t written a sizeable number of funded NSF proposals.
  • An expression of the opinion that there is a huge social inequity, but there’s not much to be done about it by NSF, and that it’s more important to fund the best scientists rather than build an equitable scientific community.
  • An absolute lack of recognition of the bias embedded in above opinion.

If I wanted to engage in less substantial rhetoric, I could build a “bingo card,” but I think that would help to shut down the conversation with those who we need to change. I’m here to explain to people what we do, what are constraints are, and how change should and can happen. It’s a long haul. I think this blog has made a tiny little dent, but I’m still chipping away.

So, that’s the mail I got. It was quite educational.

10 thoughts on “Elite vs. disadvantaged institutions, and NSF Graduate Fellowships: a peek inside the mailbag

  1. “Panelists think that a high GPA from a highly-ranked university is more impressive than a high GPA from an underfunded public university”.

    What bothers me the most about this phenomenon (?) is the now well known issue with grade inflation at Harvard (and probably elsewhere). That’s a double whammy against those at underfunded universities.

  2. We have exactly the same situation in the UK, and also the grade inflation issue. At my former Research Intensive University the exam board was all about how to get more students above the First Class line (one of the selling points in UK universities is the number of students who attain Upper Second and First Class degrees. It is very refreshing now to be at a small specialist, more teaching oriented university, where at the exam board the decision to not promote to First Class is taken more often than the one to promote above the line.

  3. When I started playing drums at age 11, my parents couldn’t afford to buy me a nice kit so I scraped my $4 allowances together until I had enough to buy an old used one. It was pain fixing it up, and continuously making repairs to it as I practiced. However, I rapidly learned more about drums and became a better drummer than any of my friends whose parents had bought them top-of-the-line equipment.

    If you can play well on a bad kit, then you will be amazing on a good one. NSF grant reviewers should keep that in mind: students who excel at disadvantaged institutions will likely do better than anyone else when they get ahold of the right resources.

  4. Yikes! That “advice” from other researchers makes me think that they are more in the business of keeping things the way they are more than trying to get people from underrepresented groups into grad school.

    I’ll be applying to the nsf-grfp later this year-after finishing up a job in the fall. But now that I know I’ll be at a disadvantage coming from a small state U it makes me think it might be a waste of time. Thanks for posting this, at least now I know not to hope too much because the odds are stacked way against people who couldn’t afford private or out-of state schools (not that I think we should stop trying to apply for nsf-grfp).

    • It does seem clear that you might be facing bias in the panel, but don’t despair, because there are also some people who see otherwise, that thriving where you are is an indicator of even greater success! Also, I think the way the deck is really stacked against you is in the environment that doesn’t foster high application rates. It’s definitely worth a go! I honestly have no idea what the % success rate is for each kind of institution. It might be that by applying, you’ve already worked against the biggest barrier.

  5. Minor clarification regarding grade inflation: at most US institutions with grade inflation, the grade inflation primarily affects social-sciences and humanities, not sciences. In fact, one of the reasons that places have started instituting anti-inflation measures is to encourage more students to major in STEM fields. But it absolutely can affect the non-major GPA, so reviewers should keep in that mind.

    But the main point I wanted to make is that I think REU programs are in case for point for how NSF could do much better job at recruiting and awarding NSF fellowships to students from non-flagship public universities. If they really valued awarding NSF fellowships to students from non-flagship public universities, I bet the numbers would be a lot different. As a related example, my grad institution would admit many students from non-flagship public universities into the REU program and then not admit them for grad school, even though they did excellent research in the REU program. The graduate admissions committee seemed to think that excellent grades + research from a non-flagship public university counted for less, despite the students having –already demonstrated– that they could do awesome research at our institution. That was frustrating.

  6. Please keep chipping away. It’s people like you who made a difference. I would like also like to say thank you and keep going!

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