The US National Science Foundation has changed a rule for their Graduate Fellowships. As of next year, grad students can only make one attempt at landing a graduate fellowship, which is intended to increase the proportion of awards going to undergraduates.
The last time I wrote about NSF Grad Fellowships, I was critical about the fact that awarded fellowships (and presumably the applicants) are heavily skewed to students who did undergraduate work in elite private institutions and public research universities. My criticism got a lot more attention than a more constructive post, with seven ideas to help improve the situation. NSF didn’t take my recommendations, of course, but they have made a change that they claim will help fix the Diversity Problem.
I’ll let NSF speak for themselves:
GRFP continues to identify and to inspire the diverse scientists and engineers of the future, and especially encourages women, members of underrepresented minority groups, persons with disabilities, and veterans to apply. This change in eligibility should result in more individuals applying as undergraduate students who have not yet made the commitment to go to graduate school. This is a more diverse population than admitted graduate students.
Is this a Good Thing? I say yes. Is it, as NSF would say, Transformational? I say no.
Here’s my reasoning, which is just a couple-hours fresh, so comments and insights from others are quite welcome.
A lot of NSF Grad Fellowships are going to students who are already enrolled in very good PhD programs. Nearly all of these students have received reassurances from their PhD advisor and graduate program that they are going to get five years of solid support, presumably from teaching or other grants.
Grad students who get NSF fellowships are already doing okay. And nearly all of them are going to get their PhD. In this model, fellowships go to people who are already doing well, so that they can do even better. That’s not a bad thing, of course. But if NSF is pretending that their graduate fellowships are changing the ethnic and socioeconomic composition of the population of students in grad school, this old approach isn’t going to accomplish that goal.
Who is getting hurt by this rule change? PhD students.
Who is getting helped by this? Undergraduates, some of whom might not yet have been admitted to PhD programs.
The folks that I’ve seen complaining about the rule change are annoyed because their PhD students are less likely get awarded. The people who I haven’t seen rejoicing are the undergraduates that NSF is targeting with this rule change. That’s because they don’t have the megaphone and many aren’t informed about how they can land federal funding.
The way that research institutions are recruiting minority applicants right now, they actually aren’t really helping to increase diversity. How can that be?
The “diversity problem” isn’t going to get fixed by finding the most highly prepared students that have managed to persist despite the system working against them, what Yale calls “low-hanging fruit.” I guess they must not be familiar with Billie Holiday.
Minority students are experiencing a lot of disadvantages compared to students attending Primarily White Institutions. Disadvantaged students are coming from disadvantaged institutions. If we are actually going to truly diversify, and have scientists in the US represent the breadth of the American experience, that means we have to start training scientists from the institutions where the undersupported are going to school.
Why is this rule change not enough? This:
And, not only do many undergrads not know NSF Graduate Fellowships, but the undersupported minority students that NSF wants to recruit into doctoral programs don’t have the faculty and institutional support structures to help them compete against overrepresented groups.
Undergrads in Small Liberal Arts Colleges (SLACs), which are well known for making the most PhD students, will have faculty advisors spending time with them on their applications, lots of individualized research experiences, and probably a campus office to help them package together their applications.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with a not-small number of exceptional undergraduates that have the potential to do very well in grad school and beyond. And they want to go to grad school. But let me tell you how hard it is to get them into a good lab. Even PIs who think highly of my own work are very reluctant to take my students into their labs, because they know that my students went to CSU Dominguez Hills instead of a more impressive institution. The fact that they go here is a black mark on their records. Seriously. You know this. Nobody comes out and speaks about this institutional bias overtly, but it’s there. And my students have experienced it time and again. These students might not have a record that is not as uniformly impressive as someone from a SLAC or an R1 lab, for the obvious socioeconomic and social capital reasons. But they have the same goddamn research potential. The people who work with my students know this.
Just imagine if these students, who aren’t getting into grad school because of all of these systemic biases, had NSF fellowships? Then a lot of labs would take them in, partly because of the money and also because of the imprimatur that comes with the award.
As commenters on my original post were wise to point out, it’s not just a selection problem, it’s a recruitment problem. Limiting graduate applicants is a small tweak to the recruitment situation, but won’t vastly change the minority composition of undergraduate applicants.
So, NSF, what’s next? How are you going to change the application and review procedure to help level the paying field for minority undergraduates who are getting less support than students at Primarily White Institutions? Making it institution-blind would be a start, so that reviewers aren’t biased by “better” undergraduate institutions. Also, NSF could make sure that students get notified about the awards before most departments make decisions about who is going to be in their programs. Which often happens in the early spring. That would help the people who get the awards the chance to land the lab that is best for them, which might be one that wouldn’t be willing to take them without an NSF fellowship.
Is there a chance that there will be more funding for outreach so that undergrads in this minority demographic that you’re targeting will be learning about how to apply and maybe even get some support in developing their applications? (Probably not, I’m guessing, since NSF is saying one reason they did this was to get fewer applications. But to increase diversity, that will probably mean trying to get more applications from the population you’re targeting, right?)
Zen Faulkes was quicker to the trigger in writing up his initial take on the rule change. One of his major recommendation was changing who the reviewers are. Yup.
If I have a massive change-of-mind in the coming weeks, I’ll be sure to update this post. In the meanwhile, I thought I’d get this viewpoint out there because some people think this is a Bad Thing and wanted to contextualize it from the perspective of a professor in a disadvantaged institution working to put minority students into grad school.