This fits my experience so so well. I am first gen American, started at community college, transferred to a good public university and struggled but ultimately graduated with a 3.2 GPA and did OK on GREs. Had zero “social capital” (and had no idea what that was). I was lucky to have a TA (PhD student) who took me under her wing and had me volunteer in her lab a few hours a week and an excellent professor in my last quarter who informed me about internships and helped me secure one specifically targeting minority students (and it was paid!). Anyhow, after gaining a lot of experience though field jobs , I applied and was rejected from many PhD programs and ended up going to a small CSU, racking up student loans and working full time while getting my Master’s. I then applied to one of the better ecology programs with excellent letters of reference and was flatly denied. Again, luckily I had a greater supervisor at a govt agency who was very supportive and together we published a couple of manuscripts. I re-applied to that same ecology programs and was offered a multi-year fellowship (no TAing, no RAing). The only difference in my application was the publications. Now that I am in the program, I look around at a sea of white faces and most of them I have come to find out are straight out of undergrad, no pubs, very little experience, just great grades and test scores and a lot of social capital and opportunity (paid internships, semester at a field station, paid field methods courses, etc) . What a load of crap.
Why not go ahead and re-read those last two sentences, which I put in italics for emphasis. (I’ll wait.)
Let me tell you, and please, if you haven’t spent a lot of time at a non-prestigious regional state university, I’m asking you to trust me on this: This is the default.
This is so fucking common. This is what happens to our students all of the time. It makes me heartsick and it’s the daily reality for my students. And to think there are some people out there who don’t even believe it’s true. Especially people who are running graduate programs.
The bar for minority students at regional state universities is absurdly higher than the bar for white students attending universities with impressive reputations. This is caused by an amalgam of unconscious and conscious biases, fed by the illusion that students in more prestigious universities are there because of a meritocracy.
(Huh, the wikipedia page on Structural Inequality in Education is actually quite detailed, though a bit dry.)
I’ve been the beneficiary of these structural inequities. My parents were able to pay for me to attend a high school that was populated primarily by wealthy kids. (I was on a need-based scholarship, but that only paid maybe 20% of the cost.) This helped me land my way into a well-regarded small liberal arts college. Halfway through my senior year, I had an epiphany that I should go to grad school in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
I had a 3.1 GPA and no research experience at all. I did spend a lot of time in the lab of a mentor. I read a ton of journal articles, was narrowing down my interests, and the year after I graduated I made a full time job of hitting the pavement to contact professors who might be potential graduate advisors. I was hoping I could get into a Master’s program somewhere in California. I ended up getting into every MS program I applied to (a couple of which would have given me funding) and a few PhD programs. I was kinda stunned, because I didn’t think my record was good enough.
Students working with me now tend to have similar, or higher, GPAs. And tremendous research experience. And some with publications. And are highly conversant in their research interests. But there are a lot of things conspiring against their route to graduate school, and they aren’t accessing the prestigious labs and universities that would benefit from having them. The forces that facilitated my route into grad school are working against my own students.
Let me spell those out the advantages that led me into a graduate program, and compare them to most of the students who have been in my lab in the last several years.
- One of my summer jobs in college was working as a technician in a clinical immunology lab. How did I get that job? The student who had the job the year earlier set me up with it. He was a high school friend of mine, whose dad was a doctor. My students don’t have friends landing them decent-paying jobs in scientific environments. They are working retail, waiting tables, tending bar, or other things that don’t say “science” on a CV. A couple students have tutored on campus.
- I was able to spend all of my time applying to grad school. After I graduated, I lived rent-free at my parents’ house, and I did a few temp jobs here and there, but still had a set of (bad) wheels, food, and housing covered. My students don’t have that option at all. They can’t just drop everything to dot every i and cross every t while applying to grad school.
- The small liberal arts college I attended (Occidental) banks on its reputation for sending its students into top-notch professional and graduate programs. They had a trained person on payroll to help you with your applications and help you with your statements. I had a close professional relationship with several of my professors, which is really hard to develop at a regional state university if you don’t end up in someone’s research lab. Which isn’t as easy to stumble upon.
- I went to a private high school that had a lot of rich kids, and I learned how to fit in with higher-income people, and only figured this out better during college. There are so many subtle ways in which low-income folks have trouble fitting in with professors and graduate students. For an exhaustive list, check this out (and here’s the story about how this document came to exist. Be sure to check out the section on cultural and social capital.) The advantage of fitting in with middle-class folks is huge, especially when it comes to a campus visit. Which is, as you know, all about fit. My students have a ton of personal experience, but a lot of them aren’t comfortable making small talk with professors who they don’t know that well. Which is precisely how you get into grad school.
- When I wanted to get into some graduate programs, I was flown out a couple times. But I also took it upon myself to go on a big road trip, down to San Diego to Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and the Bay Area. I was able to do this because I found the money to rent the car, had the friends from my private college who could give me a place to crash, and I didn’t have a job to lose by taking the two weeks to go on this trip. If I suggested to my students that they take a 2-week road trip to Colorado and back while visiting prospective labs, they’d ask, “And how is this going to be paid for? And where will I stay? And do I just call up the professors I want to visit?”
- I’m white man. When applying to grad schools, professors are biased to give preference towards people like me. Few of my students are white, and the majority are women, so these are yet more things going against them.
- Institutional prestige. There isn’t any reason to think that the education offered at more expensive or more elite institutions is any better than less prestigious schools that don’t have broad name recognition. Students over at UCLA or up at USC aren’t learning more or better than students at CSU Dominguez Hills. But the identity of this institution is huge during the admissions process for grad school. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people judging students on the basis of where they went to college. I know of students applying for NSF graduate fellowships who have gotten dinged in reviews for attending a low-quality university. There was a twitter conversation at the time, and several folks reported this. It isn’t just a one-off thing. You know that my students are at a disadvantage purely because of where they are going to school. It’s no secret. This kind of institutional bias is baked into academia. Why is it unfair to judge a person on the basis of where they went to college? Because they got there because of the opportunities provided to them before that time. It has almost nothing to do with smarts, and clearly nothing to do with research potential.
Did I deserve to get into grad school? Well, maybe. I guess. But if that’s true, then there’s a lot of people who deserve to get in who aren’t getting in. Because they just didn’t have the structural advantages like I did.
I think these structural challenges are explained well by Michelle Obama, in the commencement address at Tuskegee University:
The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns. They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser. They don’t know that part of you.
Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.
And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough.
Yesterday on twitter, I shared a link to the comment at the top of this post, which made the rounds. I heard from a lot of folks who had similar experiences. And there are people out there working to make change and to educate. For example, check out the Unconscious Bias Project, out of UC Berkeley. This looks like a spectacular effort.
I think folks really underestimate the strength of this bias against students from regional public universities. I’m getting tired of being R1splained by folks on graduate admissions committees at PhD granting institutions who don’t really think of me as an academic peer. Who need to explain why they’re doing all they can, and now it’s my job to prepare my students better. The thing is, my students are prepared. They don’t have as much polish as middle-class white guys like myself who have been given advantages from the get-go, but they’re ready. But when do you do the side-by-side comparison, using the traditional template, the cumulate weight of biases and inequities kicks in, and first-gen and minority students get screwed over on a regular basis.
Do you have story about getting into grad school, or not getting into grad school, and how your background was an unfair impediment?