Play The Game, or Change The Rules?

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I feel a dilemma — or rather, a tradeoff — when I think about investing time, money, and effort into supporting undergraduates to gain admission to graduate programs.

On one hand, we all know that the system is rigged, such that students who come from whiter and wealthier backgrounds have a huge leg up. This starts at early (well, at birth). But I mostly intercept students at the university level. At this point, students who I work with already have the deck stacked against them, seen by some as Less Than Spectacular, simply because of where are attending college. Of course, that idea is a bunch of hooey, but that’s also what at lot of people think. (Did you know that the word “meritocracy” was originally developed as satire — a portmanteau of merit and aristocracy?) Since the system is rigged, that means we really need to equip our students with savvy and as much social capital as possible to succeed in the system as it is built. Right? Well, yes. At the level of supporting individuals, definitely, we need to navigate the system as it is built. Without a doubt. It would be a great disservice to our students if we are not preparing them succeed in the system that exists at this moment.

On the other hand, because the system is rigged, and we play by the rules of the system without attempting to change it, then we’re really just validating the status quo and reinforcing it by tacitly playing by its rules.

I think the reason why we’ve seen such little movement on the diversity front in STEM over the past few decades is because we keep trying to train students to play by the messed up rules, and we don’t put enough work into changing the system. The insidious dynamic here is that in training students, we may be inadvertently reinforcing a wall of exclusion, while building a small door for our own, who have access to the specialized resources we are providing.

In other words, what we’re doing is investing into preparing students that conform to a misinformed template of what a promising student looks like, rather than working to develop more equitable and accurate templates. Why should we have to train students to fit into academia as it looked like for decades, when we should be busy building an inclusive academia that looks like our students?

This sounds so abstract, so let’s discuss this matter of playing the game vs. fixing the game with some concrete examples.

An archetype of Playing The Game is the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars program. This program has existed for 30 years and is particularly known for highly preparing students from underrepresented groups for graduate school in STEM. This program is highly selective. This year’s cohort is 43 students, and their average high school GPA is 4.2, the average SAT Math score is 690 (I have no idea what percentile that is), and their average SAT Verbal score is… hmmm, that doesn’t seem to be reported.

The folks running the Meyerhoff Scholars program regard it to be big in size, they say, “The sheer magnitude of the program, with roughly 50 to 60 students in each incoming cohort, demonstrates that exceptional minority students are not an exception.”

As I was doing a bit of investigation for my post, this is the point where I dropped my jaw: The annual budget of the Meyerhoff program is $4.2 million. Looking at this given the number of participants, WOW. That’s a lot of resources focused on a small number of people.

As Science magazine puts it, “Meyerhoff is unapologetically elitist: It targets high-achieving students bent on an academic career.” In other words, this program selects people who are already likely to succeed, and then gives them additional resources and social capital to succeed even more. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in helping successful students have even greater successes. But, I do find it odd that this program is marketed as one designed to diversify STEM. It invests a huge amount of resources into a small number of people who are already doing quite well and are committed towards a career pathway in STEM. How is that expected to move the needle and increase representation? Because it’s preventing attrition?

But this is a thing that organizations are trying to replicate. Hmm. I think it’s awesome that resources are being put towards the goal of making higher ed more diverse. But these programs are not making higher ed more inclusive. It looks to me like they are reinforcing the barriers that are keeping members of minoritized communities out of STEM. I don’t think this is necessarily by design, but it appears to be a consequence. It is implicit in the design of these training programs that without all of this specialized support, that these students don’t have what it takes to succeed in STEM. That’s not a valid assumption. I think the shortcomings aren’t the research chops and the knowledge, but instead, all of the essential skills that are requires of minority scientists who might have a chance to get ahead in our primarily white disciplines.

The programs are designed to fix the students, but the real problem is us.

There are so many talented students who are ready to do research in grad school without the fine grooming of a program like Meyerhoff scholars. What they really need is a community that accepts and supports them, and some culturally responsive mentorship. We shouldn’t need massive programs to train non-white students to succeed in a white STEM world, instead we need the STEM world to change.

Approaches like the Meyerhoff Scholars Program are built on the deficit model, and are designed to build students up so that these deficits are repaired. But these perceived deficits are symptoms of the problematic environment in higher education. If these students have low confidence and are experiencing stereotype threat, that’s a product of the environment. If these students don’t have a mountain of research experience to get into grad school, that’s a system problem because institutions won’t accept them without having access to those opportunities. If these students aren’t getting in because they aren’t connected to prestigious institutions, that’s a problem because academics are inclined to use names of institutions as an indicator of excellence.

What are systemic approaches to supporting student success that don’t reinforce the deficit model of underrepresented STEM undergraduates? Hmmm. That’s a hard one.

The movement to drop the GRE requirement for graduate admissions is designed to remove harmful bias from the process. (Whether or not it would make a difference depends on whether the other aspects of evaluating candidates don’t have those same biases baked in, though, so I’m not hopeful, though I do think it’s a good start.)

When NSF altered the GRFP program so that graduate students could apply once instead of twice, that was designed to increase the fraction of awards going to undergraduates, because that’s a more diverse applicant pool. I suppose that’s example of a structural change that doesn’t reinforce biases.

When graduate programs and REU programs build partnerships with non-prestigious institutions to recruit students, that can work to minimize structural biases.

These are all very minor structural changes. If we’re trying to repair our institutions so that they aren’t designed to filter out people who aren’t well versed in the mores of academic culture, that’s a huge amount of money and a huge amount of labor. So instead, we just keep preparing students to weather through inhospitable environments, and hoping that some of them make it. And based on the cost of investment into programs like Meyerhoff, it’s clear it takes a lot of expertise and a lot of resources to create that set of mithril armor. But we can’t equip everybody that way. You’d have thought that we would have figured out that this isn’t working for everybody else by now. But a lot of folks are still thinking that the problem isn’t our academic communities, but instead is the deficiencies of the people we’re trying to recruit. We gotta fix ourselves.

Ultimately, there are some folks who think that Science is a thing that is best done by people whose performance on traditional metrics is on the narrow tail of the distribution. There are others who think that Science is for Everyone, and our scientific community may be more impactful if we go beyond the people who have been given the best opportunities. Programs like the Meyerhoff are looking to create the Best Opportunities for students from a population that typically has less access to opportunity. But at its heart, it’s designed to create an elite that has the best resources and the best opportunities. This ultimately facilities exclusivity, which sounds a lot like it runs counter to inclusivity.

When we’re grooming our students for success, we have to own the reality that they’re going to get ahead when folks look at their credentials and think they’re “elite.” But I wish we could do this without reinforcing the myth of meritocracy that reinforces our inequities.

4 thoughts on “Play The Game, or Change The Rules?

  1. We’ve been been thinking about similar issues lately. My thoughts on this in the context of graduate admissions in ecology: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2019/08/05/ask-us-anything-finding-ecology-phd-positions/

    The tl;dr summary that’s relevant in this context: I’ve seen defensible arguments against using the GRE in graduate admissions. And against using GPA. And against using reference letters. And against using research experience. And against using information prospective supervisors have gleaned from getting to know the prospective grad students who’ve contacted them. At which point we run into a problem: if we grant all those arguments, we have nothing on which to base admissions decisions, so presumably admissions decisions would have to be made via lottery. I’ve never seen anyone argue explicitly for graduate admissions lotteries, so I assume that few would want lotteries.

    So I guess my broad-brush, perhaps-unsatisfying answer here is that, when graduate admissions decisions have to be made (i.e. when there are more applicants than there are slots available), we should made those decisions thoughtfully and holistically, based on as many lines of information as we can get, doing our best to recognize the inevitable noise and biases in those various lines of information. And that in parallel with that, we should put resources into programs like the ESA’s SEEDs program, into the sorts of partnerships with URM-serving institutions that you’ve advocated for, into advertising available graduate opportunities widely and via various avenues, etc. And if none of that sounds particularly radical or revolutionary (it’s not), or likely to work instantly (it won’t), well, as you say the question is what else to do instead?

    One other small concrete suggestion: continue to move the ESA meeting around the country. Including continuing to sometimes meet in states that usually vote Republican in statewide and Presidential elections. Ecology students in all parts of the country should get a turn having an ESA meeting within a day’s drive, or at least a single-leg plane journey. So that they all get a turn to present their work, network, and attend career fairs and mentoring sessions. I don’t think the ESA would be promoting diversity in ecology by (say) meeting in Portland, OR every year.

  2. I think the key marker is being lucky enough to come from academically savvy families, who know how to navigate the system and who seek out and support high-quality academic opportunities for their kids. Although such families are more likely to be white or Asian, well-educated, and wealthy, there do exist academically savvy families who are none of those things. I’m willing to bet that this coincides exactly with who makes it into Meyerhoff.

    So to restate your observation, Meyerhoff takes students who have already received an enormous investment in their (conventional) academic success and dumps even more resources into them. This might be a reliable way to make your funding program look like a success, but it’s a terrible way to foster talent. Kids don’t pick their parents, and talent can show up anywhere.

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