The Global Search for Education (GSE) is a regular contributor to the Edmodo Blog. Authored by C.M. Rubin, GSE brings together distinguished thought leaders in education and innovation from around the world to explore the key learning issues faced by today’s nations. Look for a new post every week and join the Global Search for Education Community on Edmodo to share your perspectives with their editorial staff.
How do the admissions decision makers in U.S. Higher Education institutions decide which international graduate students get in? Is the process fair? How do the metrics used to assess Chinese applicants differ than those used to assess American students? Despite the fact that international students have driven the rising applications, enrollment and degrees awarded in US graduate education the practices and policies related to candidate selection have not received much media attention to date. Julie Posselt’s new book, Inside Graduate Admissions Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping (Harvard University Press Jan 2016), aims to change that by giving us a revealing behind the scenes look at the people who decide who gets in.
The Global Search for Education welcomes Julie Posselt. In my interview with Julie, she discusses the ambiguities surrounding the admissions review process for students based on her firsthand observations and interviews with admissions faculty in ten top-ranked US institutions – what she learned and what she recommends is done to improve student review and assessment.
You reveal that some programs might have different GRE standards for applications from different regions. What might this tell us about the process of graduate admissions as a whole?
Admissions is cognitively, professionally, politically fraught work that often happens after hours because the days are full this time of year. As one philosopher in the study put it, “This is hard work. We are competent, intelligent people doing our best.”
I did find that faculty calibrates international students’ GRE scores using what they know about national cultures of test preparation. Many assumed that applicants from China, in particular, would have had a lot of formal test preparation, given the country’s long history of the civil service examination and the powerful role of the gao kao for admissions today. As a result, they expected higher scores. To some degree, this is reasonable: students from China do have, on average, the highest GRE scores in the world.
When looking at American students’ files, most professors didn’t similarly contextualize GRE scores according to the educational opportunities or barriers a student had experienced. More commonly, professors formally or informally set a single and very high GRE score and/or GPA threshold for the purposes of initial review. They would then leave it to individual professors to advocate for students who might fall below that threshold. This little set of routines constitutes a serious blind spot for equal opportunity due to the deep inequalities in K-12 and undergraduate education. Graduate programs receive applicants after at least sixteen years in an educational system that stratifies at every level.
One important thing that this highlights about admissions as a whole is that merit, as an idea and standard for admission, is not monolithic or fixed. I’m persuaded that merit has to be malleable.
Should the metrics used to assess International applicants be different than those used to assess American students?
Graduate programs don’t have separate tracks for international and US students, so in that respect, the metrics used to evaluate prospective students should not be different. However, professors understandably worry about possible language barriers for students whose first language is not English, and their worries are particularly acute in departments that rely on graduate students to teach undergraduates and/or support faculty research. The TOEFL, personal statement, and interviews provide additional information about English language skill.
What do test results not tell admissions officers about international students? How did the officers you interviewed describe the challenges they face when trying to assess a candidate from these countries holistically?
When I asked my interviewees a standard question about what makes admissions hard, the most frequent response was the challenge of “incomplete information.” Two common responses concerned their uncertainty about the quality of many colleges and universities outside the US and the extent of GRE preparation an applicant has received. When interpreting an international student’s GRE score, faculty reviewers frequently drew upon what they knew about the culture of test preparation in a country. It was not uncommon for them to consult with colleagues outside of the committee to learn more about the quality of education that a student was likely to have received at undergraduate institutions with which they were unfamiliar.
What are the biggest obstacles in reforming the admissions practices of higher education institutions? Why is it so hard for them to make changes?
Inertia is a powerful force and, in the programs I observed, probably the primary obstacle to reforming admissions. The professors in my study and their departments were doing well by the standards of their fields, which made any change seem risky and unnecessary. Change also requires time and effort, two commodities they felt were in short supply.
A related barrier is that a commitment to collegiality–a true cornerstone of faculty culture– can ironically make professors averse to activities that might introduce disagreement. Change processes of any sort often require disagreement, and taking a fresh look at entrenched ideas about merit and diversity, in particular, can seem like a political minefield. Many preferred to avoid so-called “uncomfortable conversations” even if such conversations were what exactly what’s needed.
What would you recommend is done to improve assessment of international students in American Higher Education institutions?
My participants named specific things that would help them assess international students: First, on college transcripts, they wanted to see international colleges and universities offer a conversion to the US four-point scale with which they are familiar.
Relatedly, I heard a common wish for letters of recommendation to be written in the same style that American letters are written. Reviewers might not love the effusive style of American letters, but when they received a more subdued letter from an international student, it was difficult to determine whether the subdued tone reflected less enthusiasm about the student on the part of the letter writer or a general cultural norm of writing more subdued letters about even top students.
And finally, more information about the extent of test preparation a student has received and about their fluency with English would help overcome skepticism that test scores from international students are less trustworthy signals of future academic performance.
As you can see, the pattern here is that professors want to strip away some of the variation that comes from culture and national origin to ease interpretation of international students’ files and compare them with American applicants.
C. M. Rubin and Julie Posselt