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Using Technology To Combat Admissions Selectivity Biases

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Graduate programs realize they need to embrace a more sophisticated approach to enrollment management, but must overcome serious cultural, financial, and technological hurdles. This was a recurring theme of the CGS (Council on Graduate Schools) conference in Seattle last week.

In particular, Deans and VPs tasked with enrollment initiatives voiced feeling overwhelmed.  Benchmarking diversity, for example, requires broad oversight into the complex minutia of needs encompassing 50 – 100 individual programs. Historically, departments that operate more or less independently have their own set of admissions requirements that might be susceptible to selectivity biases. Yet in an era of siloed and shrinking state/federal funding, collaboration proves difficult.

Standardizing Student Data to Combat Bias

Two CGS presentations examined institutional hurdles to enrollment management. To begin, JoAnn Canales, PhD from the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi presented research on how inconsistent review practices could contribute to a biased admissions ecosystem. In particular, Canales noted how Black and Asian students represented less than 1% of graduate enrollment. Evidence surfaced that many programs utilized admissions standards that maintained a status quo (often purely utilizing GPA/test scores at the expense of other attributes). For example, in Corpus Christi’s 37 graduate programs, only 26 require letters of recommendation, and there are no common desirable attributes or guidelines.

To offer institutional solutions, James Wimbush, the VP for Diversity, Equity, & Multicultural Affairs at Indiana University, noted the importance of “committees comprised of diverse members for selection decisions.” Yet he also placed strong emphasis on the importance of a truly holistic graduate admissions process across the entire institution, one that includes:

  • Standardized tests used appropriately (i.e., GRE, GMAT, etc.)
  • References
  • Undergraduate GPA
  • Non-cognitive measures
  • Interviews
  • Personal statements
  • Work history

Institutions must commit to measuring and weighing both qualitative and quantitative factors in addressing unconscious biases.

How Can Technology Help Graduate Admissions?

Most undergraduate admissions departments have become fairly sophisticated when it comes to “holistic” review. Graduate programs, on the other hand, may have sophisticated internal processes, but cannot view or analyze these data in aggregate. Some programs rely exclusively on sorting students by GPA/test scores in an Excel document. Others employ emailed .pdfs, a purely qualitative process that cannot be analyzed. Both options utilize technology, but the oversimplification does a disservice to students. We must seek to find a healthy balance recommended by Canales and Wimbush.

Of course, technology alone will be ineffective in combating biases. Any technology solution must be preceded by a strong, institution-wide, commitment to change (and agreement on a shared set of common data). This isn’t easy. One VP told us standardizing an institution-wide graduate admissions process “feels like getting everyone to agree on tomato pasta for dinner, then placing an order for 100. But after the water is boiled, every faculty member starts making requests for alfredo sauce, vegan meatballs, or tomatoes on the side.”

Still, if graduate deans have the stamina to demonstrate the necessity of shared admissions data, programs will benefit from cross-faculty expertise. They must then agree on a technology solution that meets these three basic criteria:

  • A common data set for ALL programs (gender, ethnicity, geography, etc.)
  • Faculty can make informed, qualitative/quantitative assessments
  • Deans/VPs can analyze institutional priorities

Only once these priorities are met can modern technology benefit the holistic process and save graduate admissions from selectivity biases.