Do Graduate Admission Committees Discriminate Against Candidates From Religious Colleges?

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I have always believed that the  members of department admissions committees at elite graduate schools who choose potential students for history Ph.D programs honor good work and intelligence.  I tell my students who want to pursue graduate school that they will be judged on their test scores, college work, and letters of recommendation, and not on the fact that they attended a religious-oriented institution.

When my top students get  rejected from a graduate program I often wonder–I will admit it–if they were turned down because they attended Messiah College, a Christian college in the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan tradition.  I have never been able to prove this and have never really had any interest in doing so.  I continue with my idealistic belief that Ph.D programs choose students based on test scores, college work, and letters of recommendation.  Such idealism is also based on the fact that I have had many students get accepted to first-rate graduate programs.

But very few, if any, of my students get accepted to the kinds of schools that Julie Posselt writes about in her new book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping (Harvard University Press, 2016).  In my idealism I have always just assumed that entrance into these schools was extremely competitive.  And I continue to believe that the competitive nature of these universities is the best explanation for why my students have not been accepted over the years.

But Posselt also suggests that some of my hunches may be  correct. Here is a taste of Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed article on Posselt’s book:

In most cases Posselt observed, the committee members used banter and “friendly debate” when they disagreed with one another. They didn’t attack one another or get too pointed in criticizing colleagues. She describes one discussion she observed — in which committee members kept to this approach — that left her wondering about issues of fairness.

The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others.

“Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.”

The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?”

Other committee members defended her, but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics. One noted that the college had a good reputation in the humanities. And another said that her personal statement indicated intellectual independence from her college and good critical thinking.

At the end of this discussion, the committee moved the applicant ahead to the next round but rejected her there.

Posselt portrays the members of graduate admission committees at the universities where she drew her samples as insecure, concerned with ratings (does this mean U.S. News and World Report-style ratings?), obsessed with prestige, lacking diversity (both in terms of gender, race, and ideology), engaged in the worst forms of elitism, and discriminatory (in a bad way).

I imagine that Posselt’s book will receive some strong push back from elite universities.  Those who have served on graduate admissions committees will say that what Posselt describes in her book looks nothing like the way these committees are actually run.  Fair enough.  It does seem like Posselt has a small sampling.

But there seems to be enough here–at least from Jaschik’s summary (I have not read the book)–to confirm some of those unproven hunches.

2 thoughts on “Do Graduate Admission Committees Discriminate Against Candidates From Religious Colleges?

  1. Thanks for this Ann. I hope I did not come across too whiny in my post. As I said, I still have faith in the process. On the other hand, over the years I have accumulated a lot of stories about religious discrimination. I do not feel that I was ever discriminated against (as far as I know at least), but I have been asked some VERY strange questions during job interviews. A few years ago I was a finalist at an R1 institution for a position that came WITH tenure. I received some pretty out-of-bounds questions during that interview. (The search was canceled because the the department could not decide on a candidate). Granted, there is a lot of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical world, so I think, to some degree, it is fair to raise certain questions about an applicant’s training and the academic reputation of the school. But I do not think that the kind of thing this author describes is an isolated incident.

    And yes, I will tell my students at the M.A. program at CSU!

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  2. I saw the article at IHE on this book, and was troubled (if not completely surprised) by this. I can tell you that my non-elite M.A. program does not discriminate on the basis of religion or of alumni status at a religious college or university. I’ve chaired Grad Studies and served as a committee member for several years of admissions processes, and I can affirm that we talk all the time about the value of diverse perspectives–race and gender, but religious background too. One of our best recent M.A. students was a BYU grad, and we regularly get excellent students from some of the smaller evangelical colleges in the midwest.

    If your students at Messiah (or students anywhere else, at sectarian colleges or not) want to get a FREE master’s degree in public history, U.S. Western History, and/or environmental history in sunny, sunny Colorado, please send them to us! http://history.colostate.edu/grad/. Feel free to contact me directly for more information.

    Are we really surprised that elite grad programs are elitist? I’m not. I think it’s non-elite and lower-profile programs who feel more of an obligation to public service as well as to following the law, not to mention being fair and moral in our graduate admissions. These are some of the outdated, old-fashioned values we like to preserve and pass on out here on the High Plains.

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