Meeting the Challenge: Key Themes from the Strategies for Increasing Graduate Program Diversity Symposium

The challenge of improving diversity in graduate education is extremely complex as it intertwines long-standing socioeconomic and historical trends with contemporary issues in higher education. It also has wide-reaching implications for the future of academia as well as many other fields ranging from scientific research to creative writing. But as Fredrick Engram, Manager of Graduate Recruitment Communications at American University, said at ETS’s Strategies for Increasing Graduate Program Diversity symposium on March 26, “How do we fix something if we’re not willing to go straight at it and talk about it? You have to discuss the elephant in the room in order for us to be able to rid ourselves of that.”

In collaboration with the Council of Graduate Schools, ETS convened academics, university administrators and other higher education leaders alike to dive into difficult topics on race and identity of all forms as well as to discuss proven, research-based and data-driven strategies for how to both increase and retain under-represented minorities (URMs) in graduate programs across the country.

From the plethora of ideas and suggestions shared by the event’s speakers, three key themes resonated with attendees and offer an opportunity for further exploration and continued conversation.

Search for diversity like we search for a cure

DeRay Mckesson, an activist and former school administrator, introduced this point in his keynote remarks, which focused broadly on the concepts behind equity and access in the context of higher education.

“The burden is on us to find the diamonds in the rough because often people can’t participate in some of the pipeline programs,” he said. “It’s not an ability deficiency, it’s a resource deficiency and that’s not their fault. So how do we search for talent in the same way that we search for a cure?”

If we as a society, or even at the institutional level, applied the same rigor and determination to searching for diverse talent and students that we do in searching for cures for diseases like cancer, results would change. Such a shift would require immense amounts of effort and intentionality, but so does finding a cure, and we don’t shy away from that.

Moreover, the inherent difficulties of uncovering and identifying talented and diverse students was summed up well by Marenda Wilson-Pham, Associate Graduate School Dean at Rush University, who urged institutions to adopt holistic admissions practices, rather than relying too heavily on specific metrics such as cut scores.

“The absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence,” she said, referring to the data she collected over more than a decade that indicates such practices inherently introduce bias into the admissions process.

Wilson-Pham went on to explain that by using data to justify the use of all admissions criteria, her team was actually able to incorporate objective measures of student performance – such as standardized tests – into their plans to increase diversity. Ultimately, she achieved a 46 percent increase in diversity of URMs.

Furthermore, by using data to examine admissions processes at large vs. the strengths and weaknesses of each individual candidate, Wilson-Pham’s presentation also demonstrated that systemic deficiencies outweigh perceived deficiencies of individual students.

There’s not a deficient student – there’s a deficient system

As institutions look for diversity in their pools of graduate candidates, some are realizing that it’s not students who are underqualified or admissions processes that favor certain types of students, but larger systemic issues that both block access and drive URM students away before they complete their degrees.

“You can’t have a strategy for diversifying graduate education. You need to have a campus-wide strategy that reaches all the way down into K through 12,” Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, said. “I think the most important thing is for each department to do the hard work of developing a diversity action plan that works for them.”

In other words, there is no single factor that decides whether a student enters or completes his or her graduate program. Instead, it is an intricate mix of personal and professional life and can be heavily dependent on the culture of the university itself. Enhancing diversity and inclusion is more than changing the numbers on an enrollment data sheet – it is about changing the culture of the university and instilling an attitude of understanding and supportiveness at the highest levels that is reinforced across the campus.

Of course, as institutions look inward at their campus climates, we were also reminded of the importance of looking at the individual level.

Having the uncomfortable conversations

Bentley Gibson, founder of The Bias Adjuster and Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgia Highlands College, led the group through an implicit bias training to uncover and mitigate personal unconscious biases toward different groups.

“We can talk a lot about systems and we can talk about institutions and structures, but we also need to understand the individuals who make up these institutions and structures,” she said. “We may have some biases going on unconsciously that we didn’t know about and are shocked about, but they are still directing how we behave and impacting how we judge and evaluate people.”

By bringing the focus onto individual psychologies, attendees were forced to consider the power of the associations made since childhood and how those associations play a role in our work on campuses across the county. Mitigating implicit and unconscious biases is possible, however, through such methods as thinking about counter-stereotypical situations and getting diverse individuals to work on the same team.

The interconnected nature of these three themes reflects the complexity of graduate program diversity. There are actions that can – and should – be taken at both the individual and the institutional level in order to improve the numbers of URMs in graduate programs as well as help to retain and allow these students to prosper. It is a challenge that requires solutions as comprehensive and thoughtful as the issue itself. For more information and examples of the types of tactics discussed at the Strategies for Increasing Graduate Program Diversity event, please visit Also, continue the conversation on Twitter using #pathwaystodiversity.