Monique Verdin, "Headwaters : Tamaracks + Time : Lake Itasca" (2019), digital assemblage. Photograph taken in 2019; United States War Department map of the route passed over by an expedition into the Indian country in 1832 to the source of the Mississippi River.

Making Graduate Fellowships More Inclusive

In “Fifty Years of Strategies for Equal Access to Graduate Fellowships” (Issues, Fall 2023), Gisèle Muller-Parker and Jason Bourke suggest that examining the National Science Foundation’s efforts to increase the representation of racially minoritized groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics “may offer useful lessons” to administrators at colleges and universities seeking to “broaden access and participation” in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s 2023 decision limiting the use of race as a primary factor in student admissions.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the authors’ analysis—and that also aligns with the court’s decision—is that there are no shortcuts to achieving inclusion. Despite its rejection of race as a category in the admissions process, the court’s decision does not bar universities from considering race on an individualized basis. Chief Justice John Roberts maintained that colleges can, for instance, constitutionally consider a student’s racial identity and race-based experience, be it “discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” if aligned with a student’s unique abilities and skills, such as “courage, determination” or “leadership”—all of which “must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university.” This individualized approach to race implies a more qualitatively focused application and review process.

The NSF experience, as Muller-Parker and Bourke show, also underscores the significance of qualitative applications and review processes for achieving more inclusive outcomes. Despite the decline in fellowship awards to racially minoritized groups starting in 1999, when the foundation ended its initial race-targeted fellowships, the awards pick up and even surpass previous levels of inclusion as the foundation shifted from numeric criteria to a holistic qualitative evaluation and review, for instance, by eliminating summary scores and GRE results and placing more importance on reference letters.

The individualized approach to race will place additional burdens on students of color to effectively make their case for how race has uniquely qualified them and made them eligible for admission.

Importantly, the individualized approach to race will place additional burdens on students of color to effectively make their case for how race has uniquely qualified them and made them eligible for admission, and on administrators to reconceptualize, reimagine, and reorganize the admissions process as a whole. Students, particularly from underserved high schools, will need even more institutional help and clearer instructions when writing their college essays, to know how to tie race and their racial experience to their academic eligibility.

In the context of college admissions, enhancing equal access in race-neutral ways will require significant changes in reconceptualizing applicants—as people rather than numbers or categories—and in connecting student access more closely to student participation. This will require significant resources and organizational change: admissions’ access goals would need to be closely integrated with participation goals of other offices such as student life, residence life, student careers, as well as with academic units; and universities would need to regularly conduct campus climate surveys, assessing not just the quantity of diverse students in the student body but also the quality of their experiences and the ways by which their inclusion enhances the quality of education provided by the university.

These holistic measures are easier said than done, especially among smaller teaching-centered or decentralized colleges and universities, and a measurable commitment to diversity will be even more patchy than is currently achieved across higher education, given the existence of numerous countervailing forces (political, social, financial) that differentially impact public and private institutions and vary significantly from state to state. However, as Justice Sotomayor wrote in closing in her dissenting opinion, “Although the court has stripped almost all uses of race in college admissions…universities can and should continue to use all available tools to meet society’s needs for diversity in education.” The NSF’s story provides some hope that this can be achieved if administrators are able and willing to reimagine (and not just obliterate) racial inclusion as a crucial goal for academic excellence.

Professor of Politics

Cochair, College of Arts and Sciences, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee

Fairfield University

Gisele Muller-Parker and Jason Bourke’s discussion of what we might learn from the forced closure of the National Science Foundation’s Minority Graduate Fellowship Program and subsequent work to redesign the foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) succinctly illustrates the hard work required to construct programs that identify and equitably promote talent development. As the authors point out, GRFP, established in 1952, has awarded fellowships to more than 70,000 students, paving the way for at least 40 of those fellows to become Nobel laureates and more than 400 to become members of the National Academy of Sciences.

The program provides a $37,000 annual stipend for three years and a $12,000 cost of education allowance with no postgraduate service requirement. It is a phenomenal fellowship, yet the program’s history demonstrates how criteria, processes, and structures can make opportunities disproportionally unavailable to talented persons based on their gender, racial identities, socioeconomic status, and where they were born and lived.

This is the great challenge that education, workforce preparation, and talent development leaders must confront: how to parse concepts of talent and opportunity such that we are able to equitably leverage the whole capacity of the nation.

This is the great challenge that education, workforce preparation, and talent development leaders must confront: how to parse concepts of talent and opportunity such that we are able to equitably leverage the whole capacity of the nation. This work must be undertaken now for America to meet its growing workforce demands in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine—the STEMM fields. This is the only way we will be able to rise to the grandest challenges threatening the world, such as climate change, food and housing instability, and intractable medical conditions.

By and large, most institutions of higher education are shamefully underperforming in meeting those challenges. Here, I point to the too-often overlooked and underfunded regional colleges and universities that were barely affected by the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to end the use of race-conscious admissions policies. Most regional institutions, by nature of their missions and students they serve, have never used race as a factor in enrollment, and yet they still serve more students from minoritized backgrounds than their Research-1 peers, as demonstrated by research from the Brookings Institution. Higher education leaders must undertake the difficult work of examining the ways in which historic and contemporaneous bias has created exclusionary structures, processes, and policies that helped reproduce social inequality instead of increasing access and opportunity for all parts of the nation.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s SEA Change initiative cultivates that exact capacity building among an institution’s leaders, enabling them to make data-driven, law-attentive, and people-focused change to meet their institutional goals. Finally, I must note one correction to the authors’ otherwise fantastic article: the Supreme Court’s pivotal decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina did not totally eliminate race and ethnicity as a factor in college admissions. Rather, the decision removed the opportunity for institutions to use race as a “bare consideration” and instead reinforced that a prospective student’s development of specific knowledge, skills, and character traits as they related to race, along with the student’s other lived experiences, can and should be used in the admissions process.

Director, Inclusive STEMM Ecosystems for Equity & Diversity

American Association for the Advancement of Science

The US Supreme Court’s 2023 rulings on race and admissions have required universities to closely review their policies and practices for admitting students. While the rulings focused on undergraduate admissions, graduate institutions face distinct challenges as they work to comply with the new legal standards. Notably, graduate education tends to be highly decentralized, representing a variety of program cultures and admissions processes. This variety may lead to uncertainty about legally sound practice and, in some cases, a tendency to overcorrect or default to “safe”—because they have been uncontested—standards of academic merit.

Gisèle Muller-Parker and Jason Bourke propose that examining the history of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) can provide valuable information for university leaders and faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics working to reevaluate graduate admissions. The authors demonstrate the potential impact of admission practices often associated with the type of holistic review that NSF currently uses for selecting its fellows: among them, reducing emphasis on quantitative measures, notably GRE scores and undergraduate GPA, and giving careful consideration to personal experiences and traits associated with success. In 2014, for example, the GRFP replaced a requirement for a “Previous Research” statement, which privileged students with access to traditional research opportunities, with an essay that “allows applicants flexibility in the types of evidence they provide about their backgrounds, scientific ability, and future potential.”

These changes made a real difference in the participation of underrepresented students in the GRFP and made it possible for students from a broader range of educational institutions to have a shot at this prestigious fellowship.

There is no compelling evidence to support the idea that traditional criteria for admitting students are the best.

Critics of these changes may say that standards were lowered. But the education community at large must unequivocally challenge this view. There is no compelling evidence to support the idea that traditional criteria for admitting students are the best. Scientists must be prepared to study the customs of their field, examining assumptions (“Are experiences in well-known laboratories the only way to prepare undergraduates for research?”) and asking new questions (“To what extent does a diversity of perspectives and problem-solving strategies affect programs and research?”).

As we look to the future, collecting evidence on the effects of new practices, we will need to give special consideration to the following issues:

  • First, in introducing new forms of qualitative materials, we must not let bias in the back door. Letters and personal statements need careful consideration, both in their construction and in their evaluation.
  • Second, we must clearly articulate the ways that diversity and inclusion relate to program goals. The evaluation of personal and academic characteristics is more meaningful, and legally sound, when these criteria are transparent to all.
  • Finally, we must think beyond the admissions process. In what ways can institutions make diversity, equity, and inclusion integral to their cultures and to the social practices supporting good science?

As the history of the GFRP shows, equity-minded approaches to graduate education bring us closer to finding and supporting what the National Science Board calls the “Missing Millions” in STEM. We must question what we know about academic merit and rigorously test the impact of new practices—on individual students, on program environments, and on the health and integrity of science.

Vice President, Best Practices and Strategic Initiatives

Council of Graduate Schools

Cite this Article

“Making Graduate Fellowships More Inclusive.” Issues in Science and Technology 40, no. 2 (Winter 2024).

Vol. XL, No. 2, Winter 2024