The Time is Now for Graduate Programs to Walk the Walk on Diversity

Updated Dec 9, 2021

Diversity in graduate programs doesn’t just happen, and it certainly can’t be achieved in one admissions cycle with a few quick fixes to your recruitment efforts and admissions policies. 

It requires a conscious effort to build a strong base of undergraduate students from underrepresented communities, often from backgrounds that are different from the faculty members who are doing the recruiting and admissions decision making. While there are larger systemic challenges at play, there are several practices that schools can implement to reach a more diverse and inclusive graduate class. 

Underlying all of your efforts should be a sensitivity to the obstacles that students from underserved backgrounds face when it comes to education. Those students may have had limited exposure to what graduate education is all about or may not associate it as an opportunity available to them if they didn’t have role models who attended graduate school. Programs should ask themselves if the applicants they are trying to recruit can see themselves in the stories they are telling. Authenticity is key here, such as showing a photo of the NAACP chapter on campus, or the Latino Biology Club, rather than a photo that includes one person from each ethnic group, who wouldn’t actually be part of a group together.

Along the same lines, programs are likely to be more successful if they consider the representation among recruitment teams, faculty, featured alumni, student ambassadors and anyone else they send into the community to vouch for the program. If a student from an underserved background has never considered graduate school as an option, they are not likely to start if they don’t see themselves reflected in the recruitment process. Dr. Michael CunninghamDr. Michael Cunningham

Programs can strengthen the pipeline by tapping into existing networks of academic societies and organizations that serve and represent the students they are seeking — professional societies, minority-serving organizations, or historically Black colleges and universities. Conversations with their membership about the benefits of continuing their education and resources to help them prepare for grad school can help demystify and reduce anxiety around the unknown. This is an opportunity to inspire an engaged audience to envision their future and believe that they are capable of grad school and career success.

As the cost of a graduate degree is a source of concern, programs that make an effort to guide prospects through the financial process and highlight any scholarships, stipends, grants or other assistance will surely come out ahead. Some programs pay for strong prospective applicants to visit campus, where applicants can even more clearly envision their future at the school and meet faculty and students with similar backgrounds and/or interests. Others, like UMBC, offer a four-year merit award. Here at Tulane University, we’ve incorporated several practices to reduce some of the financial burden facing prospective graduate students — the School of Science and Engineering does not charge an application fee for its graduate programs; the School of Liberal Arts has increased the Ph.D. stipend for all of its programs; and the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine has developed a scholarship partnership with a historically Black fraternity. 

Institutions should also consider approaching the issue of program diversity from a systemic lens that compares how administrators talk about diversity to how it is operationalized. Starting from Tulane’s presidential cabinet to student organizations, we’ve analyzed how the university’s diversity objectives are perceived and have established a culture that ensures respective leaders are equally working on increasing equity, diversity and inclusiveness (EDI). We hold equity trainings for the university’s administrative council and academic departments. We’ve worked with individual faculty on ways to increase diverse perspectives within individual grant submissions.

We’ve also dedicated more centralized resources on developing institutional proposals to support EDI efforts. We now require that the internal proposals for Ph.D. grants include a diversity recruitment plan in order to receive funds. Additionally, Tulane matches funds to external grants to support underrepresented graduate student fellowships, which has increased the number of fellowships available. These marketing grants and matching funds have increased our applicant, retention and graduation numbers while also strengthening our programs. As a result of these efforts, the percentage of underrepresented students enrolled in our graduate and professional programs has increased from 26.07% to 33.60% over the past five years.

Presenting resources that make the full application process easier and more equitable is the responsibility of every institution and program. The most successful programs guide prospective graduate students through the application process and supply them with the necessary tools and information for success, including how the program will use information from transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendation and personal statements in their admissions process. Programs can help by providing a requirements checklist, deadline reminders, clear application instructions and links to GRE® resources, including the GRE® Fee Reduction Program, their free virtual test prep events, and the abundance of other excellent, free GRE test prep materials.  

Efforts to get students from underrepresented backgrounds to apply must carry through, then, to a fair and equitable admissions process. When done correctly, a holistic admissions method looks at multiple sources of information in an effort to see the full picture of each applicant’s potential. Combining information about academic experiences and skills from test scores and undergraduate GPA with indicators of attributes and other experiences from personal statements and letters provides a more complete view of each applicant.

And, of course, once an applicant is admitted, the work is far from over. Both the school and the programs share responsibility for making the transition into graduate school smooth and welcoming for new admits. Programs need to develop an inclusive environment that encourages student success and provides a sense of belonging. Several ideas that programs can consider for on- and off-campus support include developing peer mentorship programs, providing access to faculty and open discussion forums, and establishing travel grants to give students an opportunity to attend or present at conferences or other events. At Tulane, we’ve invested in expanding our multicultural center to offer more services for graduate and professional students. For example, the Office of Multicultural Affairs was expanded to the Carolyn Barber-Pierre Center for Intercultural Life and now includes the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Office of Gender and Sexual Diversity, and the liaison for religious life. The center actively partners with the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars and the Office for International Students and Scholars to develop programming specific to graduate and international students. 

Once graduate faculty begin to meet underrepresented students where they are, inspire them to dream big and guide them through the graduate experience, we can then turn diversity “talk” into “reality” at graduate schools.

Dr. Michael Cunningham is associate provost for graduate studies and research and professor of psychology and Africana Studies at Tulane University. Dr. Cunningham is the former chair of the GRE Board Services Committee and currently serves as a member of the Graduate Education Advisory Council for the ETS Global Higher Education Division.