affirmative action and the academic pipeline

When people discuss affirmative action, they often have a mistaken view that higher education is filled with legions of under-qualified minorities. From the inside, we have the opposite view. The higher up you go, the less likely you will find folks from under-represented groups. So, what gives?

In addition to plain ideological differences, I think people are selectively looking at the academic pipeline. Basically, at some points in the career, affirmative action is indeed at work and some folks, including myself no doubt, will receive extra consideration. But most of the time, privilege is the rule. People will disproportionately focus on the parts of the pipeline where affirmative action is a modest benefit for some people.

To grasp the argument, it helps to break down what needs to happen in order for anyone to become a tenured professor:

  1. Getting a high college GPA.
  2. Applying to the “right” grad schools.
  3. Admission to the “right” grad schools.
  4. Passing courses.
  5. Passing exams.
  6. Getting the “right” adviser.
  7. Getting published in the “right” places.
  8. Writing the dissertation.
  9. Applying to tenure track positions
  10. Getting an offer from a school.
  11. Strong teaching skills.
  12. Continuing to publish in the “right” places.
  13. Getting elites in the profession to vouch for you.
  14. Getting the department and college to sign off on your tenure case.

As you can see, academia is this insanely long career track with a long list of interdependent parts.

Now let’s get back to affirmative action. Where does that policy work? In my scheme, it shows up mainly in step #3. Most schools will look askance at graduate school cohorts that lack ethnic or gender diversity. Some may even provide funds for recruitment and fellowships. But that’s it. After step #3, affirmative is rare. Perhaps the exception is when deans or departments at the junior level look to diversity the faculty and they may approve a hire.

This helps explain the perceptions of the policy. Admissions is high profile and people are openly competing for spots.  Faculty hiring is also high visibility. In contrast, say, getting published in a journal, or joining the “right” research groups is highly invisible to most observers until after the fact. And these are structured as homophilic networks, which might work against diversifying the faculty.

So, when it come to diversity in academia, you can’t look at one link in the chain. You have to look at the whole thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 


Written by fabiorojas

September 22, 2014 at 12:01 am

12 Responses

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  1. Great post. Way to break it down. I agree that ‘You have to look at the whole thing’ to grasp the lack of diversity in academia. Then again, if you are trying to design a research study on the topic, you might be better off building understanding one link at a time.



    September 22, 2014 at 12:45 am

  2. Out of curiosity – why did you start at the stage of students already in college? So much of the inequality (and “pipeline problems”) is produced before that, in differential graduation rates and high school GPA (and all of the factors that go into that).


    Dan Hirschman

    September 22, 2014 at 1:19 am

  3. Thanks. @Dan – we could go all the way back to kindergarten, pre-K, and the intra-uterine environment!!!



    September 22, 2014 at 1:22 am

  4. More serious response for Dan: There is no clear place to mark the beginning because the pool of eligible people always depends on the prior pool of people. Thus, your argument/research question will determine where you look. In writing this post, I was thinking of the “academic career” which doesn’t mean schooling, but it means, in the literature, the initial entry into training for an academic career (the Ph.D. degree).

    In other words, while calculus grades do effect the pool of mathematicians, but you want to usually start with the decision to apply to grad school, which only makes sense if you have a strong GPA.



    September 22, 2014 at 3:33 am

  5. I can understand the logic of wanting to start with the step just before graduate school – for instance, in wanting to justify affirmative action programs for graduate admissions. That said, quantitatively, I have to imagine that all of the things that happen *before* entering college do more to restrict the diversity of the pool of applicants than the sum of the forces in your steps. I bet there’s already research out there that attempts to estimate this, do you happen to know it?


    Dan Hirschman

    September 22, 2014 at 3:37 am

  6. It’s been a while, but my memory is that experts know that the leakage isn’t from high school to college. It’s mainly in those first two years of college. People get off the high GPA/academic track pretty fast and it’s insanely hard to get back on. Also, in STEM fields, people sort out of STEM fields upon college entry.

    My guess would be that there is subsequent leakage but it’s small compared to those first two years.



    September 22, 2014 at 3:46 am

  7. Maybe the way to say it about high school effects on grad school is: the people make the jump to college but they don’t land on grad school tracks very well. Why this is up to debate.



    September 22, 2014 at 3:47 am

  8. I don’t know that there’s a definitive answer to the question,”which leak point is the leakiest?”, and in some sense this seems like the wrong question to ask. The root causes of leakage probably differ across leak points, and some leak points and sources may be easier to plug up than others, assuming that’s one of the goals of educational policy.

    That being said, new research shows that a substantial and relatively under-appreciated amount of leakage from STEM takes place prior to college and in the HS-early college transition. See, e.g., Morgan, Gelbgiser, & Weeden SSR 2013; Legewie and DiPrete Sociological Science 2014.


    Kim Weeden (@WeedenKim)

    September 22, 2014 at 8:34 am

  9. […] Originally posted on […]


  10. Well done, my sense is privilege wins over everything else at every stage…



    September 24, 2014 at 11:18 am

  11. but my memory is that experts know that the leakage isn’t from high school to college

    I’m not sure this is true now, especially among first-generation college attendees. This new book, which seems to be generating a lot of discussion, is relevant on the point.


    Ed Walker

    September 24, 2014 at 4:27 pm

  12. Thanks, I will have to check this out.



    September 24, 2014 at 5:43 pm

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