Rethinking Access to Graduate Education

3 min read

G. John Cole

Higher education has made great strides in equal access, and there are many advances to celebrate. But the harsh truth is that, in 2019, access to higher education is still limited for many prospective students, particularly for those considering graduate programs.

When the concept of “access” is referred to in the context of postgraduate study, it is a common misconception that this relates only to practical concerns such as visa or application processes. In reality, “access” is also a cultural concern and can also be influenced by various social, economic or ethnic factors. Many students who seek graduate education often are encouraged by peers and professionals within their social network. However, this encouragement this is something that can vary significantly depending on those factors.

While postgraduate study has become the norm among certain socio-economic groups and is growing, there is still much room for improvement. But “unless our undergraduates are exposed to and consider investing in higher degrees, this engine of social mobility stops,” says Kent D. Syverud, chancellor and president of Syracuse University. The Association of American Law Schools and Gallup have released statistics demonstrating Syverud’s point at a moment when graduate- and professional-school application numbers are falling.

A high level of interest for postgraduate studies

There is a healthy interest among students of all demographics to continue beyond undergraduate study. The difference is that first-generation students are less likely to discuss the matter with or receive encouragement from their families. They are also less likely to receive guidance from their professors, or professionals already working in their chosen career.

With one-third of a third of Asian, black, and white students keen to follow a PhD program – 37% for Hispanic students – the problem is less to do with raising interest than in improving access. Schools have a fantastic opportunity to seize this interest and transform it into applications.

Developing interest in post-graduate studies among diverse groups is an important pursuit in itself. It’s a valuable strategy for a school to boost its academic research while fighting social inequality. But it has now become essential if a school wants to meet admission targets, too.

Improving access for students

Improving access requires first and foremost a change of mindset. Cultural barriers to applications from diverse groups have become embedded in institutional processes. It may not be intentional that this is the case, but the system needs a bit of a rattle to loosen things up!

Students without graduate parents are less likely to ask for advice or encouragement. Schools that improve information and guidance make it far more likely students in this position will develop an understanding of the purpose and benefits of post-graduate study. A priority is to have this information on hand for current undergraduates who are making these decisions right now.

Admission practices also need to be addressed. While schools have made progress in making undergraduate admissions fairer and more transparent, post-graduate selection remains a bit of a grey zone. A report from the White Rose Consortium suggests “wide variation in practice” without “scrutiny on selectors’ assumptions” is still an issue that undermines the fairness of the admissions process at post-graduate level.

But the report also points out the need for more research to understand gaps in admission numbers and nuances in students’ motivations.

Responding to tremendous potential with inclusive marketing 

If the chief motivator for post-graduate study remains to improve career prospects or forge a path to a particular job, some students from diverse backgrounds still require more information and guidance to make this connection – and to feel welcome.

The talent exists, the ambition is thriving. But improving access for students to graduate education (or education in general) requires institutions to improve their existing methods of marketing and admission if the right, inclusive message is to reach those who deserve to hear it.

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