Grad School cuts to change admissions

With the most recent round of budget cuts forcing fewer admissions slots at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, administrators are rethinking their approach to evaluating applicants.

In light of University President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey’s announcement this month that the Graduate School must admit 10 to 15 percent fewer students this coming fall, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said admitting and retaining the right students has become even more crucial. In order to prevent student attrition and attract students who live up to the potential they demonstrate in their applications, the Graduate School is developing a more holistic admissions process: In addition to ranking applicants against each other based on the strength of their portfolios and academic credentials, some Graduate School departments have begun conducting interviews with prospective students to gauge their compatibility with Yale.

“At a university like Yale, where every Ph.D. student gets full funding, after two years we have already invested $120,000 in the education of a student,” Butler said Friday. “When students don’t go forward, that’s a tremendous loss the school has to absorb and it’s too high. We must assess admissions to fix this.”

DEFYING EXPECTATIONS

Though attrition has always been a concern for graduate schools across the country, at a time of financial strain, Butler said, Yale needs to consider factors beyond applicants’ records. Administrators said traditional admissions criteria — such as grades, test scores and the prestige of students’ undergraduate institutions — are not always good predictors of students’ success once they arrive at the Graduate School.

Pericles Lewis, director of graduate studies for Comparative Literature, said that while he expects any applicant with a strong academic record to succeed in a graduate program, the rank order established during the admissions process is unlikely to reflect their relative success within an admitted class once students begin their graduate work.

“Very often the 10th or 11th [student] on the list turns out to be the star of the class,” Lewis said.

Benjamin Foster, acting chair of the Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations Department, said he and his colleagues found similar results when they conducted statistical analysis of the department a few years ago.

“I was shocked that the students in the bottom slots became the most successful,” Foster said.

Now, Foster said, if there are fewer slots, those students may not make the cut in the first place.

Butler said student attrition was on his mind when he sent a short essay discussing common admissions tactics to Graduate School faculty earlier this month. In the essay, originally written two years ago for departmental diversity representatives, faculty whose responsibility it is to ensure that departments admit and hire scholars with diverse backgrounds, Butler said there are discrepancies between students’ ranks at the time of admission and their academic success down the road at Yale. As a result, he suggested a more personal approach to admissions.

NELC faculty began conducting more interviews with applicants last admissions cycle, Foster said, but he added that the department’s admissions system will likely see even greater shifts with the enrollment cuts. Since Yale accepts so few students to the graduate program in NELC to begin with, Foster said, now faculty will only be able to consider the highest-ranked applicants, leaving out lower-ranked students who otherwise might have risen to the top once admitted.

The loss of one of their admissions spots will also kill off one of NELC’s disparate disciplines, Foster said. Now that the department expects to take in just two graduate students, he explained, one of NELC’s three disciplines — Assyriology, Egyptology and Arabic — will suffer, especially since the disciplines are highly specialized and related only geographically.

“For us, cutting off the bottom half of the pool is devastating,” Foster said.

Sometimes, Yale’s top-ranked applicants do not live up to their paper potential as doctoral candidates, Economics DGS Truman Bewley said. Departments must then reevaluate why they chose not to admit other applicants who went on to be successful in graduate programs at other schools, Butler said.

But both Bewley and History of Science & Medicine DGS Daniel Kevles said they have not noticed a pattern of attrition from the top-ranked graduate students in particular.

A NEW APPROACH

Even before the budget crisis, concern about student attrition prompted some departments to begin interviewing applicants to better predict how they might succeed at Yale.

“A number of departments have been speaking with [applicants] who end up on shortlists,” Butler said. “It helps a department gauge the interests a student has in a way that a file of recommendations doesn’t always do. We get a fuller picture of a student by talking with him or her.”

Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry DGS Mark Solomon said his department used to invite admitted students to visit campus and meet faculty only after they had been admitted. Solomon said the department switched gears two years ago and began inviting top applicants to visit in an effort to make better-informed admissions decisions.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the director of graduate studies for the Psychology Department, said her department’s particular admissions process — during which faculty read every application submitted in a given year and do not rank applications — combined with an emphasis on student-faculty mentoring that begins when students apply to the program has helped combat to attrition in recent years.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about how a student’s research interests will match with our faculty,” Nolen-Hoeksema said. “We want students to have mentors who are really interested in what they want to research.”

Though the loss of graduate students may diminish the quality of classes and the intellectual community at the Graduate School, six directors of graduate studies said, their admissions strategies will not fundamentally change. Ranking applicants based on the strength of their written applications will still be an integral part of the admissions process this year, as unpredictable as these ranks may be.

“We’re always limited in the number that we can admit,” Kevles said. “We always go from the top down to the cutoff point, so in principle, it’s not different. It’s just that the cutoff point is just a little more severe this year.”

Lewis said he is concerned that competition between Yale and other universities to bring top applicants to their schools could be especially stiff this year since departments can only offer admission to a small number of applicants for fear of exceeding limits on yield. This could lead to an under-enrolled class, which would diminish the strength of the intellectual community in some departments, he said.

“When they get here they should be very good,” Lewis said. “But it’s harder to get them.”

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