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Diverse Student Body Can Put an Institution Ahead

AUDIO | Diverse Student Body Can Put an Institution Ahead
Diversity is critical for an enriching and engaging educational environment, but can also serve as a differentiator for universities competing for graduate enrollments.

The following interview is with Janet Rutledge, vice-provost and dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Rutledge spoke at the 2013 Council of Graduate Schools conference on strategies institutions can put in place to increase diversity among their graduate student population. In this interview, she expands on that topic and discusses how a diverse student body, and a commitment to diversity, can serve as a differentiator for schools in the competitive graduate education marketplace.

1. Why is a wide diversity of students important for a graduate school?

For a public research university like UMBC, it’s very important we reflect the demographics of our state to ensure we’re giving full access. It’s also very important that UMBC produce a diverse workforce for our state and region [and] that we produce a diverse group of PhDs so we can ensure a diverse future faculty for our universities both in the state and across the country.

2. What are the biggest roadblocks to increasing the diversity of a graduate school’s population?

Graduate education is very diversified across the university and each individual department makes its own admissions decisions. Some departments are very active in recruiting; others get enough applications by just waiting to see what comes in. Very often, when they’re picking among the applicants, they might not have a very diverse application pool, so therefore the students they admit will also not be very diverse.

The challenge is that faculty are very busy with all these responsibilities that they have so, often, it’s very difficult for faculty to get out and do recruiting. It’s important for the graduate school to help faculty figure out where they can go to recruit and to help streamline that process.

3. When it comes to going out and finding prospective students, what can universities do to increase their applications from individuals in underserved populations?

Students need to get a chance to experience your university. Summer programs that give undergraduates an opportunity to come to your campus and do research, get to know the faculty here, get to know the facilities that you have and get to know the area around the university can be very important.  Students get very valuable exposure to what goes on in graduate school and if students are at a predominantly undergraduate institution or are at an institution where undergraduates do not have a chance to do research, they may not know what the true opportunities are in graduate school and they may not understand whether graduate school is for them.

Another reason many underrepresented students don’t consider graduate school is that they’re not aware there are graduate assistantships and fellowships available to fund your graduate education. Many of them are thinking, “Well, if I continue on with my education and have to take out more loans, that’s just going to strap me financially,” so it’s important for us to help undergraduates understand the opportunities to get funding so that, particularly in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] disciplines, the students would not have to fund their own way for graduate school.

4. How can a diverse student population serve as a differentiator for prospective graduate students choosing between different institutions?

People are most comfortable when we’re in an environment where we feel we’re home and we belong. For many students, the opportunity to go to a university that has a diverse population is one thing that will make them feel very welcomed. The term that is really important is creating an inclusive environment.

5. Are there any other strategies an institution can put in place to highlight its diversity?

It’s important to get your message out any way you can. Often times, it’s faculty [at other institutions] talking with individual students at their home institution and giving them recommendations about different institutions [to pursue their graduate studies]. It’s important that faculty also understand what a graduate [school] also has to offer. At UMBC, we often participate in panels and have other opportunities to spread the word about what we’re doing.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about diversity as a differentiator or what institutions can do to increase the diversity of their graduate student population?

All universities have strengths academically, but we don’t always look at the additional factors that shape a graduate student’s education. For example, the Council of Graduate Schools recently released a report called “Pathways [Through] Graduate School and Into Careers.” In it, they emphasized that universities aren’t doing enough to help graduate students see the pathways to their careers and how graduate schools play a role. Here at UMBC, we’ve been really taking the time to focus on that, and many of our departments now are hosting various kinds of events with their alumni so they can come back and talk to the graduate students about the pathways they’ve taken into their career.

We’ve also started working very closely with our career services center to make sure opportunities for graduate students are a part of the services that the career services [office] offers. All of these things have been very important. We also have a very active graduate student association that provides an opportunity to build community across the campus in some very important ways so that students don’t spend their time just in their own department.

A big differentiator in addition to diversity is making sure there are support programs that educate the whole graduate student body and prepare them for the full range of careers they’re going to have in the future.

This interview has been edited for length.

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