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Subsidizing the Stars: On “Meritocracy” in Graduate School

June 20, 2016

Courtesy of a prompt from Anthony Grafton, on his Facebook page, I decided to read this NYT article on the plight of indebted law students and struggling law schools. Since I’m a higher ed junkie, and I work as a student advisor in a professional school, I read all kinds of pieces like this. But this passage stopped me in my tracks–making me rethink my experience as a graduate student (bolds mine):

That’s because the way Valparaiso and other lower-ranked schools lure students like Mr. Hahn is to offer sizable scholarships, and the only way they can afford these scholarships is if a large proportion of other students pay full freight.

Inevitably, many of these sticker-price payers are weak students who lack better options. Research by Prof. Jerome M. Organ, an expert on law school economics at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, shows that students with low test scores and undergraduate grade-point averages tend to subsidize the stars; this is especially true of third- and fourth-tier schools like Valparaiso. It’s the marginal students who pay the bills, not students like Mr. Hahn.

After reading this I realized, now, that I was one of those “subsidizers” in my history graduate program—at least as that program was constructed circa 1998. I had never put it in these terms before reading the article. But the words fit, sadly.


I think I should tell my story of how this came to be, for the benefit of those considering a program in the humanities or otherwise. This narrative might also benefit a current graduate student somewhere. As I relay my story, however, I’m not going to name my program or my university. Why? Because (a) my situation occurred in a specific context that involved personal choices, and (b) that history program now functions differently today.

How was I subsidizer? I was one of the students with a non-standard background. I lacked better options when I applied to graduate school. But, at the time, I thought the admissions process meant that the school saw something interesting in me. I never dreamed, then, I could have been admitted so that my student loans would simply to help pay for the students with fellowships and graduate assistantships.

In retrospect I was clearly naive. But I truly believed in the admissions process. I believed that I would not have been admitted if I did not have some potential in the field. And this had to be true because I submitted a writing sample and letters of recommendation. Those proofs guaranteed that more than money motivated the admissions committee for my Master’s program.

I suppose I’ve been slow to recognize the potentially low motives of that committee for other reasons. First, I really wanted in. My desire to study history was overwhelming. I could think of little else.  Second, I figured that paying full freight for my MA was the cost of getting into a PhD program. Third, when you’re motivated by love of subject and still a relative novice in higher ed, your high-minded myopia prevents you from seeing the economics from the other side of the admissions table. Fourth, I assumed that even if inequities existed in a program, programs were meritocracies. After you proved yourself in coursework, good things would happen.

By the time I was admitted into the PhD program, in 1999, I should have known better. I was admitted without funding. I knew who the scholarship students were, and I knew I was more motivated and a better student than some of them. My thinking then, however, was that I’d work full-time and take my classes one at a time. Other students did this, and it wasn’t ideal, but I thought I could make it work. Again, I had my assumption of meritocracy—that good things would come to those who waited and proved themselves.


My “meritocratic assumption” was flawed. I did not realize that changes in the funding of graduate students also involved the egos of the admissions committee. Mistakes may be made, but they are rarely acknowledged. This goes for both bad and good students. The funding of bad students is rarely pulled. Rather than admit mistakes, those students are praised for their individuality and difficult genius. Funding is only ever pulled for egregious, near-criminal behavior.

On the other hand, if an unfunded student proves herself, that student will not get recognized unless he/she has a powerful faculty champion. No admissions committee likes to admit they swung and missed, or underestimated, a good student. The calculus of funding also doesn’t seem to account to late-bloomer who prove their value later. There is no provision to “pick up” those students and roll them into the regular program. Finally, they are now seen as known quantities. There is no mystery about their genius, which was judged unsatisfactory by a prior committee. If any mystery is considered, it’s about why the student is still around and how they’re making it. But that is usually dropped, in the context of the humanities, because they figure it’s due to grade inflation.

I did figure out, eventually, much later, that universities and programs are happy to take the money of average or low-performing graduate students. In the history corner of the humanities, there were extenuating circumstances. We knew we were embattled. This fostered an esprit de corps even among students of varying ability and motivations. But I never thought I was one of those students.  There couldn’t be that many of them, and they were concentrated in the master’s program. How many were necessary to prop up a department? Plus, the PhD admissions committee has screened me. I was different. Special. There was no way I was merely subsidizing other stars.


The event that changed my calculations, and set aside my questions of “meritocracy” in the history department, was both a blessing and a little bit of a curse to me. I obtained a graduate assistantship in my university’s school of continuing studies. That assistantship covered tuition and paid me a small salary in exchange for 15-20 hours of work per week. There was no term to the assistantship, so it could last, theoretically, until I graduated.

It felt like a good deal, monetarily, at the time, but I still had to take out loans to help cover expenses in the city of Chicago. I knew that history graduate students with assistantships, whether research or teaching, also either had to work a little or take out loans. So I felt like I was in the same boat as my friends and colleagues. In that way (i.e. lack of full funding), my own assistantship felt like like a little bit of a curse—just enough of a carrot to feed, or subsidize, one’s dreams. And my intellectual dreams were consuming and ambitious.

The blessing was that my work in the school of continuing studies set up a great alternate academic (i.e. alt-ac) kind of career. I knew my passion for history would continue even if I did not obtain a traditional tenure-track position. In the school of continuing studies I obtained invaluable experience in academic advising. As a career-changer, I also appreciated the need for, and role of, academic and career advising. My fortuitous assistantship gave me a versatility I knew I would need.

Today that particular route to that particular kind of alt-ac track has closed. In the time that my advising career has developed, one now needs, in essence, a master’s degree in higher education. This is not by any means a universal requirement, but I see that more and more as a desired credential.


The takeaways? I guess the biggest one I wanted to relay here is no surprise: graduate school isn’t fair, and it also isn’t a meritocracy. The worst students are not necessarily weeded out, and there often isn’t room for elevating either rising stars or those who prove themselves worthy.  In my case I did receive a late-in-the-game door prize. Even though I never obtained a departmental assistantship, I did finally earn a dissertation fellowship for my final year. That award enabled me to complete my work and get out, with fewer teaching gigs as distractions. The award was given by the graduate school.

I doubt any history department or program will ever become a socialist’s paradise. The notion of “genius” and of hierarchy are embedded in the history of the profession. And the grand prize of landing a tenure-track job encourages a Darwinian mentality among graduate students. Finally, long-time professors “earned” their stripes in this environment, so they think it’s all fair in love and war.

But a certain leveling of funding would help ameliorate the worst effects of the star system in graduate training. No graduate student should feel they are subsidizing the stars of their programs, even when it’s happening. It’s hard enough for humanities enthusiasts out there without also encouraging them, subtly or blatantly, to eat their own. – TL

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  1. PS: I discovered this tidbit in the AHA’s 2004 report, “The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century”:
    “Given the cutbacks in funding for public higher education since the 1980s, the large proportion of doctoral education in public institutions is surprising. We hope that enrollments have not remained high because of cutbacks—to ensure a pool of graduate student teachers at a time of budget cutting.”


    • And another, in the context of inclusiveness and excellence in relation to accepted students: “The principle proposed here is simple: Do not accept students you do not believe in; believe in every student accepted. Equally important is a practical intellectual respect that expects all students to meet the uniformly high challenges of doctoral education.2 Such principles of respect and expectation, in fact, ought to be intrinsic to academic culture in general, embracing all undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty.”


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