Most American professors are educated at the same elite universities

According to one study, one in eight tenure-track professors at US institutions earned their doctorates at just five elite US universities.Credit: Paul Marotta/Getty

US universities hire most of their tenure-track professors from same handful of elite institutions, study finds1. The result suggests that prestige is overvalued in hiring decisions and that university researchers are unlikely to obtain jobs in institutions considered more elite than those in which they were trained.

Specifically, the study, published in Nature on September 21, shows that only 20% of doctoral institutions in the United States provided 80% of tenure-track faculty to institutions across the country between 2011 and 2020 (see “Hiring Bias”). No historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) were among that 20%, says Hunter Wapman, computer scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder (UC Boulder) and co-author of the paper. . One in eight US-educated tenure-track faculty members earned their doctorates at just five elite universities: the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Stanford University in California; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“It’s not surprising, but it’s shocking” to see this data, says Leslie Gonzales, a social scientist who studies higher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “There’s so much brilliant work and training of brilliant scholars happening outside of this little bit” of institutions, including in HBCUs and HSIs — and it’s being overlooked, she says.

Hiring bias: Chart showing that only 20% of US universities produced 80% of US-educated faculty from 2011 to 2020.

Source: Ref 1.

This image of elitism is supported by a study published last month in Nature Human behavior2, showing that almost 25% of faculty members in the United States have at least one parent with a doctorate (in the general population, less than 1% of people have a parent with a doctorate). This matters because parents with college degrees tend to have higher socioeconomic status than those without such an education, so upper-class families contribute heavily to the pipeline of doctorate, says Aaron Clauset, a computer scientist at UC Boulder and co-author of both papers.

Together, the studies describe a university system in which most faculty members are educated at a few universities, and university researchers generally come from families with similar backgrounds, establishing a cycle of similarity. “Is the system a meritocracy? asks Daniel Larremore, a computer scientist at UC Boulder who co-authored both papers. “In peer review, no; in the dissemination of ideas, no; and in hiring teachers, surely not.

Measuring Excellence

The Nature The paper’s dataset included tenured and tenure-track faculty who worked at doctoral institutions in the United States between 2011 and 2020, for a total of 295,089 individuals at more than 350 institutions. The data came from the Academic Analytics Research Center based in Charlotte, North Carolina, which offered Larremore and the team access to the information. He, Wapman and their colleagues sorted faculty members from the dataset into 107 subject areas, such as ecology and chemistry.

Depending on the field, only 5 to 23 percent of faculty members worked at a more prestigious institution than where they earned their doctorate, according to the analysis. Fields with the least “upward mobility” included classical sciences and economics, while those with the most animal sciences and pharmacology.

Hiring committees seem to use prestige as an indicator of workplace excellence, says Kimberly Griffin, dean of the College of Education at the University of Maryland at College Park. But “prestige” doesn’t necessarily mean “more qualified,” and prestigious graduate programs often admit students based on standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and the reputation of their undergraduate degree. All of these, research shows, can put students of color at a disadvantage, says Griffin, who is also editor of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

“Accepting that prestige is a good measure of excellence means we’re not looking at the history of how things got prestigious,” Gonzales says. The creation of elite American universities is “interwoven with exclusion,” she adds. For example, many institutions have a history of seizing land from indigenous groups, or originally derived their wealth or supported their infrastructure with the labor of enslaved black people.

Learn from data

The Nature report found that the proportion of new hires who are women has remained stable since 2011 in 100 of the 107 fields analyzed – and has actually declined in the remaining 7. The overall percentage of women increased in three-quarters of the fields, but the authors attribute this to a high proportion of men among faculty members who have reached retirement age. These trends indicate that efforts to hire more women in academia have not been successful, at least since 2011, Larremore says.

He notes two limitations of the gender dataset: the team primarily used cultural name-gender associations to classify faculty members as male or female, which is not necessarily reliable; and there was no non-binary gender category.

The Nature Human behavior used an online survey to collect data from 7,024 tenure-track faculty in the United States. Clauset was surprised by the number of people who have contacted the team about the article since its publication. “I don’t think we realized how much that would resonate with people in their lived experiences,” he says. Many people who are “first-generation” graduate students from families without a graduate degree said they felt set apart from their more advantaged peers, he adds.

There are ways in which academia could minimize prestige and reduce inequality. The fundamental first step is to question prestige and where it comes from, Gonzales says. She advises hiring committees to list all the places they plan to advertise a position, including their personal connections; examine the institutional diversity of the list; and add HBCUs, HSIs and regional institutions if not already included.

Unequal access to faculty jobs by gender, race, and socioeconomic background has consequences. “There is a tremendous amount of literature that says who is in the scientific community affects the research questions that are asked,” Clauset says. “By not being as diverse as we could be, as inclusive as we could be, we are losing smart people who could change the world for the better.”

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