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Graduate student enrollment at Stanford is increasingly diverse

Data shows that underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields are the fastest growing groups among Stanford’s graduate student population.
Group photo of Stanford IDEAL members
The 2021-2023 cohort of the DARE Doctoral Fellowship Program. | Image courtesy of Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education

Years of enrollment data analyzed by the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education reveal that underrepresented minorities (URM) and women in STEM fields are the fastest growing groups among Stanford’s graduate student population. According to university administrators and faculty, strategic engagement and admissions efforts in Stanford’s schools and departments helped contribute to these increases. Stanford’s IDEAL initiative seeks to sustain and build on this momentum as part of its larger goal to increase diversity broadly defined at all levels of the university.

“The graduate student enrollment numbers of the past several years are not coincidental,” said Stacey F. Bent, vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. “They reflect our faculty’s commitment to making our campus a more diverse, inclusive and equitable learning environment, as well as the support of our university leadership and community to reach that goal.”

From the Provost’s Statement on Diversity and Inclusion

At Stanford, we strive to ensure that a diversity of cultures, races and ethnicities, genders, political and religious beliefs, physical and learning differences, sexual orientations and identities is thriving on our campus. Such diversity will inspire new angles of inquiry, new modes of analysis, new discoveries and new solutions.

Between the 2011-12 and 2021-22 academic years, the number of underrepresented minorities (by federal definition, students who are U.S. citizens and self-identify with one or more of the following groups: American Indian/Alaska Native, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander) among all Stanford graduate students increased by 43 percent. Additionally, enrollment of women graduate students in STEM fields (those enrolled in programs in Stanford’s Schools of Earth, Engineering, and Medicine, and the natural sciences in the School of Humanities & Sciences) increased by 44 percent over the same period. In contrast, overall graduate enrollment during this time period grew by only 5 percent.

Chris Gonzalez Clarke, associate vice provost for graduate education, said that enrollment data from any one year to the next make the change seem incremental, but stepping back to look at enrollment trends over the past decade reveals the extent of the progress.

“These groups are far outpacing any other growth in graduate enrollment,” said Clarke. “And this year we have one of the most diverse graduate cohorts Stanford has admitted and enrolled.”

Clarke noted that trends in higher education across the country likely contribute to the changes at Stanford. Data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics show significant demographic changes, including a decade-long growth in graduate enrollment nationally of Black and Hispanic/Latino students.

Galvanizing graduate programs

Bent attributed much of Stanford’s progress in diversifying its graduate student body over the past decade to earlier commitments to improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Since 2012, school diversity officers of the Graduate Diversity Staff Council have administered application fee waiver programs, as well as cultivated relationships with individual students and faculty and staff who advise and support students at minority-serving institutions across the nation. Also in 2015, the School of Engineering (SOE) identified diversity broadly defined as a key component of its long-term strategic plan, and supported initiatives in departments and programs to increase graduate diversity.

Crystal Nattoo is an electrical engineering PhD student who joined the SOE recruitment team to encourage engineering students, particularly those from nontraditional backgrounds, to apply to Stanford.

“When I went to my first conference to table for Stanford, I noticed that having someone like me at the table that had just gone through the admissions process and had shared identities with conference attendees seemed to lower their hesitancy to approach the booth,” Nattoo said. “I spoke to a lot of undergraduate students and it really reminded me of the importance of having diverse representation in higher education.”

Another key factor was a policy change in 2018, when the Faculty Senate voted to allow individual schools to decide whether to require scores from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) for graduate admission, replacing a university-wide requirement. Faculty champions of the policy change argued that a university-wide requirement could dissuade talented applicants from applying to Stanford when academic programs elsewhere were not requiring the test. Many faculty and departments have embraced the policy.

“It’s always tough to figure out who will be a good fit for a particular graduate program, but the GRE doesn’t necessarily help,” said Jane Willenbring, associate professor of geological sciences. “Our department decided to move toward a more holistic review process without the exam because research shows that it’s not great at predicting success in graduate school and can create unwanted barriers.”

The Faculty Senate’s decision was recommended by the School of Medicine, which has long been at the forefront of DEI efforts. Many of its PhD programs were among the first at Stanford to drop the GRE requirement. Over the years the school has also increased funding for students from underrepresented backgrounds and developed inclusive programming, such as the ADVANCE Summer Institute, which helps students transition smoothly into their first year of graduate school and create community.

“Our very intentional efforts resulted in a huge demographic change,” said Ayodele Thomas, former associate dean for graduate and career education & diversity at the School of Medicine. “Ten years ago, for example, historically underrepresented minorities accounted for roughly 10 to 15 percent of students entering our fourteen biosciences PhD programs. Last year that number was 29 percent.”

IDEAL supports broad involvement throughout the university in new strategies for increasing graduate diversity. “Through the IDEAL graduate recruitment initiative, VPGE has been working with departments and schools to understand their needs, bring them together to share experiences, and facilitate conversations and cultural change,” Clarke said.

Quarterly meetings convene faculty for discussions about recruitment strategies, and VPGE provides resources to assist departments with admissions and outreach. Working with Institutional Research & Decision Support, VPGE has also provided data tools that enable departments and programs to understand historic application trends in order to refine their outreach strategies.

Thomas noted that while increasing enrollment of underrepresented students is progress, it also creates new challenges. “Once you’ve increased diversity among your student population, which is all about numbers, then it’s important to make sure those students feel included,” she said.

Faculty on inclusive classrooms

Marc Levenston, associate professor of mechanical engineering, said that more diverse cohorts have greatly enhanced the classroom and research group dynamic.

“It’s easy to get trapped into a particular way of thinking or miss an important perspective when everyone involved comes from similar educational and societal backgrounds,” he said. “But having people with different life experiences can really steer research in new and interesting directions.”

Faculty participation in IDEAL graduate recruitment initiatives has been high. Levenston said that these efforts, particularly the quarterly faculty meetings, have been crucial to keeping DEI a priority.

“This work really highlights the importance of diversity and shows that we’re investing resources into it as a university,” he said. “Things have been improving. They’re not where they should be. But these resources, particularly the faculty conversations, have been really helpful.”

Willenbring echoed that sentiment, stressing the importance of having good historical data from prior years when recruiting and admitting more diverse students.

“It’s important to keep track of the demographics of graduate students,” she said. “The numbers really help to understand holes in the system, the places where we can improve, and, of course, to know where we’re making progress.”

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