As I remarked several years ago in my series of posts about applying to PhD programs in philosophy, it seems to be extremely difficult to gain admission to an elite PhD program in philosophy if you're not from an elite undergraduate institution. Inspired by a comment on a recent post, I decided to look at this a bit more systematically.
Here's what I did. First, I looked to see which of the top ten Leiter ranked philosophy PhD programs consistently displayed undergraduate institution information for their graduate students. Two did: Princeton and Berkeley. Of the 121 graduate students listed on their websites, 119 had undergraduate institution information listed. Of these, 25 were from foreign universities -- typically elite universities (especially Oxford). Excluding the foreign students leaves a pool of 94 students with US undergraduate university listed (21 also listed some graduate work, typically an MA). I then looked at the US News and World Report rankings of their undergraduate institutions.
Twenty-seven students (29%) come from just eight universities: The US News top 10 National Universities, excluding MIT and CalTech (Chicago, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale).
Another seventeen (18%) come from the universities ranked 11-25 (Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Rice, UCLA, USC, and Vanderbilt being represented).
Ten more (11%) come from universities ranked 26-50. And of these ten, seven are from universities with elite graduate programs in philosophy: Three from NYU (Leiter ranked #1 in the U.S.), 1 from Michigan (Leiter ranked #5), 2 from UNC Chapel Hill (Leiter ranked #9), and 1 from Tufts (Leiter ranked as the #1 master's program in the U.S). So, really, these universities are more elite in philosophy than their US News ranking would suggest. Rounding out the mix are Brandeis, UC Santa Barbara, and UW Madison. [Revised 10/28]
Only three universities ranked 51-100 are represented: Two students from Rutgers (whose PhD program is Leiter ranked #2), one from Northeastern (though this student took an MA from Minnesota first), and strikingly four students from Colorado (which has a mid-ranked PhD program: Leiter rank #26).
Many of the remaining students are from elite schools in the US News category "National Liberal Arts Colleges". Eight (9%) are from colleges in the top ten (Amherst, Claremont McKenna, Middlebury, Pomona, Swarthmore, and Williams represented), and seven more from those ranked 11-50 (Bates, Franklin & Marshall, Kenyon, Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, and Wesleyan represented).
Only eighteen students (19%) come from all the remaining universities in the United States combined. And even this number overestimates the number of students with genuinely nonelite backgrounds: Three are from Reed College, which though only ranked #57 among liberal arts colleges has a very strong tradition in philosophy; and at least another nine supplemented their undergraduate work with master's degrees or other work at elite schools or places with strong master's programs. Represented are: Arizona State, Biola, Catholic University, Cincinnati, Florida State, Houghton, Indiana-South Bend, Kalamazoo, Nebraska, North Carolina State, Reed, St John's College Santa Fe, St Vincent, and U Mass Boston.
To help give a sense of how thin a representation this is of nonelite schools, consider that there is not a single student on this list from the two biggest public university systems in the country: the Cal State system (412,000 students) and the SUNY system (468,000 students, but that number includes students in two-year colleges and technical institutes). Even the UC system is poorly represented once we exclude the two most elite universities (Berkeley and UCLA): The remaining campuses (Davis, Irvine, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz) are represented by only a single student from Santa Barbara.
I don't conclude that admissions committees are being unfair, much less explicitly elitist. Maybe students from Harvard and Columbia really are that much better. Or maybe the epistemic task of discerning the genuinely most promising applicants is so difficult that committees need to play the odds and the odds almost always say that the Harvard student is more likely to succeed than the Cal State student. Or maybe so much turns on the credibility of the letter writers that students whose letter writers aren't well known can't really be fully evaluated. Or, or, or, or.
But regardless how innocent the explanation, it's a shame.
Update, 5:44 pm:
Very interesting discussion in the comments! Let me clarify two points:
First: I interpret these results as applying only to the very most elite PhD programs -- roughly the Leiter top ten. There is plenty of evidence that lower-ranked PhD programs (like UCR, ranked #30) admit a substantial proportion of their students from nonelite schools (though I suspect there still is a large pedigree advantage). However, that fact is less consoling than it might seem if it's the case, as I suspect it is, the top ten PhD programs are vastly more successful than lower-ranked schools in placing their students into the sorts of elite research-oriented jobs and elite liberal-arts-college teaching jobs that many graduate students covet.
Second: I somewhat regret the impression that the title of this post might give that there is simply no chance to be admitted to an elite program from a Cal State or similar. There are a few exceptions, as should be evident from the data included in the post. At least some of the off-list schools are comparable in prestige to the Cal States and SUNYs. Whether these exceptions are frequent enough to constitute any practical chance even for awesome students from such schools, I'm not sure.
Update, October 28:
A reader compiled some data for me from Stanford. This list is not strictly comparable to the Princeton/Berkeley list, since it is list of last institution prior to Stanford, whether undergrad or graduate, but it's still probably somewhat comparable.
To my eye, the results look similar, with 28% (out of 40 total US students) from the top ten universities, and another 48% from the top 11-50 universities and top 1-50 liberal arts colleges. Only one student is from a university ranked 51-100, and that university, Pittsburgh, has an elite PhD program (Leiter ranked #4). 23% of the students (9 total) are from all the remaining universities in the US; and at least three of those are from well-regarded MA programs at those universities (to judge from those universities' MA placement lists: Cal State LA, Georgia State, and Texas Tech), while one more student is from a university that although not generally elite has a very strong PhD program in philosophy (Arizona, Leiter ranked #13). The remaining five students are from Illinois Wesleyan, Nevada-Las Vegas, Northern Arizona, Northern Iowa, and South Florida.
19%-23% representation from nonelite universities might not seem very skewed, but I think that would be a false impression. Many more students graduate from nonelite universities than from elite universities. Their low odds of admission are better seen looking up from the bottom than down from the top, as it were. If we take an arbitrary selection of nonelite schools, say all of the dozens of Cal States and SUNYs, we see not a single undergraduate from these schools in any of these three departments. (Caveat: Stanford has a CSLA MA student, and to judge from the comments section and private emails, at least two or three Cal State students have recently cracked other top ten departments; I haven't yet heard good news about any SUNY students.) Also if we look at the very good / marginally elite universities ranked 51-100 on the US News list -- schools which one might think could contribute substantial numbers of students to elite PhD programs -- we still see only very thin representation: Combining Princeton, Berkeley, and Stanford together, only four of those 50 schools are represented; only two if Rutgers and Pitt are reclassed as elite due to their top-ten rankings in philosophy. In contrast, almost all of the top 25 schools are represented, often multiply represented.
Here's another way of thinking about the distribution: In a typical smallish Princeton-Berkeley-Stanford class of six students, four will be from elite undergrad institutions, one will be from a (probably elite) foreign institution, and only one will be from any of the hundreds of good but nonelite US institutions -- and that one student as likely as not spent some time in some capacity either visiting an elite institution or at one of the top MA programs.
Update, August 7, 2013:
See these reflections by David Holiday on his failure to make the jump from a non-prestigious MA program to a PhD program. Starting a few paragraphs in he makes the case that "the student at the ho-hum department has no way of knowing what she doesn’t know, and what she doesn’t know is evident in her work". I do suspect this is part of the story.