Eight out of every ten American tenure-track faculty received their PhDs from just 20 percent of the nation’s universities, according to a study published in Nature earlier this week (September 21). Of those same faculty members, over 14 percent received their degrees at just five institutions: The University of California, Berkeley; Harvard University; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Stanford University. The striking findings illuminate the “extreme inequality” in academic hiring, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

“The size of the inequality suggests that we are almost surely missing out on many extremely talented people and innovative ideas,” University of Colorado (CU), Boulder computer scientist and coauthor of the study Aaron Clauset tells the Chronicle.

The study examined the education and employment statuses of nearly 300,000 tenured and tenure-track faculty across US doctoral institutions from 2011–2020. According to Inside Higher Ed, differences in the size of the university or its respective departments did not explain the inequalities, which were fairly consistent across all fields.

Instead, these differences stem from a recurring cycle that keeps more prestigious universities at the top of this hierarchy, Clauset and his colleagues argue in the paper. When the team algorithmically estimated institutional prestige, they found that faculty trained at prestigious institutions end up employed at prestigious and less prestigious institutions, while faculty trained at less prestigious institutions are unlikely to be hired by a higher prestige group. Rates of attrition (the loss of academic faculty to other career paths) were also higher in faculty trained at less prestigious institutions as well as faculty trained outside the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada, Science reports.

The hiring inequalities detailed in the study weren’t limited to prestige levels. Although other studies have suggested that representation for women has increased over the years, Clauset and colleagues tell the Chronicle that this increase is largely due to the retirement of male academics rather than the increased hiring of women, adding that newly hired faculty are still more likely to be men. Urging prestigious institutions to hire more women and others from underrepresented groups may not fix the issue, experts say. For example, research from University of Kansas labor economist Donna Ginther has found that Black investigators at elite institutions were cited less than their white colleagues when publishing the same amount of papers.

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Clauset and his coauthors are working on follow-up studies to further investigate the disparity in attrition rates, according to Science. Without understanding why institutions are failing to retain highly trained and highly educated hires in a highly competitive industry, “efforts to change academia are really operating in the dark,” CU Boulder graduate student and study coauthor Hunter Wapman tells Science. Their work should be a wake-up call for institutions to rethink where and how they get their faculty members, Clauset adds in a statement to the Chronicle.

“We are only just beginning to understand how much and in what ways these disparities in who ends up as tenure-track faculty at Ph.D.-granting universities in the U.S. [shape] what scholarship is produced and what discoveries are made,” he tells Inside Higher Ed.