Graduate Schools' Political Leanings Concern Some Students

US News

In the aftermath of an election that some hailed as the most divisive in recent memory, the political landscape could affect graduate school applicants weighing prospective schools.

Mary Plenzler, a Catholic college alumna, applied to University of Michigan--Dearborn despite its "left-leaning" reputation because she needed to fulfill a state certification requirement. But if Plenzler, a graduate education student, had applied more widely, she would have considered schools' political ideologies.

"It's fairly easy to figure out where a school stands politically via social media and the Internet," she says. "It would be rather unnerving for someone ... to end up at a school that's chock-full of people from the opposite end of the spectrum."

What about selecting a school across the aisle to solidify a student's perspective? "I'd argue that's an awfully expensive way to figure out where someone stands," she says.

[Learn why MBAs tout the benefits of studying politics.]

Simon Tam, an MBA student at Marylhurst University in Oregon, says it's important for applicants to consider all aspects of a prospective school's culture. "It can be a more enjoyable experience to find an environment that believes in similar values and principles as well as attracts like-minded students to their program," he says.

That's particularly true for graduate students, whose peers will become their network for job or client referrals, he says.

Schools' religious identification can also have a way of bleeding into politics, says an online graduate education student who asked not to be identified. The student initially applied to a Christian school, because she assumed there would be a separation of church and syllabi. After she was accepted, she gained access to further materials, and saw an emphasis on "biblically-based coursework at a graduate level."

"In one sentence they're discussing critical thinking and in the other, Corinthians," she says, explaining why she chose to go elsewhere. "I'm pro-choice, liberal, pro-gay marriage. I was just really in the wrong place."

[Read about how pre-law students find futures in politics less desirable.]

But other students and experts, such as Bev Taylor, of the New York-based consultancy The Ivy Coach, downplay the relevance a school's political leanings should have for grad school applicants.

Taylor's clients care about academic reputation and rarely weigh schools' political leanings. "And there's little reason for them to do so," she says. "Whether one is conservative or liberal, most U.S. universities lean left and some of the most prestigious universities--the Ivy League universities--lean especially left."

At Columbia University Business School, the fact that the dean was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney had "no bearing whatsoever" on any of Jonathan Wasserstrum's studies. "I can't recall a time when political beliefs overtly inserted themselves into the discussion," says Wasserstrum, a 2012 MBA grad.

Les Schmidt, a graduate education management applicant, is seeking the cheapest, quickest, online program from a respected school. Asking about a school's politics is akin to wondering about quality of airline meals, she says.

"You know you want to fly from point A to point B on a certain date [and] time and for the lowest price," she says. "After that, does the food matter?"

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