The price of a GRFP, part 1

I had some downtime a while back (literally; the cluster I work on was down) and so I cracked open some analysis I’ve been doing on the side for a while. I like to switch off analyses and work on some side projects to keep me working, but not burnt out, and so I picked up a dataset I’ve been working on for a little while: the NSF GRFP awardees. 

A dear colleague letter

About 2 years ago, the NSF made a policy change announcement, summarized here (capitalization & other emphasis mine):

NSF will limit graduate students to only one application to the GRFP, submitted either in the first year OR in the second year of graduate school. … GRFP continues to identify and to inspire the diverse scientists and engineers of the future, and especially encourages women, members of underrepresented minority groups, persons with disabilities, and veterans to apply…. This is a more diverse population than admitted graduate students.

Lots of great commentaries have touched on the diversity challenges of the GRFP and the potential effects of the policy change proposed. Others have even looked into some of the representation details themselves in their commentaries.

But I want to ask two questions in a data-driven way this year, the first year that the rule is fully in place**:

Is the NSF fulfilling its mission to inspire “diverse scientists of the future”?


How has this policy change impacted diversity?

**While it was announced a little while back, this is the first year that the rule will be fully in effect as last year students who’d applied as 1st years were allowed to take the 2nd shot they’d expected to get.

Note that the NSF’s mission isn’t to award the absolute best scientists regardless of diversity. It isn’t an award sheerly on academic merit, on the number of Science and Nature and Cell papers you’ve got (or even for stellar bioRxiv preprints). It’s aiming to identify and inspire a diverse future.

The NSF GRFP is not an R01. It doesn’t fund high-risk experiments and expect grand returns. For 2000 people a year, give or take a few, it provides a chance to do research without financial pressure, as it is — with a scant living wage and freedom from burden.

But is it providing those resources to people who genuinely don’t have them? Is it funding fully-funded scientists with star-studded credentials or people who had to take student loans through college?

I downloaded data about 28,106 NSF recipients from 2011-2017, and matched the 700+ institutions they hail from with the College Score Card, a resource from the US Department of Education which has extremely comprehensive** information on accredited colleges in the United states.

**When I say this I’m not kidding. They’ve got the percentage of Pell Grant recipients who died within 2 years of starting at the university. All kinds of intensely random stuff. It’s really cool.

And I used this to study only the undergraduate institutions of NSF GRFP recipients. I’d theorize that properties of these reflect their opportunities prior to the beginning of their scientific career as graduate students. While I don’t know the story of any individual NSF recipient, I can say a lot about how diverse their undergraduate school’s populations are.

1. The most expensive undergraduate schools have an extreme excess of recipients.school_cost_award_excess.png

The median school with any undergraduates who win the NSF has 2 winners in any given year. However, if you stratify schools by cost, the top most expensive schools have over a fourfold excess of winners. The cheapest schools have extremely few. These correspond to yearly tuition differences of nearly $10k at private schools and $5k at public schools – fairly large differences, compounded over 4 years. It could cost an undergraduate $40k extra to attend a school that has any shot at getting them an award.

How are they paying for that?

2. The schools GRFP undergrads go to have smaller Pell grant populations.


The Pell grant is a subsidy that the US Government provides for students who need it in order to afford tuition. They’re limited to first-time bachelors’ degree recipients in genuine financial need. And notably, although quite a few students get them across the entire College Score Card dataset, the proportion needing them at schools that GRFP recipients come from is strikingly lower, for public and private schools.

To get a sense of the starkest differences, I look at schools which had even 1 undergrad recieve an NSF from 2011 through 2017. 

3. There is a difference of nearly $30k between family incomes at schools with and without even a single NSF recipient.

Screenshot 2018-04-02 23.22.38.png

Each College Score Card school has a reported family income for dependent students (e.g., students being claimed as dependents by their parents). In both public and private schools, the difference in mean between schools with just one NSF recipient (to say nothing of those with outlandishly many) is $30k – ironically, that’s about the size of the extra graduate stipend they’re about to win.

4. There are 16% more first-generation undergraduate students at schools with no NSF GRFP undergraduate recipients.

Screenshot 2018-04-02 23.22.21.png

At both public and private schools, according to the College Score Card, there’s a difference of 12-14% in the number of first generation college students in the school population between the schools whose undergrads earned even 1 award during 2011-2017 and those who earned none at all.

“But Natalie, what if the students at these high-income schools who are winning awards are there on scholarships, and your plots don’t represent them?”

Sure, that’s obviously possible and a big caveat. I think there are an incredible amount of deserving, hardworking people of diverse backgrounds at top institutions.  Certainly everyone who gets the GRFP, and many people who don’t, deserve it.

So really we want to ask: Should we consider the NSF GRFP a success if it by and large gives resources to schools that already have the resources to recruit and inspire diversity? What about the incredible deserving people at other institutions who could truly be inspired by the opportunity to attend graduate school?

“These are honestly just a few measures of economic opportunity and equality. I’d rather see…”

I like your style! To placate you, check out this Shiny I built app where you can look at a lot more about the schools and compare award winners and non-winners.

GRFP Undergrad Institutions

“So then what are you saying?”

This part of the mission statement has stuck with me throughout this analysis:

GRFP continues to identify and to inspire the diverse scientists and engineers of the future, and especially encourages women, members of underrepresented minority groups, persons with disabilities, and veterans to apply.

This is a great and noble goal. But do I buy that the entire pool of outstanding diverse future scientists is hiding inside the same few halls of learning? No. There are graduate institutions who win an extreme excess amount of GRFPs where, as I know myself (since I trained at one!), students are already fully funded, mostly on RAships.

There the NSF GRFP becomes a cap feather, not a guarantor of stability the way it could be in another circumstance.

So does that fulfill its mission?


But let’s get back to the bigger question. We may not be surprised to find that the NSF GRFP is not awarded to the most diverse, most needy group of future inspired scientists (regardless of its mission).

But how has the new policy affected that?


For more that, stay tuned for part 2, as I crunch the numbers for the 2018 NSF GRFP, relative to the 2011-2017 classes.

How has this policy change impacted diversity?

One thought on “The price of a GRFP, part 1

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