WSGC programs for incoming undergraduates at UW remove letters of reference requirement

The Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium is pleased to announce that our University of Washington scholarship programs for incoming undergraduates will no longer require letters of reference as part of the application process. This change is effective immediately for our scholarships for community college transfer applicants and for first-year student applicants.

Why have we made this change?  Letters of reference have long been standard practice in academia — often requested of applicants for an academic position, grant funding, or a graduate program.  They are, in theory, an opportunity for a review committee to get more insight about an applicant from a respected mentor or colleague.

In practice, unfortunately, letters of reference all too often simply reinforce an unequal status quo.  The students most likely to secure a letter of reference from a teacher or advisor are frequently students who are the most outspoken in class or in a club.  Students from minoritized communities, however, are typically the least likely to speak up school group settings, for various reasons.

Even when minoritized students are confident in their abilities, they are still less likely to receive recommendations than peers who are white boys/men.  As Sapna Cheryan, associate professor of psychology at the UW, explains, “Women [typically] tend to underestimate how well they will do, and men tend to overestimate”:

Here’s the rub: That wasn’t as true of African-American and Hispanic women. They shared similar self-efficacy values as white men. The difference was that African-American girls and women who expressed more confidence that they would exceed in math were recommended less often by their teachers for honors or advanced courses as compared to their white male peers. Self-confidence simply was not enough to encourage them in STEM when facing factors like discrimination and inadequate academic opportunities.

The Space Grant program, since its inception in 1989, has been dedicated to supporting students of all identities — inclusive of gender, ethnicity, race, religion, sexuality, disability — into STEM pursuits. The WSGC program at the UW regrets that our process has required letters of reference, creating a hurdle to many students whom we wish to welcome.

“Requesting recommendation letters for this scholarship program runs counter to supporting the very students we are trying to reach,” said Kristi Morgansen, director of the Washington Space Grant Consortium.  “Recommendation letters, in particular, and their use are a systematic issue, and one that we can absolutely work to mitigate.”

WSGC at the UW is reworking our applications for both of our scholarship programs for incoming students.  Our new process will roll out with our first-year student applications in autumn 2021.  We are also committed to leveraging our work to impact the larger systems.

If you are a community college student who is applying to the University of Washington to pursue a STEM degree, we hope you will accept our invitation to apply for the Space Grant scholarship program.  We are accepting applications through June 30, 2021.

Our sincere thanks to everyone who brought this issue to the forefront so that we can take this small, but exciting step forward.  As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said when announcing the agency’s new Mission Equity, “When NASA opens doors to talent previously left untapped, the universe is the limit.”