Programming Language: How Descriptions of Graduate Programs Affect Student Outcomes at MSIs

Josh Duke

Three faculty members and post-doc student pose inside Stone Building atrium
From left to right: Bret Staudt Willet, Lara Perez-Felkner, Annie Wofford, and Chantra Nhien

Three faculty members at the College of Education are embarking on a new project, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has awarded nearly $250,000. Drs. Annie Wofford (principal investigator), Lara Perez-Felkner (co-PI), and Bret Staudt Willet (co-PI) will investigate language used to describe computing-related master’s and doctoral programs at American Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and why faculty members chose specific terminology. The team also wants to look at the relationship between such terminology at MSIs and the career recruitment efforts in the computing and technology workforce. This grant represents the first of its kind awarded to faculty at the FSU College of Education.

Wofford believes that this project is important because “exploring how curricular language in computing-related graduate programs at MSIs and workforce terminology (mis)aligns, we will be able to identify whether and how language may serve as a barrier to racial equity in career opportunities.”

Jobs in computer engineering, information technology, cyber security, and other technology and computer-related occupations are consistently ranked as some of the most in-demand jobs by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These high-paying jobs are also competitive, so applicants need to present themselves and their experiences in the best way possible. By looking at the language used to describe computing-related programs at MSIs, Wofford and her team hope their thorough and sequenced approach “will help us better understand how programmatic and workforce language shape opportunities for MSI graduate students to advance in the computing and technology sector.”

Wofford is an Assistant Professor in the Higher Education program within the College of Education. She joined the faculty in 2022 and came to FSU to continue her research in creating equitable structures of support in STEM fields, as well as looking at and analyzing typical student pathways through graduate education. Her team of investigators came together over their shared interest in creating more opportunity for students, particularly students who come from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds.

Perez-Felkner is an Associate Professor in the Higher Education program and has partnered with computing and computing-related faculty, departments, and organizations, including those interested in enhancing equitable pathways to computing careers and student success. “MSIs are strong producers of STEM graduates and settings where so many talented aspiring faculty and industry leaders train for their future careers,” says Perez-Felkner. “In turn, the successful preparation of graduate students who attend MSIs is key to sustainable innovation in the computing workforce and computing departments, where the demand for computing faculty in general is high and continuing to grow.”

Student interacting with a touch screen computerWorking with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation seemed to be a perfect fit for the team. The foundation, which was started by former President of General Motors Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., sponsors original research through grants in both the fields of higher education and technology. The Sloan Foundation specifically looks for “projects that have a high expected return to society,” which is exactly what Wofford believes will come out of this project.

“Language holds a powerful role in cultivating equitable educational and career opportunities,” Wofford says. “Terminology reflects important everyday choices—choices made by faculty, staff, and human resources leaders—and the choices that these leaders make about how to name degree programs, describe curricular outcomes, or name certain skillsets as ‘desirable’ in job advertisements have a significant impact on who applies to certain programs.” Wofford adds that language used by MSIs can affect how students describe their learning and their skillsets during job interviews. “Ensuring alignment between the language used in graduate training at MSIs and that which is stated as desirable for workforce positions may enhance the ways that hiring committees recognize the many talented individuals earning their degrees at MSIs,” she says.

Staudt Willet, an Assistant Professor in the Instructional Systems and Learning Technologies program, also notes that “terminology determines whether applicants get through the initial automated filters for jobs in the tech industry.” Because of the high demand for positions in technology, many companies use algorithmic screening tools to refine the potential hiring pool. “Using expected language opens the first door,” explains Staudt Willet.

By investigating the language used by MSIs, Wofford, Perez-Felkner and Staudt Willet hope to make sure that all students considering computing-related programs and graduating from said programs have a fair chance of earning quality, high-paying jobs in the technology workforce.