Suppose a graduate student is found to be noticeably or even significantly behind in overall academic and research competence. For example, they may have significantly weaker language and comprehension skills and technical skills such as using a computer or navigating the web. They may also be lacking other peripheral skills which are often important for graduate students. This may be indirectly related to being from a minority and/or underprivileged background where such exposure and opportunities to learn can be limited.

If he/she are held to the same standards as his/her peers when comparing their relative performance, would this be considered to be discrimination if his/her situation was known? On one hand, same treatment would be fair to his/her peers and avoids human judgement. On the other hand, one could argue that it is unreasonable to expect the same amount of performance when they are missing necessary skills and experience.

There was a comment that 'held to the same standards' was too vague. As a result I want to provide some hypothetical situations in which it is necessary to compare the performance of a student with his/her peers.

Suppose an advisor has limited funding for RA and travel opportunities. They want to provide them to students with the best performance either as a means of rewarding them or to provide a better return on investment. This would mean the graduate student in question would have little chance of obtaining it. Is this discrimination or an unfair bias?

Suppose again the average graduation time for a program is 5 years. However, due to the slow progress of the student (compared to their peers) they may be held for 6 or 7 years before being deemed ready to graduate. Is this a discriminatory practice?

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    Maybe the question should be, do you have an opportunity to assist them to help themselves improve. Is there a way you can help them mitigate their (and others) limitations without changing your grading of their work? E.g., maybe encourage them to join a study group or refer them to a language course. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 20:42
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    What does "held to the same standards" mean, in graduate school (e.g., I'm thinking of mathematics). Is this about "grading"? Is there any reason to "compare" individuals? Do you have some obligation to "fail" a certain fraction? The context is very unclear. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 20:59
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    I don't think you've asked the question you actually want to ask, because "Suppose a graduate student is ... significantly behind in overall academic and research competence. ... This could plausibly be due to being a minority" is the textbook definition of a racist comment. I presume you didn't mean to imply that students' ethnicity determines or affects their language comprehension or academic ability. So why don't you take the time to rewrite your question to ask what you actually meant?
    – Tom Church
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 22:45
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    @TomChurch I am asking the question I mean to ask. I've changed the sentence to be more specific but the point remains. No, I am not implying being a minority affects prevents one from learning at the same rate. Being from a minority background can however affect their language comprehension ability as English can be a third or even fourth language.
    – user44476
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 23:00
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    @Co3O4: This is one of those cases where people really really care that you don't appear to mix up correlation and causation: it's not that the ethnicity itself affects language comprehension ability in general. Rather, it's that the language you grow up with at home/school affects your ability to comprehend other particular languages differently (i.e. you'll understand more similar ones to your native language more easily than more foreign ones). It's an obvious fact, but many people will completely flip out when you don't word it carefully.
    – user541686
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 7:20

7 Answers 7


You are asking two separate and completely unrelated questions. The first, which you posed in the title, concerns the meaning of the English word "discrimination". The answer to that question is very simple: no, treating all students according to uniform standards and policies without consideration of their membership in various ethnic or racial groups is not discrimination; rather, it is precisely the absence of discrimination. That says nothing about whether it is a good or a bad (or moral/immoral, ethical/unethical etc) policy, it simply answers the question of whether it fits the meaning of a particular word in the English language.

Your second question was about how graduate students from minority and/or underprivileged backgrounds "should" be treated, which I interpret as asking about whether the policy of applying uniform standards to all students alluded to above is a good or a bad thing to have. This is a special case of a large set of questions associated with the terms affirmative action and reverse discrimination. It is a controversial topic that has been and still remains the subject of a large amount of debate as well as litigation, and if you care to learn more about it, there's a large body of discourse on such questions that you can find referenced in the Wikipedia articles linked above or with a google search. It is a sufficiently complex topic that I feel I can't meaningfully comment on it in a short post, and in any case enough has been said about it by people who have given the subject much more thought than I have to make anything I can think of saying about it laughably simplistic and uninteresting.

To clarify, this answer expresses no opinion about what policies should be in place for treating graduate students from underprivileged backgrounds.

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    You are asking two separate and completely unrelated questions. -- Agreed (and which is why I voted to close this question as unclear). I like your take on it, though (the question even makes a little more sense now). +1
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 3:01
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    I like this alot, but I disagree with your definition of discrimination. If the standards you hold all students to are discriminatory in nature, then holding them to that standard is discrimination. Imagine a standard that all tests would be held on Fridays at sundown (a conflict between the standard and the Jewish faith). In Wales, forcing Welsh students to take tests in English, is a big one. A uniform policy might not allow animals into the classroom, but that would be discriminatory against individuals that need service animals.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 4:48
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    @StrongBad you have a point, and maybe I was being a bit simplistic, but in my defense, I did not actually attempt to give a general definition of discrimination, I only opined that the specific things OP was asking about did not meet the definition. I agree that in principle, with enough bad faith even uniform policies could be devised that were in fact discriminatory in nature, and your examples do a good job of illustrating that, but I find them rather extreme and unrealistic, except perhaps the one involving Wales. I stand by my assessment that what OP asked about is not discrimination.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 6:48
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    @StrongBad This is way too broad a definition of discrimination for practical purposes. What if some religion is against the idea of taking a test at all? What if the native langages of all students are different? What if I claim my goldfish provides me with emotional support? Should we make a test in 35 langages held on 6 different days with all animals allowed? Then it will be discriminatory to the one who needs to take the test at night, because their doctor said daylight negatively affects their performance. This cannot work as a society model.
    – user69223
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 7:02
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    @Zozor: There’s a big difference between your extreme examples and StrongBad’s reasonable ones. As you say, it’s unfeasible to meet extreme and arbitrary requirements; but that’s no argument against aiming to accommodate reasonable and well-founded ones.
    – PLL
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 10:51

It would be discrimination to not hold them to the same standard. It would not necessarily be fair on the underprivileged students,but where do you draw the line? Who's to say a "privileged" student has a benefit in a specific subject? If a privileged student is studying criminology to they get leniency on their grading for not having experienced as much crime? Who's to say their background hasn't helped them in other ways?

If you start grading based on a student's background you start to diminish the integrity of the course. "You only passed cause you're from a poor family".

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    Graduate school (excluding law school and medical school), for example in mathematics, is not much about grades, at all. The feedback loop is much more complicated, and much more individualized, in any case. People have wildly varying backgrounds, but/and can/do succeed in grad school. The successes need not be pre-scripted, and need not be identical. Mostly, no one "fails", etc. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 20:57

It is not discriminatory to expect that graduates of your program attain a certain standard of excellence, as determined by the (uniform) graduation requirements established by the program. It would be derilection of duty, however, to bring in a student substantially below your department’s expectations for incoming students without offering some mechanism or plan whereby the student can “catch up” with her peers. Note that this doesn’t mean you are obligated to move heaven and earth to do so—the student also bears significant responsibility for meeting the program requirements just like everybody else.

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    Big +1 for catch-up and not lowering standards.
    – Mołot
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 15:04
  • I agree with @Mołot that catch-up is probably a much better mechanism than changing standards. The partial responsibility of department/advisor but also the student is a good point. This is the most relevant answer in the context of the question (i.e. graduate school).
    – user44476
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 15:27

The only fair way is to assess abilities is to do the same way for everyone. This does not imply that you can't offer additional resources to students from underprivileged backgrounds (e.g., additional, Spanish-speaking tutors for Hispanic students) but in the end, you will have to apply the same standard when measuring ability or a diploma becomes meaningless: Did this student applying for X get an A because she was good, or because he was Hispanic?

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    It is not clear to me that the good version of this question is about "grading". It's about grad school, where smart people do not form a homogeneous population in any case, in terms of their quirks, background, specific talents, and so on. Grades are not good indicators, in my experience. Maybe you could usefully re-phrase your answer to not needlessly refer to "grades"? I hesitate to edit... Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 0:48
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    Fair point. I meant "grading" not in the sense of giving a grade on a scale from 0 to 100, but more in the sense of "ranking" or "assessing". I edited the post. Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 3:10

Is it discrimination? No, as it is it's not discrimination. You're treating all the students equally, without discriminating between them, so it's rather the exact opposite.

However, unlike what some might think, "Am I treating everyone on an exactly equal footing?" is not the gold standard of ethical actions. For example, we can all agree that providing special bathrooms for people with reduced mobility and giving them priority access to these bathrooms is good, right? Well, that's discrimination, too! But good discrimination... (Which may be an oxymoron depending on your definition of "discrimination".)

You can't just say "it's not discriminatory" and be done with it. That's intellectual laziness and dishonesty. "Is it discrimination?" is perhaps one of the questions you should ask yourself, but certainly not the only one.

One problem is that the word discrimination is so negatively charged that people are reluctant to use it for situations where discrimination can be good, and try to contort words into meaning their opposite. But in the end it's not "discrimination" that matters, it's "are my actions moral?". But of course, it's much harder to answer, and many people take the shortcut. We're all different, and pretending that moral actions can only result from pretending that everyone is exactly the same is at best naive.

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    The answer is very well written and your point about intellectual laziness is very true, but unfortunately you’re also misusing the word “discrimination”, which according to the dictionary refers to unjustly treating different groups of people differently. So hiring a smart person over a stupid person is not “discrimination of stupid people”; providing accessible bathrooms is also not discrimination; in general, there is no such thing as “good discrimination” - that would be an oxymoron - but there is such a thing as “good examples of treating people of different groups differently”.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 15:31
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    I think I found the one you used: Oxford dictionary? "The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex." It does say unjust or prejudicial (and prejudicial isn't always against, it can be for). Anyway I'm not a native English speaker so perhaps the nuances are lost on me (although in French "discrimination" has the same very negative connotation, even though formally it's not necessarily negative). I've edited my answer a bit.
    – user9646
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 15:38
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    @DanRomik Uh... I don't see the word unjust there... (That was in fact the second dictionary I used, which is why I was surprised! I wouldn't have gone to check otherwise...)
    – user9646
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 16:20
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    you’re right, sorry. I also checked a couple of dictionaries. The word “unjust” is specifically used in the dictionary definition given by my iPhone and google (“the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.”) Also, to my understanding, “prejudicial” also encapsulates an element of injustice.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 16:27
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    @DanRomik Frankly, I'd have to say that the iPhone's definition is not accurate in this case. Certainly, unjust discrimination is a type of discrimination (and not an uncommon one,) but not all discrimination is of that type. At best, that's a secondary definition of the word (as, in some contexts, unfairness could be implied.) "To discriminate" just means to make a choice or discern a difference between some set of things, though, without regard to whether the reasons are good or bad.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 17:36

I disagree with the other answers. While on the surface, holding all students to the same standards sounds like the definition of fairness, if those standards are in fact discriminatory, then holding students to them is discrimination.

The simplest example I can think of is in Wales, students are allowed to take exams in either English or Welsh. Holding all students to a standard of taking exams in English (or Welsh) would clearly be discrimination against a group. One could argue that not allowing students to take exams in Spanish is also discrimination, and to an extent it is, but not all discrimination is illegal and not all groups are protected.

Another example would be to force students to take exams on Friday evenings. This would conflict with the Jewish Sabbath and cause issues for some students. Discrimination can also occur if the standard does not allow accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

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    Your examples are quite different. Moving an exam from Friday evening to accommodate for Shabbat will not influence the integrity of the course. Allowing to take an exam in Welsh will not influence the integrity of the course, unless it's a course on English language or literature. Where do we draw the line between a discriminatory standard and a required skill?
    – svavil
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 5:32
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    @svavil defining discrimination in general terms isn't hard, and strongbad gave the most considerate answer, but indeed the line-drawing is the difficult part. The further we get from the 'simple' world of ideal principles toward the complex and realistic world in which those are applied in practice, the more difficult and contested the answer becomes. Therefore I voted to close the question as too broad and off-topic. (In fact, it's also opinion-based.) Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 8:38
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    What you're describing is not discrimination, as Dan Romik says it is the exact opposite. Making accommodations for people based on their individual needs is, in fact, discrimination. The problem is that the word discrimination is negatively connoted, so people are reluctant to use it for such situations and try to contort words into meaning their opposite. For example, we can all agree that providing special bathrooms for people with reduced mobility and giving them priority access is good, right? Well, that's discrimination, too! But good discrimination...
    – user9646
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 9:08
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    What I'm trying to say is, "is it discrimination?" is a poor criterion. "Is it moral?", " Is it ethical?", "Is it legal?" etc are much better criteria. Focusing on one word, even a negatively charged one like "discrimination", is counter-productive. Otherwise you get, for example, people arguing that "they're not racist" because they're targeting a religious group instead of a "race" (← meaningless word), as if proving they're not "racist" solves everything. Similarly, proving "it's not discriminatory" doesn't solve everything. Sometimes it's even the opposite.
    – user9646
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 9:08
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    @StrongBad You completely missed my point. We can argue all day whether providing only non-accessible bathrooms is worthy of the name "discrimination" or not. I say it doesn't matter what name you give to it (although I still think that the word "discrimination" does not fit, cf. a dictionary). What matters is that it's bad.
    – user9646
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 13:57

If you are assessing the students on the correct criteria then it is not discrimiation. However, often we judge people on a proxy for what we really care about.

So, for example, if I set an essay on the the structure/function relationship of the genome, I am trying to assess a students understanding of a particular section of biology. If I then give a poor mark to a student whose first language is not English because the quality of English is poor, this is discriminatory, because some groups of people have better/worst English, but this is not supposed to be the skill being assessed. However, if instead of biology, the programme was English, then it would not be discriminatory to assess the quality of English.

Similarly, I might want to assess how hard someone works by how often they are in the office between 9am and 5pm (yes, I know this is a terrible way to assess effort). But if someone is from a culture with a siesta, they might work 9am-1pm and again 3pm-7pm. They are working just as hard, but my criterion only works well for people of one culture.

The question about how to deal with resource allocation is more nuanced, and for me would be a question not of reward, but of who would benefit most. So a student who doesn't yet have research to present probably would not benefit from travel to conferences as much as one who did. But for RA help, i would generally look at two student and go: this student is going to complete their project without extra help, where as this one is never going to finish without support. Thus the RA help would go to the one who needed it so that both students could get over the line.