Charles Menifield knows well the benefits of graduate education.
By Anita Neal Harrison
charles Menifield spent his boyhood summers on a tractor and in a pigpen, working alongside his dad and brother on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. Menifield’s dad was an agricultural worker. For the young Menifield, the family’s shotgun house was an enduring source of shame.
“I vowed to get off that farm one way or another,” recalls Menifield during a conversation in his office at MU’s Truman School of Public Affairs. The windows behind him reveal an attractive view of a well-tended lawn. “Once I graduated, it was either military or college. College was it for me because my teachers said I was competent enough to make it.”
He more than made it. Today, Menifield is a professor of public affairs, associate dean of academic programs in the Truman School, and the author of four well-received books: two on minority politics and two on public budgeting and financial management. Menifield earned his doctorate at MU in 1996, then, among other early career successes, served as a visiting scholar at the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, D.C., where he conducted budget analysis on federal health care programs. Next came nine years on the faculty of the University of Memphis. He returned to MU in the fall of 2012.
Having experienced the life-changing power of higher learning, Menifield was quite naturally attracted to questions concerning educational opportunities. While in Memphis, he began a line of research into graduate school admission criteria, a pursuit he has continued at MU. A chief interest involves evaluations of commonly used admission criteria — in particular undergraduate GPAs and Graduate Record Exam scores — and whether these are good predictors of graduate-school success among older, “mid-career” students.
“I want to make sure that we accept students who are likely to succeed by analyzing criteria that correctly assesses their aptitude for graduate work,” Menifield says. Accomplishing this, he has found, is bound up with two important principles: first, admissions officials need to make sure applicants are not discouraged or denied because of irrelevant criteria; and second, students who gain admission must have what it takes to succeed, so “we’re not wasting their time, and they’re not wasting their energies.”
Menifield’s research comes as graduate and professional programs struggle to sort through a larger and more diverse applicant pool. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, graduate application rates increased almost five percent per year between 1999 and 2009. In 2007, one out of four graduate students was 40 years old or older.
These older graduate students are of particular interest to Menifield. But when he sought data on whether commonly used admission criteria were equally valid for early- and mid-career students, he found none.
Thus began a research project that culminated in a paper published this fall in the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives. In the study, Menifield examined 18 years of data related to students’ admission qualifications at a master’s of public administration program offered by a university in the Southeast. These included benchmarks such as undergraduate GPA, GRE scores, undergraduate major and years of professional experience. He then compared how these qualifications for students’ entry to the program stacked up against their grade point averages while there.
His findings showed that, while undergraduate GPA is a strong and consistent indicator of success for both early- and mid-career students, GRE scores have less predictive value for mid-career students. He also discovered that neither an applicant’s years of professional experience nor his undergraduate major has a significant effect on GPA. This held true whether students were part of the early- or mid-career cohort.
“Even if a student has a degree in math, if he can write well and do simple statistical analysis, he has a good chance of succeeding,” Menifield says. “This is why it is important to better evaluate skills, particularly for nontraditional students.”
Menifield’s research findings are not the only way he’s seeking to help prospective graduate students. In February 2013, he established the Dr. Charles E. Menifield Fellowship in Public Administration, which provides financial support for one or more public administration graduate students with financial need. The fellowship will give preference to promising African-American students.
“I wanted to give back at least what I had received,” says Menifield, himself the recipient of a Gus T. Ridgel Fellowship as a doctoral student. “I have reaped many, many benefits from getting my Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, and the [Menifield] fellowship does not even come close to repaying those benefits. I have been able to do so much for myself and my family — it’s unbelievable. I value education. I truly do.”