Harvard MBAs, MIT Ph.Ds, Stanford Professors, Corporate CEOs – Should They Be Forced to Prove Basic English Proficiency to Columbia, MIT & Princeton?

There is an old saying that the darkest part of a lit room is underneath a bright lamp. An application of this proverb is the ironic but true fact that the most respected institutions sometimes establish the worst discriminatory practices. In this article, we present our views about some famous American Universities. These institutions are renowned around the world for their intellectual and research stature. These Universities are also regarded as bastions of liberalism. The reality might be different as we discuss below.

Quantitative or Mathematical Finance has been a hot area for the past decade. Popularly known as “Quants”, these masters of Mathematics, Physics, Biology and Engineering have developed complex models to analyze and trade financial securities. These models and strategies dominate trading to such an extent that over 70% of daily volume in US markets today are attributed to Quants.

These Quant jobs pay far higher salaries than other academic or research jobs. So the Quant programs at Universities like Columbia, Courant Institute, MIT, Princeton attract students from many other scientific disciplines. It is common to find Ph.D. recipients from other sciences applying to Math-Fin or Financial Engineering programs at these schools. It is also common to find older students with years of US work experience applying for these programs. The demand for these programs has been so strong that, at least until 2007, they received several hundred applications for 30-40 seats. With the number of applicants so vast and the room for spaces so small, each of these applications would need to stand out from the other hundred people who applied. When it comes to business courses though, services that are offered by places like Fortuna Admissions, can help to put these individuals in good stead when it comes to going through the daunting process of applying to the top schools in the country. But how do they even narrow down these places?

This allows these universities to demand stringent requirements from the applicants. For example, it is not uncommon for these programs to demand that all students pass the GRE or GMAT examinations. Only scores from tests taken in the past 5 years are allowed. This often means Ph.Ds from Physics, Engineering or Mathematics from Harvard, MIT, Stanford have to take the GRE or GMAT again simply to apply for these programs at Columbia, MIT or Princeton. Sounds weird but fair. Fair we say because this requirement applies to ALL applicants regardless of their background.

But this fairness seems to disappear when it comes to proficiency in English. Look at the requirements of Math-Fin MS programs from Columbia, MIT and Princeton:

  • Columbia – …Applicants whose undergraduate degree was received in a country in which English is not the official and spoken language must meet the following requirements:….One of these requirements is TOEFL.
  • MIT M.Fin Applications whose first language is not English must submit IELTS (preferred) or TOEFL scores. The IELTS/TOEFL requirement may be waived for those who have earned or by the time of enrollment in the M.Fin. Program will have earned a bachelor’s degree from a school where English is the primary language of instruction. A 2-year graduate degree from an English speaking school is not sufficient to waive the IELTS/TOEFL requirement.
  • PrincetonApplicants whose native language is not English and who have not received their undergraduate education in the United States must take the TOEFL.

Note the emphasis on undergraduate education or bachelor’s degree in the requirements above. Common sense suggests and all American Universities will tell you that their Master’s Degrees represent a higher level of education than their own Bachelor’s degrees while their Ph.D. degrees represent the highest level of education they provide. 

But according to the above Columbia/MIT/Princeton requirements, a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. degree provides a lesser proof of education than a Bachelor’s degree at least as far as English proficiency is concerned. MIT is the most explicit. It says that a 2-year graduate degree from an English speaking school is not enough but TOEFL is. Does that mean every recipient of a two-year MIT Master’s degree should be required to retake TOEFL before being hired by an American Firm? Remember according to MIT, only TOEFL scores that are less than 2 years old are deemed valid.

What is this benchmark of English proficiency, this TOEFL? It is a rather elementary examination that stands for Test of English as a Foreign Langauge. Frankly, it is a joke. We took the TOEFL years ago. As a graduate student, we also took the TOFFL, or the similar exam for French. We scored in the 99th percentile in this French TOFFL exam without being able to read, converse or write even the most rudimentary French. So we have no patience for the argument that TOEFL is a better proof of English proficiency than a MS or Ph.D. degree from an American University or better than actual working experience in an American business.

The best way to explain the stupidity of the TOEFL requirement is to illustrate which successful Americans would be forced to prove their proficiency in English by taking the TOEFL today if they wish to apply for the Masters in Finance Program at Columbia, MIT or Princeton.

  • Anshuman Jain has been a member of the Management Board at Deutsche Bank and heads the Bank’s Corporate & Investment Group. He earned his Masters degree in Finance from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Mr. Jain’s firm hires graduates of the Math-Fin programs at Columbia, MIT & Princeton. Unfortunately for Mr. Jain, his undergraduate degree is from Delhi University in India. So, despite his 25 year career on Wall Street, Mr. Jain would be required to take the TOEFL exam today to prove his basic proficiency in English to Columbia, MIT & Princeton
  • Vinod Khosla, the Founder of Sun MicroSystems and a former General Partner of Kleiner Perkins in Silicon Valley. He has an MBA degree from Stanford and a Masters from Carnegie Mellon. Unfortunately for Mr. Khosla, his undergraduate degree is from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. So after nearly 3 decades of a stellar education, scientific and business career in America, Mr. Khosla would be required to take the TOEFL exam today to prove his proficiency in English to Columbia, MIT, Princeton.
  • Nitin Nohria, Dean of the Harvard Business School. Dean Nohria, also the Richard Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, obtained his Ph.D. from MIT. Unfortunately for Professor Nohria, his undergraduate degree is from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, India. So he would have to take the TOEFL exam today if he wished to apply to the Math-Fin programs at MIT (where he got a Ph.D.), Columbia or Princeton. 
  • Indra NooyiChairperson & Chief Executive Officer of Pepsico Inc. Pepsi is one of the greatest brands in the world and Ms. Nooyi’s Masters degree is from Yale University. Unfortunately for Ms. Nooyi, her undergraduate degree is from Chennai, India. So she would have to take the TOEFL exam today if she wished to apply for the Math-Fin programs at Columbia, MIT or Princeton (Yale does not offer a Math-Fin program according to yale.edu).

Hopefully, these four examples demonstrate the sheer stupidity of the requirements imposed by the Math-Fin programs at Columbia, MIT & Princeton. But these requirements may be much more than merely stupid. Could these perhaps be a way to practice discrimination based on national origin? 

But first let us state that NOT all American Universities are as biased as Columbia, MIT & Princeton. We found two shining examples. One is the Courant Institute at NYU, often described as the Best Applied Mathematics program in America. This is a program whose faculty won 3 Abel Prizes in Mathematics in the past few years. The other is Stanford University, the intellectual muse of Silicon Valley. Look at their requirements below: 

  • Courant Institute – NYU TOEFL score for international students (this is not required if you have an undergraduate or more advanced degree from an English-speaking university).
  • Stanford Scores are required of all applicants whose first language is not English. Exceptions are granted for applicants who have earned a U.S. bachelor’s or master’s degree from a college or university accredited by a regional accrediting association in the United States, or the equivalent of either degree from a non-U.S. college or university of recognized standing where all instruction is provided in English.

So Anshuman Jain, Vinod Khosla, Nitin Nohria and Indra Nooyi should apply to Courant or Stanford to spare themselves of the indignity of being forced to take TOEFL to prove their English proficiency. We do recognize that Jain, Khosla, Nohria or Nooyi may not wish to apply for a Math-Fin MS program at this stage of their careers. But many of their students or employees might. This is particularly true of Mr. Jain’s employees. This is also true of many employees at Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Merrill Lynch and other Wall Street firms. These lower level or less storied people might be required to take TOEFL to prove their English proficiency despite years of work at these famous English speaking Wall Street Firms. 

Are the Admission Directors at Columbia, MIT and Princeton that much dumber than those at Courant-NYU or Stanford? Hardly. What then could be the rationale or basis of this rather stupid but insulting TOEFL requirement?  We offer a conjecture below.

Our Conjecture

Discrimination in America is rather hard to institutionalize. The basic laws and the tireless efforts of organizations like ACLU, other Anti-Discrimination groups and Class Action Law firms have ensured this. So how do Admissions Directors at University allow themselves the ability to set different standards or discriminate? By establishing a general standard that seems fair and broad-based.

Prima Facie, a standard that requires a fresh TOEFL exam for any student whose undergraduate degree is from outside the USA seems fair and broadbased. So that was the first standard set. But that would require all students from Australia, Canada, England and Ireland, all Anglo countries, to take the TOEFL. So the standard was modified to exempt students from countries where the official and spoken language is English. Seems fair and broad-based, right?

But look at the result of this seemingly fair and broad-based standard. It automatically imposes a discriminatory requirement of all non-Anglo applicants. It applies to a large class of students from countries like China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, other Asian countries and Latin Countries regardless of their ability, education or work experience. 

It is our belief that over 90% of professionals who have immigrated to America earned their undergraduate degrees from a non-US University. So the result of the admission requirements of Columbia, MIT & Princeton is to create a discriminatory standard & practice based on national origin.
Was this result intended? Was this standard crafted to institutionalize a discriminatory practice based on national origin? We do not know but the probabilities lean that way. This is why we feel it deserves to be called a conjecture.

Whether conjecture or reality, we find the discriminatory standard imposed by Columbia, MIT & Princeton, among others, to be abhorrent. Further it is our opinion that the true test of fairness or non-discriminatory nature of a standard is best judged from the results of applying the standard. By this test, the standard for English proficiency established by Columbia, MIT and Princeton fails to be fair and non-discriminatory.

Our Call

We hereby call for this standard to be abolished. There must be other ways to demand proof of English proficiency. If TOEFL is the gold standard, why not make it mandatory for ALL applicants? After all, these programs make the GRE mandatory for all applicants.

If the Universities insist on this abhorrent standard, the private sector should be the first one to respond. In particular, Wall Street Firms should stop recruiting for Math Fin graduates from Universities that impose discriminatory TOEFL requirements and recruit exclusively at Universities that don’t. For example, this would mean recruiting at Courant-NYU & Stanford while stopping all recruiting at Columbia, MIT & Princeton. This would be the fastest and most effective way to end this abhorrent practice.

If Wall Street does not, then the old enemies of Wall Street might. Some brave student might summon the energy to persuade ACLU, one of the Anti-Discrimination groups or a Class Action Law Firm to move against such Universities.

But some one should move. We shudder to imagine the indignity, the emotional pain and suffering imposed on a large class of applicants including US citizens just because of a result of their national origin. Like color or race, the first degree received by a student cannot be washed away by any further education or a stellar record of business or academic achievement. It seems unthinkable to us that Academic Institutions like Columbia, MIT and Princeton find it acceptable to impose a life long discriminatory requirement based on this one act in an applicant’s life.

But that is the meaning of the proverb that the darkest part of the room in underneath the brightest lamp.


Send your feedback to [email protected]