The recent Commission on the Future of Graduate Education report, "The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States," represents a perfect example of why you should not ask a bunch of business people and university presidents to plan the future of higher education. While the overall message of the report is that that the federal government needs to pour billions of dollars into graduate programs to make America more competitive in the new global knowledge economy, this extensive study ignores most of the basic problems dominating graduate education in the United States.
The report begins with an interesting analysis of the current state of the global economy:
The manufacturing economy was built on the shoulders of citizens who had a high school education and who could rest assured that their livelihoods would be secure until they retired. But times have changed, and the knowledge economy, which is based on creating, evaluating, and trading knowledge and information, has arrived. Predictions are that the U.S. economy will become bifurcated, with one sector of the workforce performing services that cannot easily be exported, such as hospitality services, construction, car repair, and healthcare, while the other sector will perform work in the knowledge industries. The production of goods and services such as automobiles, electronic goods, and clothing is likely to continue to take place in other countries where there are lower labor costs and workers with lower literacy levels and educational attainment.
According to this analysis, jobs that do not require graduate education will be mostly shipped overseas (except construction and car repair), and so the only jobs we will have left in the United States are ones that either require a master's degree (nursing, social work, teaching) or a doctorate or professional degree (science, law, medicine).
While this report does predict an increase in the demand for college and university faculty, it accepts the idea that most of these future jobs will be off of the tenure track:
The projection for postsecondary teachers is mixed. This occupation is projected to grow over the next 10 years due to two factors. First, an increase in student enrollment in higher education will reflect the projected population increases of 18-24 year olds, with increased num-bers of students in colleges requiring increased numbers of instructors. Second, the expected retirement of current faculty hired in the 1960s and 1970s will produce openings. However, much of this growth will not be in full-time academic positions, which are a shrinking proportion of the academic workforce, but rather in adjunct or nontenured positions (20).
This shift from tenured to nontenured positions is never criticized or challenged; instead it is accepted as an inevitable fact.
Since this national report affirms that doctoral students in the humanities and the social sciences have very little chance of getting a tenure-track job when they graduate, the authors recommend that universities simply mentor students to accept jobs outside of the academy:
Little is known about students' willingness to invest in the type and length of training for the doctorate if a tenure-track position is not the light at the end of the tunnel. If the tenure-track position remains the desired goal, students and faculty may have to adjust their mindset to a more complex landscape.
In other words, if doctoral students anticipate getting jobs for the profession for which they are being trained, they should change their expectations and realize that their education does not fulfill its intended mission.
This push for universities to mentor graduate students to consider jobs outside of higher education is combined with statistics showing that most grad students in the humanities and social sciences do not get jobs outside of academia:
According to one estimate about half of the doctoral recipients with post-graduation employment commitments obtained jobs outside of the academy, but the percentages vary widely by field (85% from engineering, 66% from physical sciences, 38% from social sciences, and 14% from humanities)(17).While it is clear that many graduate students in the sciences gain training and education that prepares them for specific non-academic jobs, it is unclear what graduate training in the humanities and social sciences train students for besides being professors in the humanities and social sciences.
Before further analyzing the future of graduate education in the humanities, we should realize that for the sciences and related fields, the majority of students earning doctorates at American universities are from other countries, and thus our most successful programs are actually training our competition in the global knowledge market:
In 1977, 82% of doctoral degrees awarded in the U.S. were granted to U.S. citizens, but by 2007 this figure had fallen to 57%. In engineering only 29% of doctoral degrees went to citizens (down from 56% in 1977), and the percentage today in the physical sciences is 43% (down from 76% in 1977 (21).While it may sound xenophobic to criticize the fact that most of the doctorates generated in the sciences and engineering go to students who are not even citizens, we should question why one of the central proposals of this study is to increase the federal funding for foreign students:
Because there is a need for U.S. graduate schools to continue to attract the best and brightest students from around the world, universities could apply up to 20% of the total fellowship funding to support international students (49).
So let me get this right: we need more federal funding for graduate programs because we are losing our competitive edge in the global knowledge economy, so the solution is to pour more federal money into the training of our competitors.
The repressed truth at the heart of this study is that graduate education in America is not driven by the goal to improve our job market or educate students; instead, graduate education is about generating prestige and profit. Thus, graduate programs in the sciences need to continue to recruit students from outside of the United States because these students have higher test scores, and therefore they help to push up the rankings of the graduate departments. Moreover these foreign grad students provide cheap labor to staff science labs at American universities.
While graduate students in the sciences are helping to produce important knowledge and research, as they provide universities and faculty with exploitable labor, grad students in the humanities and social sciences serve to staff high enrollment undergraduate courses. One of the perverse effects of this system is that grad students cannot get good jobs in academia once they earn their doctorates because so many courses area already being taught by other grad students. The study glosses over this problem in the following way:
This shift has resulted in a change in the overall mix in the proportion of instructional staff that are in full-time tenure-track positions. The move to using adjuncts, graduate students, and non-tenured lecturers to teach the increasing college population is also reflected in a move to hire new faculty off the tenure track. . . For many doctoral students, however, explicitly preparing for a career in the business, government, or non-profit realm will be the most prudent path to take.(34-35).
The argument here appears to be that we need more teachers in higher ed, but because we cannot stop exploiting them by hiring them off of the tenure track or by turning them into inexpensive grad student instructors, all we can do is to tell them to lower their expectations and take a job unrelated to their particular training.
One of the great concerns of the report is that not only are we not accepting enough grad students into our universities, but the ones that are accepted often fail to get their degrees:
Despite the rigorous selection processes used for graduate admissions and the high achievement level of those pursuing a graduate degree, some estimates indicate that the attrition rate in doctoral education is in the range of 40% to 50% (27).
Of course, one reason why so many students drop out and why it takes them so long to graduate is that they are forced to teach so many courses that they do not have enough time to work on their dissertations. The result of this system is that after ten years of study, many grad students end up with nothing but a huge pile of debt:
But even if more loan dollars were to become available, it is not clear that increased student debt would solve the problem. Current data indicate that master's degree graduates who have debt carry a cumulative debt load of $51,950 at graduation on average, and doctoral students who have borrowed report an even steeper debt burden of $77,580. Clearly these debt loads may have a chilling effect on aspirations for graduate school and may impact completion rates themselves (37).
In order to turn around this system, the answer is not to come up with another plan to simply fund more doctoral students; what we need is a major restructuring of higher education, and it should start by reducing the number of graduate students teaching undergraduate courses. Instead of putting inexperienced teachers without degrees into the classroom, grad students should be funded out of grants, and full-time faculty should be hired to teach undergraduate courses. The effect of this solution would be to decrease the time it takes for doctoral students to get their degrees and increase the number of job opportunities in the humanities and the social sciences, while the quality of instruction could be improved by granting tenure based on teaching.
In terms of grad programs in the sciences, we should do what our competitors do and that is to greatly restrict the number of foreign students admitted into their programs. If we want to build America's knowledge economy, it makes no sense to train students from China and India in our federally funded labs. Of course, this move would require a de-emphasizing of test scores in how graduate departments are rated and ranked.