Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Scandal with Doctoral Education Revisited

By Richard Vedder

Arguably the biggest scandal in higher education is the incredibly long time it takes to get a Ph.D. degree - 10 years plus on average if NSF data are to be believed. To be sure, some of those years are relatively dormant years where PhD candidates are off teaching as adjunct professors at the University of Last Resort (hereafter, ULR). Nonetheless, huge amounts of talented resources are going to meet inane requirements, to go through unnecessary hoops, and in satisfying sadistic professors who want to make students do revisions in dissertations that make little sense on any rational cost-benefit calculus. This reduces the flow of talented people into graduate programs, costs huge amounts of money, and is just plain stupid.

I read two things in today's INSIDE HIGHER ED relating to this. First, the University of Chicago is going to pay its grad students in the social sciences and humanities a lot more -- tuition waivers, $19,000, summer research grants, health insurance, etc. All of this is designed to shorten student stays, which at UC average around 8 years or so, with no department less than five years. Unless strict time limits are put on these awards (I would suggest no more than four years), this initiative might lengthen student stays. For a history or English PhD. candidate, for example, the total graduate compensation package is not all that much less than what an assistant professor will make at ULR, and the academic milieu at UC is much nicer, with fewer nasty undergraduate students to deal with. Higher stipends might be justified for other reasons (e.g., in helping keeping out a graduate student union), but don't count on them to bring about dramatic changes in the average length of stay. What would work is if financial incentives were directed at departments who get their students graduated fast (the carrot approach), or financial penalties were directed at departments with higher average years to completion for Ph.D. candidates(the stick approach). Money rules in academia. My experience has been that faculty will whore themselves for unbelievably low amounts of money, so changing the incentive system to force a more expeditious path to degree completion seems wise.

Meanwhile, the sociologists are concerned that minorities are more likely to drop out of Ph.D. programs than others, despite the fact that affirmative action provides them with a strong earnings premium (translation: reverse discrimination) over whites. The question I would ask: are there differences in the predictability of success of minorities as they come into PhD programs? Are departments taking less qualified minority applicants to please the Diversity Tsars and the Affirmative Action Czarinas? If so, are we not just setting up some minorities to fail, using them to assuage white guilt and make our minority enrollment numbers look good? I don't know that this is the case, but I am honest enough to admit I think it is a possibility worthy of investigation. Certainly, if one believes the work of Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, the scenario I outlined above has occurred with respect to undergraduate education.

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