By Richard Vedder
What is the biggest single scandal in higher education? College complicity in ripping off students with respect to student loans? The dubious ethics and abandonment of educational purposes in intercollegiate athletics? The lack of intellectual diversity and tolerance on college campuses? The fact that colleges do not know or report on what students learn while in college? All of them are worthy candidates for the honor, and there are no doubt others.
However, probably the biggest scandal and scam of all relates to graduate education. A half century ago, it was common for persons to get their Ph.D. in four or five years and some, including myself, did it in under three years (at age 24 yet). Today, a majority of those entering graduate programs do not have their degrees in six years, and in the humanities, a majority of Ph.D. candidates have not completed their degree in TEN years!!! Of those who DO get their humanities Ph.D. within 10 years, a majority have not received the degree after six years. The dropout rates are about as high as for undergraduate education --but the resources used to unsuccessfully educate many students at the Ph.D. level are much greater per student than for undergraduates.
Educating Ph.D. students is damnably expensive. Moreover, the students are unusually bright and capable, and if they were not in Ph.D. programs most would be making good money at relatively productive jobs. Thus the resource wastage is unbelievably great.
The Council of Graduate Schools suggests part of this relates to financing, which may well be true. But part relates to the fact that universities love to have graduate students hang around, for at least three reasons. First, in some states, public university subsidies are enrollment-driven, and Ph.D. students are good for big subsidies. Second, university professors don't like teaching survey undergraduate courses, and force graduate students to do that dirty grubby work for them (which is doubly reprehensible, since those students are the raison d'etre of most universities to begin with). Lots of graduate students have meant lower teaching loads for tenure track faculty. Third, graduate students help them get research done, and provide them with intellectual synergies that stimulate their own research.
In one respect, of course, having a lot of graduate students around could be cost effective. Substituting cheap labor (grad students) for expensive workers (tenured faculty) can theoretically lower costs. But the reality of it is that the increase in the use of non-tenured faculty in the classroom, including both grad students and adjunct faculty, has been accompanied by falling teaching loads for regular faculty, so it takes more regular faculty to do a given amount of teaching than a generation ago.
Why state legislatures don't crack down on their research universities is beyond me. Deny any state subsidies for students in Ph.D. programs more than six years. Restrict tax exemptions for private schools which have lousy six year Ph.D. graduation rates. The Feds should deny loans to students after four or five years. Schools that do not have, say, 90 percent of those ultimately successful in getting Ph.D.s graduating within six years should lose their accreditation. If law and medical schools get students out extremely well trained in three to six years (including residency in the case of medical schools), why can't graduate schools? This is the Mother of all higher education scandals.
Part of the problem is that dissertation preparation has gotten out of hand. I have sat on Ph.D. committees where professors force students to do months of additional work of trivial worth in order to fine tune and extend some esoteric thought that the professor fancies. Academic Grad Student Molestation is at an all time high, I suspect. It is time to shake things up here in a big way.