Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Completing the Doctorate: The Biggest Scandal in Higher Education

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.

14 comments:

Craig P. said...

You say:

"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."

I am curious. Are teaching loads really falling (not my experience) or is it that the way that the faculty workforce is being casualized means that a greater percentage of the faculty who are left on the tenure track are research faculty at 4-year institutions who have traditionally carried a smaller teaching load? Or said the opposite way, the full-time tenured faculty who used to carry heavier teaching loads have been casualized thereby reducing the overall average teaching load. Of course I am assuming that you have evidence that the overall teaching load has gone down, which you do, right?

dave3544 said...

Interesting thoughts, sir. Colleges and universities all across the country are struggling to figure out ways to get graduate students to finish their studies more quickly.

I would like to focus on your "graduate students as a substitute for more expensive faculty labor" argument. You try to glide past this by asserting that contingent faculty are only covering for the work lazy professors would and/or should be doing, but like your previous commenter, I am skeptical. There has been an explosion in the number of people attending college in the last 40 years and I can't believe that the current number of faculty could replace the adjuncts and grads that are working on our campuses. Just try to picture currently faculty picking up the load should graduate student and adjunct labor disappear tomorrow.

Let's go ahead and stick with your first thought and assume that graduate students teaching classes and performing research is a way for the institution to save money. You argue, "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."

And you couple this notion with the idea that graduate students teach classes because full-time faculty don't want to do the "grunt" work. (I can only guess that you would agree that this is why graduate students find themselves grading so many papers, but this is an assumption on my part). You write, "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)."

Let me say, I whole-heartedly agree with you. Graduate students spend much of their time doing grunt work professors don't want to do, saving universities untold millions of dollars each year.

Now that we have that firmly established, can I assume that you agree with me that graduate students doing work that would normally be done by professors in order to save the university some cash should be allowed to form unions when the majority of graduate employees want a union?

Can we agree that the recent NLRB decision in the Brown case was wrong?

It would be interesting to count you as a supporter of the graduate union movement, but your own logic seems to have led you there. What do you say, shall we work together to overturn Brown?

sciencedoc said...

In my department teaching "loads" are the same or higher than they were when I started here almost 2 decades ago. One thing that has changed a bit is that one or two people have been partially "bought out" to do things that the state and industry want them to do. There may be a bit more use of adjunct faculty in my department (full-time people with decent salaries and excellent benefits, by the way).

It's also my experience that more time is required per course. Perhaps I'm just slower or more fastidious than I used to be, but I don't think that's the whole story. The increase in technology -- the move away from blackboards for some course, the use of computers, projectors, the internet, even email -- eats up more time per course.

Overall at the public university where I teach, more of the teaching is being done by adjuncts and temporaries. As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with declining teaching loads for tenure-track faculty, it is entirely due to the failure of state funding to keep up with enrollment and rising costs.

Of course, one could say the costs are out of control, the salaries are too high for instance, but try telling that to faculty you are trying to recruit and see where that gets you. Maybe the state in which I work is an anomaly, I don't know.

Re the time to Ph.D.: in my experience it has increased in recent decades. One reason for this is that there's more to learn in most fields of science and the work has gotten harder to perform and complete. I'm not saying it's better, necessarily, just more laborious.

James said...

You are missing an important point here. The scandal is not just that it takes a great deal of time and money to complete a PhD - but also that there are no jobs for the newly minted PhD when he or she graduates. The universities must know this, yet they continue to admit and churn out PhDs. Schools that cannot demonstrate that 90% of their graduates obtain tenure-track positions within two years of obtaining a PhD should lose the right to admit new PhD candidates.

"I can't believe that the current number of faculty could replace the adjuncts and grads that are working on our campuses. Just try to picture currently faculty picking up the load should graduate student and adjunct labor disappear tomorrow."

What, tenured faculty should actually have to work for a living and teach students? Shocking, unthinkable.

Note that if there are fewer grad students, then there are fewer grad courses that need to be taught, which will free up faculty to teach those despised undergrads.

sciencedoc said...

James, nobody owes a Ph.D. a tenure-track job. Is it too much to expect a prospective Ph.D. to inquire about job prospects and placement records before expending years of effort and money? It's not exactly a state secret that there are far more Ph.D.'s than there are tenure-track jobs. It's also not rocket science to figure this out with a little investigation.

Actually, in science the lion's share of Ph.D.'s don't get tenure-track teaching jobs, don't expect to (though they may want to try), and many have no desire for such a job. The great bulk of them go into jobs outside academia in research and other others, generally at higher remuneration, sometimes much higher, than anything they could aspire to in academia.

James said...

"James, nobody owes a Ph.D. a tenure-track job. Is it too much to expect a prospective Ph.D. to inquire about job prospects and placement records before expending years of effort and money? It's not exactly a state secret that there are far more Ph.D.'s than there are tenure-track jobs. It's also not rocket science to figure this out with a little investigation."

The departments do NOT make it easy for you to find out how many graduates have tenure track jobs. They are basically indifferent, because all they care about is having enough applicants to justify the existence of the program.

If you "inquire" about job prospects and placement records, my experience is you will get reassuring pablum in response. What they will tell you is that (a) many professors will be retiring soon, and there is an imminent shortage of PhDs (we've been hearing this line for something like 20 years now, and it still hasn't happened), and (b) the job prospects may seem grim, but the statistics don't apply to YOU in particular, because YOU are different and special! If you ask a professor who got hired back in the 1960s (when all you needed to get hired was a pulse) about getting hired, you will not get a truly realistic response that is relevant to job conditions today. What you will hear is "I can't imagine that an intelligent person with great grades like you won't get hired." Most prospective applicants are naive enough to believe this. Until you are far enough along in the process actually to start applying for jobs (i.e. you are ABD and have gone to the annual convention in your field) it does not really hit home to you how bad the job prospects are.

The facts really speak for themselves. Quite obviously, it IS too much to expect people to research job prospects, and it IS too hard to find out what the real situation is. Otherwise, vastly fewer people would apply to PhD programs, especially in the humanities. Accepting people into humanities PhD programs takes advantage of naive and idealistic people, and is thus analogous to predatory lending on subprime mortgages (gee, it's not rocket science to figure out that a loan is risky, either, yet millions of people are in shock when their ARM adjusts). While the department does not "owe" anyone a tenure track job, it is simply irresponsible to accept applicants to a PhD program unless the department has good reason to believe the applicant will get such a job - which in most cases, the department does not. Frankly, most PhD programs would be shut down if they had to justify themselves on this basis.

"Actually, in science the lion's share of Ph.D.'s don't get tenure-track teaching jobs, don't expect to (though they may want to try), and many have no desire for such a job. The great bulk of them go into jobs outside academia in research and other others, generally at higher remuneration, sometimes much higher, than anything they could aspire to in academia."

I am speaking of the humanities, where people DO want and expect tenure track jobs, and the non-academic alternatives that require a PhD are few and not generally financially rewarding. There are few non-academic jobs that an English, History, or Poli Sci PhD can obtain that they could not obtain without a PhD - and thus they wasted their time and money on the PhD from a strictly practical standpoint (i.e. disregarding whatever prestige the degree may bring).

sciencedoc said...

James, my science colleagues sometimes disparagingly refer to the humanities people as "mushheads" or "fudgebrains". I'm afraid you are giving them ammunition.

If you are saying that humanities Ph.D.'s are as dumb as the people who got ripped off on subprime lending, then I have limited sympathy for them. (In my experience, they are not that dumb, though they do walk to a different beat).

It really isn't that hard to research the job market. An hour on the internet will probably tell you most of what you need to know. If a department or school gives you "pablum", I would stay away. If a 60's professor is too out of it -- there aren't that many around anymore -- ask somebody who got hired in the 80's or 90's, for heaven's sake. (I don't disparage the 60's hires as much as you do -- not one of them myself -- but it is true that getting a job got a lot tougher after, for various reasons).

There are lots of reasons to get a Ph.D. besides "practical" ones. Maybe you just want to have a go at music theory or philosophy or whatever. ("Prestige" seems like a poor reason to me, but to each his own.) If you really insist that there be a guaranteed career track afterward, my advice -- occasionally I'm asked -- would be do something else, like law or medicine or business -- where there aren't guarantees either, but at least the prospects are, if you're good, you can have a lucrative career.

So a Ph.D. is risky if you're aiming for a tenure-track job. Well, business is risky too, most businesses fail, most people do not become billionaires or even wealthy.

If you're willing to take the risk, I'd also recommend having some kind of backup plan. You want to have a try at being a composer? Good luck to you, and maybe having some background in computers or finance or any number of more practical things is a wise course.

You got a Ph.D. and it hasn't worked out? I would find some other path, appreciate the Ph.D. for what it was, put the tenure-track dreams behind, get on with it, and don't listen to those from the past who will tell you that you're selling out, blah blah blah. I've seen others do it.

One young guy I met recently seemed to have his head screwed on right. He wasn't a Ph.D., but he is trying to be a novelist. B.A. in English with side course in business and computers, a minor in business I believe. He says the business stuff was garbage, but it allows him to make a decent living (along with the computers). The English by contrast was golden. He wouldn't trade it for anything, even if it is not apparently "useful". He seems like a pretty happy guy.

By the way, I tell all my students and postdocs not to count on doing exactly what I do all their lives, that the odds are against them. To be open to other possibilities in science. To regard the current situation as one of many careers within a career. Most of them are not at all unhappy to leave the would-be tenure track for other kinds of jobs in business or government.

Good luck to you.

James said...

If you want to judge by the number of struggling humanities PhDs who do not have tenure-track jobs, yes, there are a lot of mushbrains out there. I prefer the term "naive idealists" myself. Yet I do not think the existence of a lot of naive idealists is a good argument to allow the perpetuation of a system designed to exploit naive idealists - especially when the system is heavily government subsidized, as it is.

Yes, most of the young mushbrains should do their homework but the fact is that most of them do not. Even more importantly, they need to believe what their homework tells them, but most of them do not (and how many 20-somethings believe bad things are ever going to happen to them, anyway?).

I strongly discourage my students from getting PhDs, and have tried to convince the department not to admit any more PhD candidates (needless to say, without success). Get an MA if you must, and get on with your life, that is my advice.

sciencedoc said...

James, that may be good advice, but I don't think even the mushbrains should be forced to take it.

I don't know if the government subsidized Ph.D. programs in overstaffed fields are a good idea or not. I do know that in my state, the colleges without Ph.D. programs are subsidized to the same extent as the ones with Ph.D. programs. The best undergraduates go to the schools with the research and Ph.D. programs. They must think there is something worthwhile there.

Ken D. said...

James is correct. Many programs, at least in the humanities and social sciences, do mislead students in myriad subtle ways regarding their future employment prospects. Also, they mislead students about how long their programs normally take to complete.

Maybe Dr. Science can enlighten us as to what would be the problem with requiring humanities and social sciences graduate programs to give us "mushheads" a little hard data. You know, like truth in advertising.

sciencedoc said...

The problem is with the word "require". As in who "requires"? If you mean Madame Spellings or Senator Kennedy, I'm not in favor. If you mean the trustees of the university, I might go along. Or better yet, the dean or the provost.

If you mean prospective students, I would say inquire until your inquiries have been answered to your satisfaction. There is no one piece of data that will satisfy every question. It is probably a little bit like medicine or psychiatry.

I don't really know what goes through the minds of humanities students. I know in the sciences, goals often change, a lot. Almost everyone who is not a basket case ends up with a fairly good job, sooner or later.

Ken D. said...

Sciencedoc, my guess is that you would agree there are times its in the public interest to require mandatory disclosure of product information. I don't think privately-funded programs should have to disclose their data. However many of the poorly performing humanities and social sciences graduate programs are run at great expense to the taxpayers. So it may be in the public interest to require them to report on the results of what they are doing.

sciencedoc said...

Well, as I said, at least in my state, which may not be typical, it is not clear that the Ph.D. programs cost more money, net.

In any case, what happens to the Ph.D. graduates in particular fields does not seem to be a big issue. (The global picture is of more interest to legislators and the like.) I have never heard it brought up locally by anyone. If the state board wanted to publicize data about that, I doubt that they would be providing information that anyone is hankering after.

Overlook said...

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.