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Ph.D. Admissions Shrinkage

March 30, 2009

If ever there was a year that colleges were anxious about enrolling new and continuing students, this is it. Whether dependent on tuition revenue or state appropriations formulas, colleges are doing everything they can think of in this economically challenging year to attract students -- and the dollars that follow them.

But there is a notable exception: Several colleges have recently announced that, regardless of application quality, they plan to admit fewer Ph.D. students for this coming fall than were admitted a year ago. The economics of doctoral education are different enough from those of other programs that some universities' doctoral classes will be taking a significant hit, with potential ramifications down the road for the academic job market, the availability of teaching assistants, and the education of new professors.

Emory University plans a 40 percent cut in the number of new Ph.D. students it will enroll this fall. Columbia University is planning a 10 percent cut. Brown University has called off a planned increase in Ph.D. enrollments. The University of South Carolina is considering a plan to have some departments that have admitted doctoral students every year shift to an every-other-year system. These cuts are exclusively for Ph.D. programs. Terminal master's programs and professional school programs are generally being encouraged to fill their classes; those programs are of course ones in which many universities assume students will pay most or all costs themselves, using loans as needed.

The economic difference between Ph.D. and non-Ph.D. students is that the former tend to be supported with tuition waivers and stipends, while many of the latter pay their own way or bring in federal or other aid, such that colleges (beyond the altruistic reasons for educating students) are bringing in money, too. Doctoral students at many universities receive full support from their universities, creating a very different dynamic -- especially coupled with the need to make large cuts in budgets.

Emory is an example. The graduate program there must cut its budget by 13 percent. But all of its current students were promised their packages for up to five years of support -- and those pledges were made prior to the economic downturn. So officials determined that the only way the graduate school could meet its budget target was a sharp reduction in the number of new Ph.D. students admitted.

Last fall, about 360 students started Ph.D. programs at Emory. This fall, that figure will be about 220.

Ulf Nilsson, a spokesman for Emory's graduate school, said that the enrollment should start going back up in subsequent years, even if funding remains flat, as some of the full fellowships and stipends currently being used by graduate students will expire, so the full brunt of the cuts won't need to be felt in the incoming class. While the cuts affect all programs, Nilsson said some science programs are being cut by smaller percentages because they are able to "manipulate this on their own" since they tend to have more access to non-Emory funds to support graduate students.

The director of graduate studies in one Emory department, who asked not to be identified, said that many there have been worried about the possible impact of the cuts, especially if enrollment does not return to normal quickly. But this director said that Emory officials have been reassuring that this policy is due to a quick need for a substantial budget cut, not a shift in philosophy on the role of graduate education, and that enrollments will return to normal over time.

Nilsson acknowledged that Emory may have to make adjustments down the road, as the pool of teaching assistants has just become smaller. He said, however, that there may be more teaching positions available as a result to those whose funding runs out before they finish their doctorates.

At Columbia University, the 10 percent cut is for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which typically enrolls 320 new Ph.D. students a year. While the universities named in this article are announcing the changes on an institution-wide basis, some graduate program directors elsewhere said that similar changes were going on, on department-by-department bases, without much fanfare.

How this will all play out down the road is very unclear. As the job market for new Ph.D.'s, especially in the humanities, has become so tight, some academics have questioned the appropriateness of departments admitting as many students as they have in the past. At the same time, aligning current Ph.D. admissions and job market trends is difficult, given the long time frame for completing doctorates. There are many underemployed Ph.D.'s today cursing some reports in the past predicting major shortages of faculty members -- shortages that never came to pass.

Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, said that the job market is an appropriate consideration in determining class size, but not the only one. Stimpson said that NYU plans a "very modest reduction" in the number of new Ph.D. students for the fall, even though most departments saw double-digit percentage increases in applications.

Stimpson said NYU may want to reduce class size further a year from now. The factors to be considered, she said, include the job market, applicant quality, and the right fits between the applicants and the NYU faculty in terms of research interests and expertise. And she said many universities must also factor in the costs of supporting graduate students.

Contraction, she added, is not necessarily unfair to would-be graduate students. In the current environment, she asked, "Is it fair to bring them in?"

Julia Mortyakova, a doctoral student in music at the University of Miami and president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, said she worried about the trend of reducing admissions. While she acknowledged that new Ph.D.'s are facing a tough job market, she said it was important to think long term. The future American economy, she said, depends on new creative ideas and on research on topics such as energy and the environment.

"We need new people doing new research, and that's what grad students do," she said.

 

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