Top Ph.D. Programs, Shrinking

Harvard, Chicago and others will enroll smaller classes of doctoral students in the fall. Is recession forcing long-term change on graduate education?
May 13, 2009

In March, a few institutions -- such as Emory and Columbia Universities -- announced plans to shrink the enrollment of new Ph.D. students this fall. Now it appears that a number of other universities, generally private institutions that have some of the most well regarded Ph.D. programs around, are also getting smaller. At some, but not all, of the institutions, the shrinkage will be greatest in the humanities.

How long the universities will keep the size of their Ph.D. cohorts smaller is unclear, with some institutions talking about short-term budget adjustments while others see broader shifts ahead. Some experts on graduate education view the changes as positive, possibly encouraging a new pedagogy in graduate education and helping to improve the job market for new Ph.D.'s. Others, however, worry that the smaller cohort size of some top Ph.D. programs may make it impossible to maintain certain kinds of courses and a certain kind of intellectual environment for doctoral students.

Whatever the outcome, the shifts could be significant, as they involve doctoral programs that are influential in the world of graduate education and that produce new Ph.D.'s who tend to fare better than most in the job market. Further, these changes are taking places at universities that tend to provide full funding for doctoral students for five or more years -- making these slots highly sought by applicants. And these universities are not pulling back on their packages for these students.

Graduate admissions decisions and policies tend to be extremely decentralized compared to undergraduate admissions, and that decentralization is at its greatest at elite private universities. As a result, patterns can be unclear and at some of the universities involved, departments are being given leeway in selecting their budget cuts, meaning that some departments may cut doctoral admissions more than others. Here are some of the universities, since the first round became public, that are shrinking doctoral admissions:

  • Harvard University announced Monday that "most" of the graduate programs in arts and sciences would admit "smaller" classes of doctoral students for the fall than they did a year ago. The specific sizes of the declines have not been released, but Harvard stressed that it was also making a modest increase in stipends so that students would have adequate support.
  • At the University of Chicago, while decisions are being made department by department, the size of incoming Ph.D. cohorts is expected to be down by 25-33 percent in the humanities, while social sciences departments anticipate enrolling fewer doctoral students and more master's students.
  • Princeton University admitted 840 doctoral students for the coming year, compared to 947 offers made last year. That drop is in large part due to an unusually large number of offers last year, related to the desire to see some new programs grow. But the number of admitted applicants for doctoral programs also lags the previous two years (875 and 884 were the totals, but not the year before, which ended up at 823 offers). In terms of one-year changes, the number of students admitted to humanities Ph.D. programs is down 6.4 percent and the decrease in the social sciences is 12.2 percent.
  • Northwestern University's incoming Ph.D. cohort is down 10 percent in the humanities and social sciences, and 3 percent in the sciences and engineering.
  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology leaves graduate admissions decisions to departments, and does not have final data for the admissions cycle. But Steven R. Lerman, vice chancellor and dean for graduate education, said that he spoke to "many of the departments" about "the uncertainties in future funding and urged them to be conservative in admitting new students." Lerman said that "I know anecdotally that several of our larger departments heeded this advice and reduced their number of admitted students significantly this year."

Generally, the recession has made colleges and universities want to keep undergraduate or professional school enrollments level, or even to increase them. But doctoral education at elite universities operates on a very different economic model. Students are almost always fully supported, so they don't bring tuition dollars with them. And while states provide some support to public universities for graduate education, private universities are more likely to be footing the full bill.

The universities that are cutting back on doctoral enrollments are also among the wealthiest in the nation, but because their endowments all took a beating in the last year, all are in the midst of serious budget cutting. To cut the costs of graduate education without reneging on commitments made to continuing students (something none of these universities are doing) tends to require meaningful cuts in new enrollments.

Many experts on graduate education think that the changes being announced may force doctoral programs to focus attention on key issues related both to pedagogy and the job market.

"It behooves us to think, department by department, what's the appropriate cohort size for a good intellectual environment, and how to do justice by our students, both financially and in careers and in quality of educational experience," said Chris M. Golde, who studied graduate education from 2001 to 2006 at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and who is currently associate vice provost for graduate education at Stanford University. "These are perpetual questions, but I think the current economic realities are bringing them into sharper focus," said Golde. (Stanford's departments are still devising budget cuts, so she said it was unclear how much Ph.D. shrinkage might take place there.)

Professors at universities that are shrinking doctoral programs have widely varying views of the issue -- even at the same institution. Consider three departments at the University of Chicago. Thomas Pavel, a professor of romance languages and literatures, said his department expects only half as many new doctoral students in the fall as last year. He said that since "the number of positions available for people having a Ph.D. is also decreasing; it makes some sense not to train too many of them, for a few years at least."

Elaine Hadley, graduate director and associate professor of English, said her department is expecting 8 new Ph.D. students in the fall, down from 15 a year ago. She said that this would "have a significant impact if sustained, but it won't be sustained." Hadley said that her department made larger cuts in graduate admissions than it might have otherwise done to protect other budget priorities -- a choice that was made with the idea of not doing so year after year. After students' first year in the program, Hadley said, the various class cohorts mix, so the students will have plenty of interaction with others who share their research interests.

But in history, Emilio H. Kouri, an associate professor who is chair of the graduate admissions committee, is worried. This fall, the department will enroll 17 new doctoral students, the first time the number will have been below 20 in at least 15 years. Kouri said that the norm of late has been mid-20s, and that before the university committed to fully funding all admitted students, the department was admitting 40-plus students some years.

He said that it is "not yet clear whether this will become the new way of things," but he assumes it will be for at least another year, if not longer. "History is complicated because you have area specialties and we've long been committed to maintaining the strength not just in U.S. or European history, but in medieval or Latin American history, and once you start reducing class size, that becomes a real problem," he said.

While many graduate history departments are "boutique" programs, Chicago's breadth means that research seminars can be offered that are region-specific, or that are taught "in fields where linguistic competence matters." If the numbers get too small, Kouri said, the department will have to abandon such seminars for "generic seminars," on topics such as social history or intellectual history. While such courses would be valuable, he said, something important would be lost.

"That's the unresolved tension at this moment," Kouri said.

At Northwestern, Andrew B. Wachtel, the graduate dean, says such tensions need to be resolved by changing the way departments and universities think about graduate education. Wachtel said that, financially, universities that have relied on endowment earnings for graduate education need to make cuts. The reductions at Northwestern will save about $550,000, but he still needs to find another $150,000 to offset lost endowment revenue.

But Watchtel said it is still possible for slightly smaller graduate programs to excel. At many universities, he said that department-based doctoral programs are "already on the edge of viability," such that the cut of even a single new doctoral candidate could push a program over the edge. Wachtel's big push -- which he freely admits is controversial -- is to educate graduate students through "clusters" that cross departmental lines.

"Clusters are potentially the salvation of this thing," he said. "If your history department used to take six students in Russian history and now they can only take two, the department can't afford a seminar on Russian history for two. But my response is 'Guess what? The Slavic studies department also used to take six students and now only has two, and the music department has a new student interested in Russia and so does film studies,' " Wachtel said. So there are in fact enough doctoral students for a seminar on Russia, but not one that is focused solely on history, he said.

Wachtel called this a "great" outcome, but he also said it represented a real change. "This would require coordinating Slavic studies and history and music and film, and the history department loses a certain amount of control over its students," he said. He predicted that the current round of cuts would force more universities down this road and that they would find "a huge amount of resistance" from faculty members.

But Wachtel said that these changes could produce better programs and new Ph.D.'s with broader perspectives. "Graduate programs should be emancipated from departments," he said. Universities tend to be slow to change major functions like graduate education unless "we are forced to do so," and he predicted that could happen now. "The writing is on the wall."

Any impact of these changes on the academic job market will be long term. Ph.D. programs -- especially in the humanities -- tend to take six years or longer to finish. The universities announcing these shifts are generally focusing on the need to trim budgets and not the job market. But some observers of hiring trends see the reductions as a positive move.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, noted that the job market in the humanities is extremely tight right now, especially for tenure-track positions. In this environment, she said it was "responsible" for top programs to admit fewer doctoral students. "Institutions are responsible when they don't admit more students than they can place," she said. Feal noted that the MLA has long advised prospective graduate students that they should ask departments for detailed information on their placement rates and the kinds of jobs doctorates end up in.

At the same time, however, Feal said that universities must focus on "both ends of supply and demand." Simply eliminating some slots for graduate education isn't the real solution that is needed, she said. "The shrinking of the tenure-track position is where we need to concentrate, and where we need to put pressure."


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