Improving Graduate Education

Panelists discuss a Council of Graduate Schools report on lost ground and how to boost competitiveness in teaching and research.
April 27, 2007

"We talk about graduate education as a kind of national treasure," Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, told her audience at the Library of Congress on Thursday. "What's new is that other countries have discovered our secret."

Those introductory remarks, at a forum on a new report, set the tone for the panels that followed. Members of Congress, university presidents, graduate-school deans and corporate leaders convened to pledge support for an increased investment in graduate education -- what the report, "Graduate Education: The Backbone of American Competitiveness and Innovation," called "necessary to enhance U.S. innovation and national security."

A lot of the urgency of the report, and the panel, came from an awareness that other countries are stepping up their commitment to graduate education -- particularly in the sciences and engineering -- at a time when international students have been finding it harder to navigate visa rules for studying in the United States. Two examples Stewart cited were the increasing enrollment of Indian students at British graduate programs and the rapidly growing number of doctorates being awarded in China.

The report urges a cooperative effort between government, business leaders and universities to boost the enrollment and retention of underrepresented minorities in graduate programs; expand federal programs to foster interdisciplinary research; compete more effectively for talent abroad; and enhance the quality of American graduate education, including reducing attrition and supporting more risk-taking research. Two specific recommendations in the report: further improving visa processes for international students, and increasing federal funding for graduate programs by at least 10 percent at each agency.

As many in the academic and business communities are seemingly eager to commit to these priorities, some of the goals are already on the way to being achieved on the government side as well. The Senate on Wednesday passed the America COMPETES Act, which the council's report explicitly endorsed -- with bipartisan support despite stated Bush administration concerns. The bill would authorize a doubling of the National Science Foundation's budget within five years and add an array of new programs intended to support risk-taking research.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, advanced the graduate council's agenda by passing a pair of bills on Tuesday that would authorize funding and support for students, including those in graduate school, seeking to pursue science teaching, as well as boost existing programs that help scientists seeking to apply for their first NSF grants. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who spoke at the panel, noted that the median age of first-time investigators of NSF grants has been increasing -- according to the much-cited report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," 42 years in 2002, up from 35 in 1981.

Holt also noted that while the common emphasis is on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, other fields matter too -- such as the social sciences and areas increasing "global understanding, languages and cultures." Some of his proposed solutions included making the research and development tax credit permanent (a yearly credit he dubbed an "annual come-on to corporate donors"); and using revenue from H-1B visas to "encourage more students, and particularly underrepresented groups, to go into these fields."

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), chair of the House Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness Subcommittee, spent much of his time recounting his own personal history in southern Texas and the need to invest in overlooked talent at home. Federal investment in public schools, community colleges and through the graduate level, he said, can work. In his own district, he said, that focus on investment in education and economic development helped the unemployment rate plummet. "People need to be told that they have the capacity to go to college," he said, referring to areas with poor students as a "big fishing pond with lots of fish. We just need the recruiters to come down."

Ann Weaver Hart, the president of Temple University, told Inside Higher Ed that boosting graduate education and research should be part of a larger strategy. "High-quality undergraduate education is crucial," she said. "This is just part of that continuum." She said that while foreign competitiveness is increasing, she also felt that a certain complacency in the U.S. was responsible for the "lost ground" referred to in the graduate council's report and others.

She also implied that the student loan practices prominent in the headlines recently could affect graduate school, too. "If we're skimming off profits, we're not advancing the interests of graduate and undergraduate students," she said.

There are plenty of obstacles to achieving the goals that form a broad consensus in the graduate education community. But, she noted, those obstacles are not "linear" -- they're "human systems problems" not confined to a single political, financial or other realm. What it all boiled down to, she said, was the need for leadership.


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