'Graduate Education and the Public Good'

April 24, 2008

At a time when skepticism about higher education and its need for public support edges ever higher, association leaders appear to be settling on a branding strategy of trying to convince people that colleges deserve an increasing share of resources.

Three years ago, the American Council on Education, which represents all of academe, along with other groups kicked off a campaign that framed higher education as not just a private investment but a public good. Last year, a report from the College Board took the same tack, asserting that college graduates are more engaged citizens and make healthier decisions than those who don’t earn a diploma.

The effort to highlight higher education's influence on society continues with "Graduate Education and the Public Good," a report that the Council of Graduate Schools is releasing today in time for a legislative forum at the Library of Congress in Washington. Former students making their case to lawmakers about the need to fund graduate education will certainly echo the report's central argument: While people are "increasingly savvy" about private benefits (largely financial) associated with having a master's degree or doctorate, the public good associated with increased levels of education is "often taken for granted because it may be intangible or difficult to measure."

In its attempt to explain to politicians and the general public the importance of graduate education, CGS is borrowing a page from the playbook of the politicians themselves. As a way of driving home the "public good" message, the group sprinkles throughout the report stories of graduate school alumni who are making contributions to society through their careers, largely in public health or public service. And it lists in another document more than 300 former graduate school students, nominated by member institutions, who are deemed to be accomplished in their fields.

The graduate school group's report notes the government's historical support of graduate education, pointing to the National Defense Education Act of 1958 that supported fellowships for doctoral students.

The call for increasing federal support for graduate education has been sounded elsewhere over the years, perhaps most notably in the National Academies' "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report, which recommended increased fellowship funding as a way to attract more scholars. CGS has in recent years released two reports that asked the government to respond again to global challenges and highlighted graduate education's role in increasing America's innovation and competitiveness.

"Graduate Education and the Public Good" is the next phase of the council's efforts, the group notes in the report. Evidence presented about how graduate education contributes to society shouldn't surprise anyone in higher education circles.

There's the overall message that top-flight graduates fill the jobs that drive the economy and produce the research that spurs innovation. The report also points to contributions made by former students in the arts.

Then there's the education cycle argument -- that graduate school alumni go on to fill the leadership positions in academe that are important in running the enterprise and training future faculty researchers. Still, the report notes that while the perception is people who receive Ph.D.s mostly stay in higher education, the majority (in 2000, at least) worked outside academe. Authors make specific mention of the contributions made in public health and other high-demand fields.

The report points to research that people with higher degrees are more likely to read newspapers, vote and be civic minded than their counterparts. And it presents the point that people who don't get advanced degrees can benefit indirectly -- top degree earners earn more on balance, bring in tax revenue and rely less on public assistance.

Finally, the report mentions the importance of the foreign graduate students who fill many domestic teaching positions or return to their host countries to serve as diplomats and collaborate with U.S. researchers.

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