An Agenda for Graduate Education

The prime position of American graduate education is increasingly at risk, and both universities and the government need to renew their commitments to helping students earn advanced degrees, says a report being released today.

April 29, 2010

The prime position of American graduate education is increasingly at risk, and both universities and the government need to renew their commitments to helping students earn advanced degrees, says a report being released today.

"The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States" argues that American graduate education has allowed serious problems -- such as low completion rates in many programs and an insufficiently diverse student body -- to linger. And it argues that the federal government has failed to take necessary steps to assure the continued strength of a system crucial to American economic success. The report is being released by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service.

Many of the issues addressed aren't new, but the report seeks to give them urgency by noting changing demographics in the United States. The fastest growing groups are minority populations that have not been well represented in graduate school and complete programs at lower rates than other students. But between now and 2018, the report cites data to show that the number of jobs that require a graduate degree will grow by 2.5 million -- representing a 17 percent increase in those requiring a doctorate and 18 percent in those requiring a master’s degree.

The report notes issues -- such as time-to-degree lags and attrition -- that are particularly important for doctoral education that produces future faculty members. But many of the recommendations focus on both master's and doctoral education that prepares students for careers outside of academe.

The report notes the many historical strengths of American graduate education, and argues that many of them are at risk. "I see this as a wake-up call for graduate education," said Gene Block, chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles and one of the academic and business leaders on the panel that prepared the study.

"I think the report illustrates the things we need to worry about for the future of graduate education," said William Russel, dean of the Graduate School at Princeton University and chair of the panel that prepared the report.

So what should graduate deans and others worry about?

When it comes to graduate schools themselves, the report raises concerns about whether they are doing enough to attract students and diversify their student bodies, whether it takes too long to finish programs (if they are finished at all) and whether graduate students are given too narrow a perspective on what to do with their degrees. The report is full of statistics to illustrate all of the challenges involved.

For example, the report urges graduate schools to do more -- early on -- to attract different kinds of students to their programs. At a time when the combined black-Latino population is growing, the report notes, graduate schools need to worry about differing educational aspirations of different groups. Consider these data from 2008 surveys on American students:

Degree Aspirations of High School Sophomores, by Race

Group Less Than Bachelor's Bachelor's Graduate
White 19% 40% 41%
Black 30% 40% 30%
Asian 13% 37% 50%
Hispanic 30% 40% 30%

Of course many graduate students in the United States come from other countries, and the report notes advantages that American colleges have in attracting talent, including the quality of the programs and a growing sense that English is the language of choice for a graduate degree. But the report notes that many graduate programs not only benefit from but depend on foreign talent. In 2007, 57 percent of doctoral degrees in the United States were awarded to U.S. citizens, down from 82 percent 20 years earlier. In many fields, the current percentages are lower still -- 43 percent in physical sciences, for example.

A variety of issues -- changing demographics in China, greater cooperation in European higher education, the development of more research universities in other countries -- all suggest more competition for foreign talent, the report warns.

Once graduate students are enrolled in the U.S., many programs do not do a great job of getting them through in a reasonable time period, the report says. It calls on universities (and, through financial help, the federal government) to do more to encourage timely completion. Here are some of the statistics the report uses to argue that completion time is a serious problem.

Completion Rates of Doctoral Programs, by Discipline

Field Completed Within 5 Years Completed Within 7 Years Completed Within 10 Years
Humanities 12% 29% 49%
Math and physical sciences 23% 48% 55%
Social sciences 21% 41% 56%
Life sciences 22% 54% 63%
Engineering 35% 57% 64%

The report notes a range of issues related to these questions on time to degree -- including differing rates by different groups (with women and some minority groups, while completing, doing so over a longer time frame) and the pressures created by lengthy completion times. And these issues are exacerbated by the difficult job market, the report says, and complicate efforts to attract people to graduate school in the first place.

"The personal and economic sacrifices associated with this extended training may be unattractive to many potential students," the report says. "The length of time required to complete the degree may delay entry of graduates into the workforce until well into their 30s. For students in the humanities who graduated from departments with high admission standards and well-above-average financial support, the median age for entry into a tenure-track position was 34; in less ideal circumstances the median age would likely be three or four years higher. Students seeking academic careers in the sciences may be further delayed by the necessity to complete additional training as a postdoctoral scholar before they can be seriously considered for tenure-track positions. Adding to this dilemma is the fact that young scientists may be less able to obtain funding to support research labs until later in their careers, delaying the capacity to conduct independent research."

Graduate students also need much better career guidance, the report says. The fastest-growing careers in the United States requiring graduate training will be health care and education (for master's degrees) and professional, scientific, and technical areas (for doctoral degrees). This means that graduate schools can't function as places to simply produce more faculty members (even if that will remain a key role), the report says.

"For many doctoral students clear career entry points are lacking, and it is critical to provide career transparency to these students," the report says. "Professional development programs at the university that provide doctoral students with transferable skills valued by employers outside of the academy need to be considered. Innovative graduate programs offering internships and financial support from industry also are called for."

Within graduate schools, the recommendations focus on the areas of recruitment, time to degree and career preparation. Many other recommendations are made to employers (who are urged to become more involved in graduate education, and to provide both advice and internships, among other things) and the federal government.

Russel, the Princeton dean, acknowledged that there could be difficulty in seeking a major federal investment at this time. But he noted that the Obama administration and many in Congress see research investments as key to turning around the economy. Those research efforts, he said, depend on graduate students who will come up with the creative ideas to spur new discoveries and (eventually in some cases) products.

"Federal government support for graduate education should be increased dramatically," the report says, offering two main areas of focus. One would be a doctoral traineeship program to "cover direct student support of $30,000 stipends plus tuition and fees," with the idea that funds "would be provided in response to proposals submitted by universities for graduate programs to support doctoral students in key areas. Those submitting proposals would be required to provide data, including enrollments, completion rates, and job placement information to the funding agency as part of the ongoing accountability associated with this funding."

Such a program is needed, the report says, "to develop highly skilled talent and is essential if we are to revitalize the U.S. innovation system and keep the nation competitive in the global economy."

The sums sought are not small: An authorization starting at $2 billion and increasing eventually to $10 billion to support 125,000 students.

The other major program proposed is "a new federal competitive grant program across agencies to build capacity at universities to inspire innovation in master’s degree programs and responsiveness to workforce needs." Again, the program would have accountability measures. "Each successful program would be required to demonstrate maintenance of enrollment, completion rates, and job placement outcomes, as well as ongoing involvement by employers," the report says.

The report also contains recommendations urging the government to continue a variety of existing programs and tax benefits that promote graduate education, and to look for ways to reform visa rules in ways that would make it easier for foreign students to enroll in the United States.


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