Not So Fast

Professors need to ask hard questions before they sign off on the new graduate programs colleges and universities are starting, writes Lee Skallerup Bessette.

August 29, 2011

This fall, as every fall, the academic year will begin for hundreds of thousands of undergraduates across the country. This fall, however, due to current economic realities, an increasing number of students are returning to pursue graduate degrees in the social sciences and humanities because they have not been able to find jobs in their given field. The New York Times recently featured this phenomenon, talking a look at new "applied" or "professional" master’s and Ph.D. programs that all but promise students employment at the end.

Most of the discussion and focus has been on the students, and rightfully so. But I think we, as faculty members, need to look at how this expansion in graduate programs impacts our jobs. We need to stop, take a breath, and ask, is this really in everyone's best interest, including our own?

New graduate programs are often proposed and pushed by the administration, not the faculty. Why? Grad students are cash cows. (Remember, we’re talking here about the new professionally oriented programs, not humanities Ph.D.s for which stipends are offered.) Universities often charge more for grad programs and grad students will pay, taking out loans in order to do so. Or, they’ll be used as cheap labor, working on campus, for professors, and maybe even teaching some of those pesky intro classes that no one else wants to. And did I mention the prestige? Rankings reward programs with grad offerings.

How does the administration get faculty buy-in? Faculty members, particularly at public universities, are seeing their salaries cut or remaining stagnant, decreasing their purchasing power. Administrators are selling new graduate programs to the faculty by presenting them as a perk or a reward: the opportunity to develop and teach graduate classes, the availability of T.A.s and R.A.s, not to mention the lines of the C.V. for supervision or co-authored papers.

But think about the work that goes into developing a graduate program. The program proposal that needs (or at least should need) to be guided through the various layers of university committees for approval, then on to various accrediting bodies. The courses themselves need to be developed and taught, not to mention populated with students. And here comes the really tricky part: finding graduate students.

While universities have huge recruitment offices for undergraduates, graduate recruitment is typically left to individual programs, where it falls to individual faculty. Administrators may talk about a "demand" for a given program, but just simply building it isn’t enough to make them come. A new program won’t have automatic applicants the way a longstanding or well-known (read: prestigious) program will; the faculty will have to get out and actively find these students, convince them to apply, entice them to attend, and then supervise and mentor their progress through the program itself.

Then there is the issue of quality control. The recently leaked memo from a British university reminding professors not to be too choosyin admitting new graduate students illustrates the perils of graduate admissions, particularly for faculty members. How is teaching and supervising underprepared (and possibly unmotivated and disinterested) graduate students a perk? The M.A. (or worse, Ph.D.) will be the new B.A., insofar as students will feel entitled to their degree on the basis of having a) been accepted and b) paid for it. The best and the brightest (and the richest) will continue to go to the "best" institutions, while everyone else will move from one mediocre program to another. You'll be able to say that you supervise grad students, but at what cost?

And if these new graduate programs are being created as “applied” or “professional” programs, to further entice the underemployed youth or unemployed mature student, the question becomes, who will develop and teach these programs, particularly if they are housed in traditional academic units, staffed by traditional faculty? How will faculty adapt? How will the new students be integrated in with the more traditional students? Who is responsible for finding professional experience for the students (another selling point)? Outside of internships, how will an applied or professional program differ from the more traditional offering?

And, why do we need to wait until graduate school to offer these "integrated" learning opportunities to our students?

How many institutions also offer faculty course release or other incentives to manage the new demands of the program, hire new faculty with the added tuition money, or (heaven forbid) give the faculty pay raises? Probably not many. From the university's perspective, they're getting the faculty to do more work for less money. And, the added prestige of graduate programs. Win-win.

But do the students really win? These programs keep them out of the work force longer, usually will end up putting them further into debt, and make them overqualified for many of the jobs they may want (or that may be available). And, for the most part, these programs will benefit the same students who are benefiting from a B.A. anyway; the wealthy and upper-middle-class. Applying for graduate school is perhaps even more difficult and complex than applying for university. And even more expensive. While more graduate programs would seem to increase the number of places for non-traditional students, the debt burden and ability to get into the “right” programs remains a barrier to real socioeconomic mobility.

And, to restate the question, do we, the faculty, really win? Let me restate that: do YOU, the faculty, really win? I’m not on the tenure track, so I have little say and little to do with graduate programs or administration. But I sit on the sidelines and I watch. I watch my friends and colleagues struggle with the increasing burdens of expanding graduate programs, at the behest of administration, or worse, in an attempt to prove to the administration that they shouldn’t be subjected to further cuts. The problem with doing more with less is that if it fails, then it justifies further cuts. Having the cheap labor around also helps to justify the administration keeping salaries down for the faculty, or worse, encouraging an increasingly fractured workforce and salary structure.

I also see an increasing number of graduates coming back to do more degrees simply because there seems to be no other alternative, and going into debt in order to achieve a goal that isn’t really their own. Many of them struggle because they are not prepared for graduate-level work, at least not graduate-level work as we have traditionally conceived it. This puts a lot of pressure on faculty if completion rates are to be maintained. And how are we, as faculty, helping these students get jobs at the end of their degrees? We may debate whether it is, in fact, our job or our responsibility, but the many of the students are coming because they believe that it will help them get a job, and not one in academia. How can we recruit truthfully, but then neglect to mentor them in this significant way?

These criticisms could be applied to the more traditional M.A. and Ph.D. programs in the humanities and social sciences, both new and existing. A smaller school might benefit from the exposure and prestige of creating or expanding their graduate offerings, but what is our responsibility as faculty for admitting these students with inadequate or non-existent funding and poor job prospects?

I hate it. We're fooling ourselves by buying into the myth that more graduate programs and students are the answer to all of our problems. In reality, we're just providing excuses to governments and corporations to compress salaries and benefits, and cheapen our students' educations, not to mention our own value as academics. We, the faculty, need to take a step back and re-evaluate our priorities.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is an instructor of English and writing. She blogs at the University of Venus and at College Ready Writing.


Lee Skallerup Bessette is an instructor of English and writing. She blogs at the University of Venus and at College Ready Writing.


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