Friday, November 18, 2005


Graduate Admissions, or, Economics and the Easter Bunny

In response to yesterday’s post about the abusive nature of graduate education in the US (and Dr. Crazy’s thoughtful response to it, which I strongly encourage you to check out), Bardiac made the forehead-slappingly obvious point that the real problem is the failure of gatekeeping at the point of graduate admissions.

In a nutshell: in response to a question from an ambitious undergraduate, I strongly discouraged pursuing a career as a history professor. My reasons were several, but they boiled down to the terrible odds of having anything approaching a decent life. Dr. Crazy, in her response, correctly pointed out that dissuading folks from less-advantaged or less traditional backgrounds from pursuing academic careers would have the effect of reinforcing the lack of demographic diversity on college faculties. That’s not good, but it’s not good to keep graduating 10 candidates for every job, either.

Bardiac hit the nail on the head by calling out graduate admissions as the most promising place to start making change. As long as we keep overproducing Ph.D.’s, the law of supply and demand tells us that they will be paid poorly. (And the law of supply and demand is especially unforgiving when current incumbents have life tenure. The worst of both worlds!) If we care at all about making it possible for people without independent wealth to make livings as scholars and teachers, the first thing we have to do is correct the labor market imbalance. And the most logical way to do that, barring the abolition of tenure, is to severely restrict the number of candidates graduate programs can admit (and, equally importantly, severely restrict the number of graduate programs in existence).

How to do that?

First, we need to recognize why colleges want to be universities, why third-tier schools want to be second-tier schools, why Master’s programs want to be doctoral programs, etc. There are very, very powerful incentives for individual institutions and departments to “raise their academic profile.” A department that ‘moves up’ gets lighter teaching loads for incumbent faculty, more graduate student labor to do the scut work (freshman composition, survey courses, lab work, etc.), more prestige, and more money. Faculty in that area are freed from tedious undergrad courses, and allowed to teach graduate ‘seminars’ in which they essentially have talented, eager-to-please apprentices to help them do their research. What’s not to like?

Institutions that move up gain prestige (which pays off in a higher caliber of undergraduate, which leads to higher retention rates, which leads to higher tuition revenue…). They also gain research funding, but most importantly, they gain cheap labor. The big state universities couldn’t survive if they paid full-time salaries to everybody who teaches freshman comp.

What makes this system so insidious is that getting to be exploited is presented as a sign of personal merit.

I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial; this wasn’t part of some nefarious master scheme cooked up by evildoers to waste as much talent as humanly possible. It just worked out that way.

To Dr. Crazy’s query about the ethical responsibility of anyone dispensing advice within this system, I second her goal of transparency, and I’ll add one. We have an ethical responsibility to stop rewarding the production of what the market tells us is useless labor.

We need to storm the accreditation agencies, the legislatures, and the talk shows. If you really want to talk about wasted tax money, talk about states that have ten different graduate programs in the same discipline. I’ll take it farther: other than the really huge states (say, California), limit the public Ph.D. granting universities to one per state. (California, two.) And refuse all public resources (financial aid, etc.) to private universities or colleges that add new graduate programs.

According to Brad DeLong and Cold Spring Shops, Economics as a discipline did something close to this twenty or thirty years ago. By somehow establishing an informal cartel and drastically limiting graduate admissions, they were able to prevent a job crunch for their grads. (To be fair, I suspect there’s more of a private-industry market for econ grads, too.) Question for the economists out there – you know who you are – how did your discipline do that? Are there techniques that other fields can/should copy? (And aren’t economists supposed to loathe protectionism and cartels? Hmm…)

To address Dr. Crazy’s valid diversity concern, we could mandate class-based affirmative action at those institutions that are allowed to have graduate degrees at all.

So Flagship U could keep its doctoral programs, but Eastern Teachers State U couldn’t. Faculty at Eastern Teachers State U would actually have to teach undergraduates. Graduates of Flagship U would eventually actually have chances to get jobs. Ambitious undergrads who get turned away at 21 could find something more productive to do. We wouldn’t need as many unread journals, the hideously-exploitative teacher factory would shut down, and undergrads would actually get taught by the faculty their tuitions pay for.

Also, the Easter Bunny would serve cookies. But a dean can dream…

As long as universities need cheap labor, the gatekeeping you talk about is never going to happen. Take language programs, for example--if grads weren't teaching Spanish I, they'd have to get adjuncts, and people would still be pissed about that.

Believe me, I've thought about how the most humane course of action is cutting down the grads before too, but as long as universities need more undergrads to get more money to run the place, there'll be a need for grads too.
Yeah, but Economics (the discipline) did it, and Econ 101 still gets taught. I want to know how that's possible.
My understanding is that most of the top history programs (say top-25 or so, so not just the Ivies) have cut back on admissions, and the problem is that it's wiped out a lot of gains in diversity in graduate programs. (This was the argument of a very Eminent Historian recently, anyway.) I certainly saw this happen in my own program during the *cough, cough* ten years it took to earn my degree. I know you mention mandatory affirmative-action, but I am a little concerned that it wouldn't work that well (I'd be curious to see what Economics' diversity looks like, for instance).

But I also don't think that outweighs a lot of the points you make - generally, I agree, that cutting admissions is a good thing. I had many friends in grad school, however, who were vehemently against that, usually precisely for concerns about "fairness," that it was unfair to limit access to further education from people who wanted it.

I suspect that another consequence of doing something like this would be to up the use of adjuncts, because like ianqui, I have a hard time seeing modern languages faculty pitching in and teaching Spanish I.

(At big research universities where there are grad programs, of course. Where I work, all the Spanish faculty do teach Spanish I. ;-D)

I think that perhaps in addition to (or maybe even as an alternative to?) limiting admissions, I would love to see more history grad programs take seriously the idea that you could get a Ph.D. and do something else - NOT college teaching - with it. So that the degree became less tied to "getting a job as a college professor." But then, that's another Easter Bunny scenario (especially since even I believe that the Ph.D. is essentially a professional degree for those who want to go into higher ed, rather than some great opportunity for Learning and Growth and so on).
I agree with your sentiment, but I'm not convinced that grad schools have any real incentives to limit admissions in the way you suggest. I was the one who posted previously, pointing to the recent AHA "discovery" that 2/3 of all PhDs in history did not get tenure-track jobs. The response from the profession--at least to judge by the pages of the newsletter Perspectives--was a big yawn. Too many people benefit from the existing system to create a real force for change. Sorry to be cynical about this, but the numbers have been terrible for decades, and while there has been a little tinkering on the margins, nothing has really changed.
I agree with the poster who said that Tim Burke's "Should I Go To Grad School" essay is excellent (different post than this). I stumbled across that years ago, and I routinely ask starry-eyed undergraduates considering humanities graduate school to read it. And then to THINK HARD about the academic lifestyle (if you DON'T get the TT job) of a PhD and consider what else one might do with that degree.

As a career counselor, I tell them, yes, you CAN do other things with a PhD, but that can involve substantial re-tooling and a lot of re-working of one's professional identity to make a good case. And as Burke says, if you've spent substantial time in the academic life, you can become conditioned to view leaving grad school (And I'm extrapolating this to anything other than the TT or adjunct/lecturer job) as abject FAILURE. Even if it's the right decision for you.

As a master's student in a predominantly PhD program myself, I felt that I was viewed as "less committed" (looked at one way, yes, I was) by both the faculty and the other students. What I found out much, much later by accident was that I was also viewed with envy by the PhD students because I was working full-time, had a salary and a life outside of academe. But that was something that I could see and that no one discussed while within the belly of the beast.
One idea that came up often on Invisible Adjunct was expanding terminal masters programs while limiting admissions to doctoral programs. Everyone wins:

1. The universities still have grad students to teach classes for peanuts.

2. Students who complete the masters and decide they don't really like the field won't stay out of fear of being labeled a failure.

3. Students from lower-tier schools won't be excluded - if they can shine in the masters program, they have a shot at the PhD.

4. In the humanities, where the job crunch is the worst, having a masters brings about 90% of the benefit having a PhD would provide in industry, if any at all. So for the many students who will stop at the masters level, their time isn't wasted - most of them would have ended up in industry anyway, and they have most of the benefit of a PhD without the extra lost time.
Another potential problem with tightening up admissions is that the best incoming PhD students do not necessarily make the best job candidates four or five years later. I deeply suspect that even though I was comparatively successful on the job market (two offers apiece in two different years), I might have never gotten into a PhD program that was not admitting high numbers to stock the 101 pond. Some of the more desireable fellowship students left the program as equally good job candidates, but just as many floundered at the dissertation phase or even earlier.

So whether we're gatekeeping at the advising stage, at the admissions stage, or at the job search phase, we're keeping "deserving" people out.

Not that I have an alternative solution, except that better graduate advising toward non-academic career tracks MUST be instituted to help those promising students who make perhaps less promising professors feel like they haven't hit the end of a very expensive and demoralizing dead-end.
This year, our department informed us that after four years, our funding would be cut off (I'm in my fourth year). Some people learned about this at the end of the school year last year, and had to scramble to find jobs that would pay their fees, tuition, and allow them the time to work on a dissertation. The impetus for this was that no faculty went on leave this year, and they over-admitted the number of first years. So they funded the first years at the expense of the fifth years. When I talked to several professors about this, I pointed to the glut of Ph.Ds and asked them why they couldn't limit incoming classes to, say, seven or eight. Response: we can't maintain the department with fewer than 15 incoming grads, because someone has to teach recitation sections. So it's not about merit, and not about turning out quality scholars: it's about cheap labor, and after four years, we've earned out our utility. This was a sobering realization.
I suspect that Mr. Market is trying to tell us something. Does the advent of excess supply of PhD aspirants correspond with government efforts to subsidize higher education? How will the coming "birth dearth" affect colleges and universities? Isn't the better plan to stand back and let the "invisible hand" take care of balancing supply and demand?

How many history professors does the U.S. need? Not too many, in my view, but I know I'm not competent to make that decision. Neither is anyone else. Leave it to market forces, even though that means that inevitably a number of history departments will be shutting down.
On the issue of "limiting admissions will hurt diversity"

Well, as someone from the other side, I know that advising students not to go to graduate school will hurt the diversity of graduate school. I think, though, that it’s more important to protect students than institutions.

My background in brief—I grew up in a working-class/poor family in a fairly fringe religious group, quit school after 8th grade, and worked for 10 years before deciding to go to college. After taking 1 year of classes at a local school, I transferred to an excellent liberal arts school (Davidson) and graduated with a degree in economics.

By any academic standard, I was a good candidate for grad school; perfect GRE scores, high GPA, lots of math, did research as a student, liked studying and research, enjoyed being around academics, etc. I seriously considered grad school, but decided not to go; I just couldn’t stomach the idea of worrying whether I’d be able to eat AND pay the rent for another 4 years (at least), and then my employment prospects would be worse.

Academia is an aristocracy--not needing to support yourself (much less anyone else) is expected. I don’t think it does students any favors to be ill-informed on that issue.

Certainly, it would be better for almost everyone if there were half as many grad student slots and stipends were twice as high--but that's just not the world we live in.

Cross-posted from Dr Crazy
Dirk -- actually, college enrollments now are the highest they've ever been. If not for market distortions, the job market should be hot, not cold.

Part of my argument is that the incentives to individual departments are out of whack. They don't bear the costs of miscalculating; grad students do, years down the line. If we could somehow internalize those costs to departments, we'd see many more of them either shrink or close.

The fact that economics departments, of all things, restrict admissions, should be telling. Presumably, they understand the economics of the profession.

I went to grad school just after the Bowen and Bok report claiming that there would be a great shortage of college faculty starting in the mid-1990's. They were catastrophically wrong. I hope I'm similarly wrong, but it doesn't look likely.
Oh, and in answer to "does the advent of excess supply of Ph.D. aspirants correspond with government efforts to subsidize higher education?"

No. Quite the opposite.

Since the early 1980's, a much larger proportion of the cost of college has been paid by tuition, rather than by government aid. (In some states, the disinvestment has gone so far that the states have actually granted the institutions autonomy!) Colleges have responded by adjuncting-out their liberal arts core.

I don't dispute that simply upping the subsidies wouldn't be enough to solve the problem. But to blame the problem on the subsidies flies in the face of the facts.
There is a very simple thing that you have to realize before you start this discussion: Wiping out half the programs in any field does not solve the problem. About half the Ph.D. graduates in any field come from the top 25 programs, you get about 80-90% if you look at the top 50. The only thing that works is closing the University of California Everywhere.
I think you're right-on about this one, at least as my own experience bears it out. My (Ivy) grad program made a concerted effort, a few years before I got there, to cut back on the number of admitted students in order to a) give everyone equal financial support, and b) come close to producing no more Ph.Ds than could get jobs. In other words, entering classes of about 10 students per year.

It seemed to be working, too, and placement rates were quite strong. . . but in the last few years the program has inexplicably started admitting more students, with entering classes up by 50%. Our placement rates have also been in a slump during those years--and those larger classes haven't even hit the market yet. What's driving this, to me, is clearly the TA staffing problems we've had in the past--but what a ridiculous way to answer that problem! Try hiring more full-time faculty!

(On the other hand, the admitted students are much more diverse these days, and hail from a really interesting range of schools--unlike in my first years there, where the "diversity candidates" appeared to be those who had gone to Williams or Carleton or Bryn Mawr.)
Thanks for the nod, Dean Dad!

That's a perfect description of me, forehead-slappingly obvious. My friends would laugh along with me.

I wonder how economics pulled it off?
here is a problem though: there is a myth of quality about doctoral producing programs being better programs for undergrads, so flagship u will likely accept more people from flagship u then from any old state u, it will also likely produce few divergent intellectual traditions because of this. it will become, over time, inbred, and much like the political science departments who prefer the study of economic fictions as political science, pointless to their students interested in the topic. the best strategy would be this strategy, move toward a centrally funded graduate student structure per state held in a trust fund and added too each year. those positions are applied to for by universities and allocated by peer review panels every 3-5 years.
It seems to me that there's an alternative to limiting the number of grad students and/or programs: broadening the usefulness of the training.

In my experience, unless you get very lucky and have an unusually savvy graduate advisor, you will be trained to do one thing: be an old-style college professor. A little research, a little teaching. Problem is, the market does not need people like that, and hasn't for fifteen years. Unfortunately, most current professors were hired when it was the case, and they have been sufficiently insulated that they don't know down in their bones that things are different now.

What grad schools really need to be doing is identify a larger range of potential jobs for their graduates, and encourage the grad students to become damn good in something. They need to leave grad school with:

1) major teaching experience--NOT jut TA's!--to make them good candidates for teaching colleges, or

2) At least five good publications and a small grant in their own name, for the Research I schools, or

3) A minimum of a one-year externship in a major-related industry, for people who want to try publishing/pharmaceutical research/the petroleum industry/whatever, or

4) Significant experience in an unrelated but complementary field, for the people who want to be cross-disciplinary.

Otherwise, the hapless grads wind up in the real world needing several years of remedial career building. (I speak from experience.) If most grad students genuinely were fitted to do something useful right out of the gate, we wouldn't have the glut we do now.

Of course, that would require current faculty to pay a lot more attention to what happens outside of academia. But we can dream.
Can we assume then, that you would also advocate the cutting of financial incentives for for employing underqualified persons in technical fields in the US? I mean, if the economic reality is that IT jobs, factory jobs, etc. can be performed at lower costs in other countires, why give tax breaks to companies that keep them in the U.S. We should reserve the U.S. jobs for only those that are superqulified and encourage the rest of the people interested in those areas to pursue different careers (while the U.S Gov. increases its budget size due to greater tax income). After all is said and done, considering our motives from a purely econonomic point of view, we will have a country with but a small number of those highly educated in the humanities. We will also have but a small number of working class technical workers. All the left-over people will have to scramble to create more and newer consumer paradigms (which they will only manage, not produce, that will be done in the Philippines).

I can't, for the life of me, figure out how fewer highly educated people is a good thing for a society. You speak of having "anything approaching a decent life." If the only indicator of decency-of-life is a tenured, regular check from the State Univeristy and spring breaks, then so many of us are so indecent.
Anonymous -- you've missed my point. Folks who pursue Ph.D.'s in most of the traditional academic fields these days are making themselves unemployable. That's the problem. If we produced enough jobs for those skills, that would be GREAT, and I wouldn't especially care if they were inside or outside academia. But the cold reality is that outside of academia, the Ph.D. is considered irrelevant at best, disqualifying at worst.

Rather than having the best minds of my generation slog away at wage-slave adjunct gigs, I'd rather see them turn their energies (at a much earlier stage of life) to something economically rewarded. Yes, it would help with tax revenue, but that's not my motivation. I'm just tired of seeing brilliant people exploited. That's all.
Dean Dad, anonymous again -
Maybe I have missed your point, but maybe I have misarticulated mine as well. I am trying to extrapolate your thesis. What about the not so brilliant (i.e. less advantaged, in many cases)? Also, what about the brilliant people with computer degrees whose jobs are fleeing the country? If the jobs for which these groups are qualified are also too few and too underpaying, what should we do? Do you fall into the category of citizens who advocate tax incentives to help keep that segment of our populateion gainfully employed? If so, what about government (i.e. public) intervention to encourage extended higher education and ensuing careers? If you are not in favor of tax incentives (or other economic measures) to retain technical jobs or to create new Ph.D. jobs, but rather in favor of letting the market sort itself out, then what new career paths do you envision? I say the only possibilities are a bunch of new consumer paradigms at the cost of a highly educated society.

There are two ideas associated with the resolution. One: if we have people who pursue knowledge for knowledge's sake, and let them know up front that they should not do what they are doing for money alone, and they still decide to go to graduate school, then so be it. I think many folks do fall into that category and have, as I said, a different idea of "a decent life." Two, if the American social perspective considered teachers (at all levels) as highly as it considers doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, etc., then teachers would make more money. I can't change social perspectives and niether can you, but I find your thesis to be a further erosion of the discrepency. Anyone in acedamia, I should think, would want to raise the level of respect for our field. Encouraging intelligent people to get out of college while they can and make some fat cash does not help riase the level of respect for education in our society.
Just love it. Informative & useful post. thanks for sharing.
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