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…