Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Yet More Evidence That I Don't Understand the Press

Isn't this story actually good news?

It's being covered as if it's somehow a bad thing that fewer people are taking the GRE this year. (The GRE is the sort of SAT-for-grad-school.) It's a pretty good predictor of the coming year's grad school applications. Typically, enrollments boom during recessions, but even though this recession has hair and teeth, applications are actually down.

People, this is fantastic news.

If all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth about the plight of adjuncts is actually starting to get through on the Admissions end of the pipeline, then there may be actual hope for eventual improvement. Fewer people hopping into the sausage grinder may mean less sausage down the line.

Yes, there's the predictable “but we need educated people!” objection, but that strikes me as hopelessly na├»ve. Right now we turn down hundreds of applicants for every faculty job (or, more accurately, we did when we were still hiring at all). That doesn't smell like a labor shortage to me. If the number of disappointed applicants drops by half, it's still indefensibly high. To argue that it should be even higher strikes me as simply perverse.

In most of the classic academic disciplines, it's devilishly hard to get a full-time academic job. This is not news. What I haven't been able to figure out is how it is that we've been trumpeting this basic fact from the hilltops for a decade or more, with no discernible effect on the number of people entering the field.

Could it be that they're finally starting to connect the dots? Could it be that, even in a recession, the prospect of spending 5-10 years trying to get credentialed for a field with overwhelming odds of underemployment is perhaps less attractive than other things?

(Admittedly, it may be more a matter of increased debt aversion than raised consciousness. That's okay; I'll still take it.)

As regular readers know, I'm a fan of an educated population. This isn't about hoarding knowledge, or returning grad school to its roots as a province of the elite, or engaging in a rearguard action against diversity, or any other sinister motive. It's about treating people fairly. Continuing to shunt bright young minds into an already overcrowded pool just doesn't make sense. If some of those bright young minds are figuring that out for themselves, all the better.

Of course, certain graduate programs – I'm not naming any names, you know who you are – may respond simply by lowering their standards. All those sections of Freshman Comp aren't going to teach themselves, after all. And certain professors – again, I'm not naming any names – will do whatever they need to do to maintain their status as members of 'graduate' programs, even if there's no demonstrable need for their programs.

Still, the beginnings of a Great Refusal suggests that some basic truths are starting to get through. The optimist in me can't help but smile at that, and hope that it continues.