Monday, December 08, 2014

The Ecosystem Problem

People may or may not get what they pay for, but systems do.  A new report on the growing number of new Ph.D.’s hurtling into a market that doesn’t need them is a sign of a larger failure to look at higher education as a single system.

Despite a chronic underemployment problem for new Ph.D.’s, American higher education is producing more of them than ever.  The numbers of new doctorates are hitting all-time highs every year, even though there’s a large and increasing backlog of Ph.D.’s who would like, but are unable to find, the jobs for which they were trained.  

The physical sciences have adapted, to some degree, through the increased use of postdocs.  In the humanities and social sciences, for the most part, those remain the exception.  

The catastrophic and growing disconnect between graduate institutions and the larger academic job market is a function of the incentives to which graduate institutions are responding.  Given an ongoing and well-publicized (at least within the industry) employment problem, why do graduate programs keep growing?

The short answer: although the larger system doesn’t need more new grads, each individual research university needs a constant, and preferably growing, supply of graduate students.  The incentives at the institutional level are the opposite of the needs at the system level.  New graduates pay the price for the disconnect.

In a perfect world, of course, there would be vastly increased public support for teaching-intensive institutions, with a resulting increase in the demand for permanent faculty.  That would be all to the good, and would certainly help.  But if it were that easy, it would have happened by now.  Barring a sea change in our politics, what is there to do?

I’d start by taking a serious look at higher education as a larger ecosystem of institutions.  It’s currently run as a sort of Great Chain of Being, in which the institutions on top -- the Harvards and whatnot -- dictate the terms, and everyone else is judged and funded based on their proximity to the Harvard model.  The institutions with the wealthiest students get the most money, especially if you include the tax exemption for endowments.  The institutions with the neediest students get the least, and are judged on measures -- first-time, full-time graduation rates, most notably -- devised with elites in mind.  And the Ph.D. graduates of top-tier institutions are prepared in ways that ignore completely, when they don’t denigrate, the realities of roles at teaching-intensive places.  We speak of research “opportunities” and teaching “loads,” rather than the reverse.

The internal incentives for a graduate university involve keeping the freshman sections staffed with teaching assistants.  That requires a pipeline of graduate students.  And the faculty in graduate programs will fight to the end to preserve their programs, whether their grads get jobs or not.  It’s easy for any given university to acknowledge the problem, but to cast its own programs as exceptions.  Yes, there are too many Ph.D.’s, they might say; all the more reason for our competitors to get out of our way.  It’s the same idea behind the Onion article finding that 99 percent of American drivers support increased use of mass transit by other people.

In my own state, as an example, community colleges are subject to “performance funding,” but the flagship state university is not.  From a system perspective, that’s backwards.  Graduate programs are not held accountable for employment rates of their graduates, but they are held accountable for getting the freshman sections covered.  They respond accordingly.  If instead they were held accountable for the fates of their graduates -- which might entail, among other things, preparing them for the realities of teaching at community colleges -- we could finally get a handle on the labor imbalances.  Add to that some reasonable parity of per-student funding, and the community colleges could actually afford to hire some of them.

As long as each institutional sector can look only at its own needs, we’ll have gaps between them.  If we’re serious about bridging those gaps -- and reducing the human damage from hardworking scholars falling into an economic hole -- it’s time to tie the fates of the various sectors together.  Until then, we’ll keep seeing the same ridiculous graph, year after year.