Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education
You’re going to be in school for at least seven years, probably more like nine, and there’s a very good chance that you won’t get a job at the end of it.
At Yale, we were overjoyed if half our graduating students found positions. That’s right—half. Imagine running a medical school on that basis. As Christopher Newfield points out in Unmaking the Public University (2008), that’s the kind of unemployment rate you’d expect to find among inner-city high school dropouts.
I’m guessing that if you framed the statistics as doctors who end up working in hospitals you might have a dire employment rate to cite. A fake statistic, but a dramatic one to prove a point. And that’s the problem with most of these “graduate school is broken” articles — the idea that the only career for which you’d go to graduate school is to become a professor. If you aren’t smart enough to realize that a professor churning out more than a few students over the course of his/her career is unsustainable as a closed system, you probably shouldn’t go to grad school. But that’s based on intelligence, not the job market.
That’s not to say that the graduate education system isn’t broken, or at least exploitative, so don’t take away the message that I disagree with the whole article. But let’s be honest in terms of the state of affairs, employment prospects and the goals of graduate school. I think it weakens the argument when you distort the facts. So present some of the real problems, and acknowledge that we’re being misled at some level about what the role of grad school and research is: You can’t simultaneously have a shortage and a glut of scientifically qualified people, and you can’t simultaneously demand (as the article rightly points out) that academia do a lot of research and also not have a lot of grad students around — especially if being a professor requires you spend more time filling out grant applications than doing research. Someone is deceiving us about what’s going on.
Case in point regarding the employment prospects: In FY2009, more than 27,000 H-1B visas were granted to people holding doctorates (pdf alert; a summary exists, too) along with 85,000 Master’s degrees, out of a total of about 214,000 visas. This covers a wider spectrum of occupations than STEM subjects, and unfortunately there is no breakdown of education level correlated to occupation, but if the rough proportion holds then of the tens of thousands of STEM jobs on these visas, about half went to people with graduate degrees of some sort. That’s hard to reconcile with the notion that we have too many graduate students for the economy to absorb. One obvious possible answer is that the system is being abused and we’re importing cheap labor, and I think that’s going on; it’s simply a matter of determining the extent to which it is going on.
But the other issues raised in the article need to be investigated, as well as the solutions. It’s true that the large industrial labs have either evaporated or at least shed their role of basic research, and the government hasn’t stepped in to fill that void. The author also takes on issues of college-level education, which also need solving.