Pruning Ph.D’s

Finally, it would seem, colleges are doing something realistic to cut costs in this era of tight budgets and shrunken endowments: they’re scaling back or declining to expand their Ph.D. programs. Inside Higher Education reported last week that a range of institutions, including Emory, Columbia, Brown, New York University, and the University of South Carolina plan to reduce—by as much as 40 percent at Emory–the number of students they will admit this coming fall into their doctoral programs in arts and sciences. All those colleges cite recession-mandated budget cuts as the chief reason for the planned shrinkage.
Doctoral programs are expensive in every way you can think of. Unlike undergraduates and students enrolled in professional programs aimed at imparting specific career skills, nearly all of whom pay full tuition freight for their schooling (or have their tuition paid by parents, employers, or loans), Ph.D. candidates are typically subsidized by the universities that enroll them. Those subsidies can range from a few years of free tuition at the poorest institutions to living stipends that can exceed $30,000 a year at top research universities. (Universities recoup some of this by employing graduate students as a minimum-wage labor force, filling slots as teaching and research assistants.)
Those are the direct costs. The chief indirect cost is professors’ time. Salaried professors are paid the same, use up about the same amount of campus overhead, and receive the same credit toward their three-course-a-semester teaching loads for overseeing a tiny, highly specialized graduate-level seminar as for a large lecture course that might draw hundreds of undergraduates with their attendant academic problems. As Kevin Carey of Education Sector has pointed out, lower-level lecture courses are campus cash cows when you multiply enrollment by tuition, and the steep opportunity costs of having five students in your class when you could have 200 can make a doctoral program look like luxury a college can live without during hard times. Added to that are decades’ worth of vast overproduction of Ph.D.’s, especially in the humanities, in relation to the academic job market for their services. William Pannapacker, an English professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education under the pseudonym Thomas H. Benton, extrapolated data from the Modern Language Association (MLA) 2000 newsletter to conclude that for every five people who enter a Ph.D. program in literature, only two emerge with doctorates after the long slog of five to ten years that the process can take. Of those two, only one finds a tenure-track teaching job at a college. The other one typically hacks together a subsistence living as a $3,000-a-course adjunct or a $10,000-a-semester visiting lecturer for a few years, then gives up, unable to compete for a permanent placement with the cohorts of fresher-minted (although equally marginally employable) Ph.D.s emerging from doctoral programs every June.

The current economic downtown has made the dismal picture even darker. Last fall the MLA, the chief professional association for scholars in English and foreign languages, reported a decline of at least 20 percent in the number of advertised college job openings for those specialists—and even some of those scanty openings got canceled at the last minute by economically battered colleges. “So, the situation was 50/50 at best in 2000; I’d guess it’s more like 30/70 or worse for humanities doctorates now,” Pannapacker wrote me in an e-mail.
Similar bleakness prevailed at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in early January, because where advertised job openings for new Ph.D.’s are also way down. Numbers-crunching historian Sterling Flaherty of the University of Oklahoma reported that 50 percent of doctoral candidates in history drop out and half of college faculty are part-timers.
Reducing the size of doctoral programs might thus be seen as a kind of career mercy-killing for young people with romantic illusions about the scholarly life, as well as a reality check for institutions throwing good money after bad by subsidizing costly programs with dropout rates approaching those at urban high schools. Nonetheless, it’s hard to tell whether universities’ pans to shrink their Ph.D. programs really represent coming to terms with reality at last, or whether they’re just another Band-aid for coping with an economic downturn that colleges either hope will go away on its own or be somehow fixed by the government. For example, the job market for holders of new doctorates in the hard sciences and some social sciences is far less dismal than for recipients of humanities doctorates (partly because many new Ph.D.’s in those fields find jobs in private industry.) Science programs also attract much more outside money to universities than the humanities, from federal research grants to contributions by private donors who like to see their money produce more tangible results than one more monograph about magical-realist fiction. It’s safe to generalize that on many campuses academic graduate-level science pays for itself, while the humanities are a fiscal drain.
So–will the cuts be greater in the humanities, where the job glut is most glaring? I posed that question in a telephone interview with Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who had told Inside Higher Education that her university plans to make “modest reductions” in the number of new Ph.D. students it will admit this fall. While Stimpson agreed that “job placement” rates would be one of several factors that NYU will consider in deciding how severely to prune individual doctoral programs, but she declined to elaborate further. It’s undoubtedly impolitic for a dean to denigrate an academic program that she oversees, and Stimpson assured me that “we’re committed to the humanities.” As for the grim numbers themselves—that at most only 20 percent of those who enroll in humanities doctoral programs will end up doing the jobs they were trained to do—Stimpson’s response was that their problems might be merely cyclical. “The job market does go up and down.” Besides, she pointed out, “there are lots of things you can do with a Ph.D. other than getting an academic job. The experience of getting the degree may be something that people want to do for itself.”
.That’s undoubtedly true for those who, say, love classical art or Ming Dynasty poetry and have the leisure, desire, and money (or spouse’s money) to spend years pursuing a calling that they will likely never practice in an academic setting. As for the rest of would-be graduate students, caveat emptor should be the rule, according to Pannapacker. “I would not assume for a moment that any graduate program conducts business on the basis of the interests of its students,” he wrote in his e-mail. “Prospective students should ask for evidence of placements in tenure-track positions, then verify their claims: is their star graduate teaching at Lehigh really tenure-track, or she just a visiting lecturer? Mot applicants are too grateful to be admitted to ask for that kind of information, and many don’t even know the difference between an adjunct and an endowed chair.”
So even if the planned cuts in the size of universitites’ doctoral programs are only temporary, most graduate-school applicants ought to count it as a blessing if they’re turned down for the entering class of 2009 because of budget restraints. And it may be that over the long run some universities will realize that bloated doctoral programs can cost more than they pay off in cheap labor. After all, there are always those legions of adjuncts, those underemployed Ph.D.’s from years past, willing to work for $12,000 a year.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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