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For Crippling Debt, Why Not Try Grad School?

student debt.gifThere’s something even worse than undergraduate debt. It’s graduate-school debt. According to the American Student Assistance website, which uses figures from such sources as the National Center for Education Statistics, the College Board, and the nonprofit Finaid.org, 60 percent of recipients of bachelor’s’ degrees borrowed to fund their education during the 2000s, with the average debt load per borrower on graduation close to $23,000 by 2007. By 2010 that figure had jumped to more than $25,000 per borrower, according to the Institute for College Access’s Project on Student Debt.

Those numbers sound bad, but what if you go on to obtain a master’s degree, adding another one or two years’ worth of education to your resume? According to American Student Assistance, nearly half of those who obtained master-of-science degrees during the late 2000s borrowed to finance their schooling, and their average cumulative debt load for those two years was $29,975–on top of what they already owed for their bachelor’s degrees. Of recipients of master-of-arts degrees, degrees that typically qualify their holders mostly for low-paying teaching jobs at community colleges and private high schools, 61 percent borrowed to finance their two additional years of education, with a per-borrower average debt of $29,975.

And what if you go all the way to a doctorate in the humanities or sciences? Fewer students have to borrow in order to earn Ph.D.’s (graduate schools typically subsidize tuition and pay modest stipends in exchange for on-campus teaching or research). Still, 35 percent of doctoral students in the humanities and sciences went into the red to pay for at least part of their education and living costs, racking up an average cumulative debt of $44,995, according to American Student Assistance. About 48 percent of doctoral students had borrowed for their undergraduate degrees, and the total average cumulative amount borrowed for both degrees was $45,455.

Now let’s factor in two additional pieces of data that bring home what it means to owe $45,000 for your Ph.D. after the ceremonies are over and you’ve stashed your doctoral gown inside its garment bag. First, you are likely to be as much as a decade older than your college classmates who collected only a bachelor’s degree before setting out on a career path. According to the National Science Foundation, the median time spent registered in graduate school in order to earn a doctorate is 7.5 years. The median age of recipients of Ph.D.’s in science and engineering is 31.8 years. Among recipients of Ph.D.’s in the humanities the median age is 34.6 years. That is because it takes an average of nine years in school to earn a doctorate in the humanities. The total average time from receipt of bachelor’s degree to receipt of doctoral degree is about eleven years in the humanities and nearly eight years in science and engineering.

Men and women outside academia who are in their early thirties are typically feeling ready, or even more than ready, to buy homes and start families. They are also typically feeling financially able to shoulder those new financial burdens, with careers nailed down and netting them decent incomes, most student loans paid off, and savings accumulated for down payments. Not so the members of their age cohorts who chose to go to graduate school instead. They are at the bottom of their career ladders and salary scales, just as their college classmates who didn’t attend graduate school were ten years ago–except that the Ph.D.-holders now owe on average nearly twice as much in student debt as their former classmates. Holders of doctorates do earn more than holders of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but not much more. The average starting salary of an assistant professor on the tenure track, for example, can be as low as $37,500 a year and almost never tops $60,000. A study cited by the Economist in 2010 found that a Ph.D. gives its holder only a 3 percent earnings premium over a master’s degree, which takes only one or two years to complete. The study noted that in some fields, such as mathematics, computing, social sciences, and languages, holders of doctorates earn no more than holders of master’s degrees. They have also incurred the opportunity cost of foregoing years of income that would have helped them pay off existing student loans.

Think Twice about Doing This

It gets worse. Doctoral programs are essentially vocational training–for the job of college professor. But the training is so time-consuming and exacts such a psychic toll, with Ph.D. students struggling for years to squeeze in research on their dissertations as they cope with the backbreaking hours and abject penury of a teaching assistant, that the dropout rate is extraordinary. Only about 57 percent of students who enroll in doctoral programs complete their degrees, according to a 2007 report from the Council on Graduate Programs. Students in the humanities, especially English and history, fare the worst, with about a 49 percent completion rate. In the humanities the dropouts tend to cluster in the later years of the program when the students finally run out of money and hope. That translates into up to a decade wasted in academia with nothing to show for those years except forgone earnings elsewhere and in many cases, more debt.

Those who do manage to collect their doctorates–at about age 35 for the humanities–face a further horror. There are very few jobs, or at least very few of those full-time, tenure-track teaching jobs, even at $37,500 a year, for which their highly specialized education has prepared them. The humanities, as ever, occupy the bottom of the misery index. The Modern Language Association, the leading professional organization for English and foreign-language professors, projects one-third fewer professorial job openings during the academic year 2011-12 than during 2007-08–and that’s a slight improvement over last academic year. Yet the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), where financial support from universities is higher and doctorates get completed more quickly, don’t offer significantly better job prospects for their newly minted Ph.D.’s. The typical career path for nearly half of them these days doesn’t start with a tenure-track assistant professorship but with two, four, or even more years as a lowly “postdoc” laboratory researcher earning a starting salary of about $42,000 a year. That doesn’t help pay down student loans very quickly.

What to do about this? “The gigantic indebtedness of graduate students threatens to turn them into intellectual sharecroppers,” Leonard Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University, wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Cassuto’s proffered suggestions–that the government pay for graduate education and that universities hire more tenure-track professors–don’t sound realistic in these economically pinched times. A more practical suggestion would be for more college graduates to think twice about enrolling in grad school. If $25,000 in student loans sounds daunting, why boost that figure to $45,000–especially since the jobs won’t be there to enable you to pay it back?

A Terrible Time for New Ph.D.s

presidential_drgowns.jpg“If I don’t succeed in academe, I’ll die!”

So read the anguished headline of a Jan. 23 cri de coeur to Salon magazine’s advice columnist, Cary Tennis. The writer was a woman who had apparently spent eight years acquiring a Ph.D. in anthropology, plus another seven years trying unsuccessfully to get an entry-level tenure-track professor’s job—a position whose average starting salary is less than $54,000 a year, which is decent but perhaps not worth putting in nearly a decade in graduate school. At age 37 (if you add fifteen years to her presumed age at college graduation), the woman chafed with frustration, fury, the grinding humiliation of being able to secure only low-paying part-time teaching work, and resentment of her professor-husband who had landed a tenure-track slot at a prestigious university—but she could not let go of the dream that had driven her to endure nearly a decade of grad-school poverty for no reward. She wrote in her letter:

“I scrape by teaching the occasional class for peanuts, and one other prof has taken enough pity on me to let me work in her lab so I can pretend to continue my research. On an intellectual level I understand that I’m not going to get that professor job that I’ve been envisioning for, oh, 15 years now. It ain’t going to happen—no matter what I do, there is going to be someone younger, better trained, and with more publications….The problem is that emotionally, I can’t drop it. It’s like having a painful sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue—all day, every day. I’m angry, bitter and heartbroken. I resent my husband so much for having what I can’t get that I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, I’m so consumed with jealousy….Sometimes, stuck in this town I don’t much care for, with my once-promising career in shambles, I wonder if it’s even worth getting out of bed.”

This ground-down woman is scarcely unrepresentative, in a job market where fewer than one out of every two holders of doctoral degrees in the humanities these days receive job offers that put them onto the tenure track that is key to a successful (if seldom wealth-generating) and reasonably secure life of teaching and scholarship—and that’s in good year. Right now we’re in a bad year, when, according to the American Association of University Professors, the ratio of tenure-track openings to new doctorates is more like 1 to 4.

Both the Modern Language Association (the leading professional society for English professors), meeting right after Christmas, and the American Historical Society, meeting in early January, reported fallen-off attendance and a marked decrease in job interviews and hence job openings for the anxious grad students and new Ph.D.’s who typically flock to the two associations’ annual conventions (which double as job fairs), double or triple up in motel rooms, and peddle their fresh-from-the-printer curricula vitae. The MLA convention used to be low-hanging fruit for journalists, who could gin up easy laughs for their readers just by quoting the postmodernist mumbo-jumbo in the titles of the scholarly papers presented: “Back in Black: Theorizing the Sequel in Marlowe’s Tamburlaines” (that’s an actual paper title from the 2009 MLA meeting). This year’s MLA convention, after a 50 percent drop in the number of tenure-track job openings between the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 academic years, was just plain grim, from all reports.

For months now, the spotlight of negative attention in the academic trade press has been trained on the for-profit “career colleges,” with their high dropout rates, sometimes questionable recruiting tactics, and poor reputation for “gainful employment” on the part of their graduates, who can find themselves with no jobs and mountains of debt from the student loans that account for nearly 90 percent of their alma maters’ revenues. Ph.D. programs, especially in the humanities, can be viewed as career colleges for the highly educated. As with career colleges, their stated purpose is vocational training: for that full-time faculty position in academia. And exactly the same unappealing features of many career colleges, with their low-income, poorly prepared student populations turn out also to be features of Ph.D. programs, even though the latters’ student populations tend to be upper-middle-class and if anything, over-prepared.

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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.

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Incredible Vanishing Humanities Doctorates

There may be something to demand-side economics: According to the most recent annual report from the National Science Foundation, the number of Ph.D. degrees awarded in the humanities dropped by almost 5 percent from 2006 to 2007. As Inside Higher Education reported, the decline—steepest for doctorates in literary studies such as English, foreign languages, and the classics, where the number of new Ph.D.-holders fell by 6.9 percent—occurred even as doctorate production overall in American universities increased for the sixth straight year in a row and by 5.4 percent from 2006 to 2007. The most impressive increases were in science and engineering: 14.4 percent more doctoral degrees in computer science, 13.5 percent more in physics, and 7.8 percent more in various fields of engineering. Only two scientific fields, chemistry and mechanical engineering, saw slight declines of 1.5 percent in the number of doctorates awarded (and as Insider Higher Ed noted), chemistry saw an overall increase of 5.1 percent from 1998). Even the social sciences (sociology, anthropology, political science, and the like) did not fare too badly, their number of doctorates growing by 3.3 percent from 2006 to 2007, while the number of Ph.D. degrees in psychology inched up by 1.1 percent.
That leaves the humanities, whose number of doctorates decreased by 4.6 percent, as the sick man of postgraduate academia. The decline dovetails nicely with the steadily evaporating academic employment opportunities, especially on the tenure track, for literature scholars, historians, philosophers, and other credentialed humanists. On Dec. 4, Inside Higher Ed published what might be called the companion piece to its Nov. 24 report on doctorate production: an article titled “The Tightening Humanities Job Market.” The article reported that “there will be significantly fewer searches this year.” At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this coming January, only 126 history departments across the country plan to conduct recruiting interviews, a 14 percent drop from the 185 who scheduled hiring interviews in January 2007. The American Philosophical Association also predicted a sharp downturn in hiring interviews for its upcoming meeting later this month, as did the American Philological Association, the leading scholarly organization for classicists and classical archaeologists, whose annual meeting takes place in January. The Modern Language Association, representing academics in English and foreign-language departments and scheduled to hold its annual meeting late this month, reported no decline in job postings, but a representative for the MLA told Inside Higher Ed that “a downturn” in full-time positions (in contrast to the wretchedly paying part-time jobs that are the chief growth sector in academic literature departments) was highly likely.

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