Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Grad School for All?

Worst Professor Ever alerted me to this New York Times article about how the Master's degree is the new Bachelor's degree. I posted my response on her facebook page:

I have to say I was more than a little flatter that William Pannapacker (aka Thomas H. Benton from the Chronicle) liked my response. And WorstProf wrote an absolutely hysterical Onion-esque response: "Education Secretary to Today's Youth: Stop Getting So Many Fucking Degrees." I do want to expand on my facebook comment, because it does reflect on how the economics of the universities are getting more and more screwed up.

I've written before about the economic realities of getting PhD, especially in the humanities. But what about from the other side, from the perspective of the universities that are increasingly offering MA programs. Faculty, particularly at public universities, are seeing their salaries if not get cut, then certainly decrease in purchasing power. One way to appease faculty is to create graduate programs; it's like a perk! Smaller classes! Better students! More prestige! Never mind that it's actually more work to recruit and retain these students, not to mention mentor and supervise them. From the university's perspective, they're getting the faculty to do more work for less money. And, the added prestige of graduate programs. Win-win.

Actually, it's a win-win-win. Grad students are cash-cows. You can charge more for grad programs (even though they aren't hiring any more faculty, or paying the current faculty more) and they'll pay. Plus, you can then use the grad students a cheap labor, working on campus, for professors, and maybe even teaching some of those pesky intro classes that no one else wants to. And did I mention the prestige? Rankings love grad programs. 

But does the student really win? It keeps them out of the work force longer, usually will end up putting them further into debt, and makes them over-qualified for many of the jobs they may want. And, for the most part, this will benefit the same students who are benefitting from a BA anyway; the wealthy and upper-middle-class. Applying for graduate school is perhaps even more difficult and complex than applying for university. And even more expensive. To get into the best graduate programs, you have to not only be outstanding, but also know the right people. It's a big circle jerk, and those who benefit are those who have always been a part of it. 

And do the professors really win? Soon, College Misery will be devoted not to the under-qualified and entitled undergrads, but to the under-qualified and entitled grad students that the college accepts because of the money and prestige. The MA will be the new BA, insofar as students will feel entitled to their degree on the basis of having a) been accepted and b) paid for it. The best and the brightest will continue to go to the "best" schools, while everyone else will move from one mediocre program to another. You'll be able to say that you supervise grad students, but at what cost? 

To reiterate, I hate it. We're fooling ourselves within the academy into thinking that what we are doing is in the name of social justice and equality, when really we're just providing excuses to governments and corporations to compress salaries, benefits, and cheapen our students' educations, not to mention out own value as academics. 


  1. Thanks for doing a post on this.
    I see your point, but I have to wonder if the problem isn't as much with the degree as the 'afforded' degree. What is to be said of those who earn a scholarship to an institute? And is the point lessened if you are considering public versus private institutions?
    There must also be some degrees given if only to carry on the scholarship of the current day. So in your opinion is the right amount?
    Perhaps the argument is less about giving away degrees as it is about securing that only the best and brightest earn them.

  2. Sry, that should be 'in your opinion what is the right amount?'

  3. That is the billion-dollar question.

    I think the right amount should be dictated, in part, by an honest assessment of the capacity of the institution. I think we need to ensure that quality is maintained, and I also think that we need to honestly ask students WHY they are getting a graduate degree, rather than seeing them as dollar signs and prestige points. What bothers me is how the university (as an institution) is exploiting both faculty and students. And we let them. So maybe there are currently enough grad students. Maybe we need more. But we can't go on producing them using the system we currently have.

    On the Chronicle, there was an article outlining that the majority of graduate students are going into significant debt to get their graduate degrees (http://chronicle.com/article/As-Graduate-Student-Population/128402/). This is not insignificant, particularly if they have already accumulated debt as an undergrad. I know that *on average* (and historically) people who have higher degrees (particularly masters, but not PhDs) make more money over the course of their careers. But how much of that income bonus is wiped out by loan repayments? How much earning time is lost in grad school? And, as we move forward, can we still expect such a huge bump in earnings? Can we even expect a job?

    I also don't like the idea of grad school for all because I think it really does serve to mask youth/young adults unemployment rates. It's kicking the can down the road, but the cans are human beings with aspirations that usually don't involve grad school, but they are increasingly pushed towards it because they feel they "have to" not because they "want to."

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  5. This makes me uncomfortable. I actually want to go to grad school because I eventually want to become a professor in psychology and do research. I love the critical thinking aspect of it, and I like how it can help me to better understand everyday things. However, I think my chances of getting into a good school are pretty low, considering the state I come from is only better than Mississippi, and my family can't afford any school outside the state. I was told I can't take out any loans no matter what so God help me or I face death as a consequence... exaggerating a bit of course, maybe. Plus, my little sister is about to head off to undergrad the year before I go to grad school.

    It just seems like such a losing situation that I'm double majoring with English/Secondary Ed so I can at least have some kind of job in the teaching and learning world.


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