05 December 2014

Defending the astonishingly successful

Inside Higher Education reports on a speech by University of California president Janet Napolitano, in which she tells advocates “defending graduate education.”


Right, because graduate programs are doing so poorly right now.


It is weird to hear about the need to “defend” graduate programs, when the growth of master's degrees in science and engineering looks like this:

And the growth of doctoral degrees in science and engineering looks like this:

These numbers show a higher education enterprise that is thriving, not in need of defense.

Yes, it’s true these data are only for science and engineering, but I have no reason to think those for other disciplines are dramatically different. Plus, when you read Napolitano’s comments, it’s pretty clear that she is mainly talking about economic competition in the scientific and engineering fields. For instance:

640 startups are based on inventions created within the University of California, she added(.)

And two of her three “grad school success stories” – success anecdotes, really – are about STEM disciplines (medical research and information technology).

And Napolitano trots out the hoary promise that huge numbers of academic jobs are going to open up:

(T)he state is projected to need tens of thousands of new professors as the baby boomer generation retires.

Yeah. I heard those projections before I started graduate school in the late 1980s. Yet somehow, over and over again, they never materialize. And let’s say the number of academic positions available per year in the United States doubles. Following the trend lines in the graph above, doctoral recipients are still going to outnumber faculty positions by three or four to one.

Napolitano is a politician with vested interests. It is in the interests of universities to lobby for more funding to support more graduate students. It is in the interests of universities to portray grad school and grad students as benefiting the greater good (which it does, by the way). And it is in the interests of universities to say that problems with a shortfall of employment opportunities are going to go away.

But Napolitano is lobbying for money, not defending something that is under threat in any meaningful way.

External links

Defending graduate education

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