John Schwenkler has some wise words about the college debt trap. As I said in the comments at his blog, I think that there are some pieces missing from that version of the story, but he’s absolutely correct that the college equation is by no means always or even usually a good one for the students involved. I don’t see the situation changing drastically in the future, though; college is sold as a really fantastic time in your life, and in fact very often is, and when you can wed that to at least the possibility of higher wages– or, maybe more commonly, the ability to pursue an advanced degree that provides higher wages — well, most 18 year olds find that an irresistible combination.
What that post really makes me think about, though, is the current doctoral program problems, which to me are worse and more intractable. It’s particularly problematic because all of the actors in the system have reasons, or think they do, to perpetuate the current system– except those that are most hurt by the system, who have been cut out of the ability to reform it.
To a degree that I think most people just don’t understand, colleges and universities run on graduate student labor. Graduate students teach class, do research, perform administrative and clerical duties, and generally provide an enormous amount of basic labor for the university system. Despite what you might think, this actually tends to be more pronounced at the elite level of universities, not less. A number I have seen banded about for a school like Harvard, for example, is that about 55% percent of their undergraduate classes are taught by graduate students. (Frequently, the graduate assistant does the teaching and some of the grading, while a professor’s name is included on the transcript.) I don’t know if that figure is exactly accurate, but it’s close. And it makes sense, financially. It’s just much cheaper to have grad students handling units of freshman comp and Stats 1010, getting funded at maybe $14k a year, than an adjunct making $40K. This is particularly the case because, while it’s often overstated, it is true that tenure-track professors resist carrying a course load of more two courses a semester/three courses a year. So giving eager grad students what amounts to a pittance and a doctoral degree in exchange for this kind of work makes simple financial and practical sense for the U’s.
And there’s no shortage of willing applicants to join up. Grad school, despite the workload, competition and stress, is generally regarded as a good time. If you can survive the vicious competition for a job, even if you don’t end up on the tenure track, it’s enjoyable work for decent pay, with great benefits and lots of vacation. If you can get on the tenure track at a competitive university, then it’s a great job in almost all of the respects that we talk about, although the ceiling for pay is much lower than for people of similar post-collegiate training.
The problem is that not everyone gets a job, in fact very many don’t, and that’s the elephant in the room when it comes to grad school. There are just too many applicants for too few positions. This is indeed particularly a problem for the humanities, and there are more opportunities outside of the academy for sciences students. I do worry that this gets a bit overplayed, though, as make no mistake, the job market for your average doctoral-level physicist is still quite daunting. Tough job prospects aren’t in and of themselves disqualifying, of course, but there’s the additional fact that the average PhD takes something like six and and a half year to complete. Even if you start your doctorate at 25, a pretty young age to start pursuing one, you are going to end up on the other side of your thirties when you finish. That’s a major commitment, and during those years you are unlikely to be doing very well financially. Even if you have a generous fellowship package, a part-time job during your “masters years”, get a guest-lecturer position during your dissertation years– you are still not going to be making much money, certainly less than many of your peers who got jobs immediately after undergrad.
In a perfect world, more potential grad students would self-select themselves out of the grad school chase. But the fact that it takes so long to get your doctorate acts as a kind of buffer for looking at the reality; I think a lot of people just say “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” And they are following their passion, after all. People really do care about contemporary Portugeuse novelists and the effect of absentee fathers on child literacy rates and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s politics and allelic variation as evidence of sexual reproduction in the opportunistic human parasite “Candida Albicans”. God bless them for it. I think academic interest is a wonderful thing. The problem is that often the passion for those things seems like a small solace when people have emerged from six or seven years of school and work and can’t get employed. And now they’ve got a wife and kids, and they’re behind on the mortgage, and contemplating getting a job at the mall….
Look, I’m not asking for sympathy for these people above and beyond the sympathy I ask for anyone who can’t find work. But as I said before, only the people outside of the system have a genuine interest in seeing the system reformed, the graduated and unemployed doctorates. And by that time, they’re out of the system and easy to ignore. The administrations of the various colleges have financial pressure on them to expand the number of grad students they take in. The would-be grad students are caught in a depravation model, where they just desperately want to be in the system and see it as a gift from university to student, rather than as a two way interaction that they should evaluate as they would any financial, professional arrangement. The only people who are really hurt no longer have the influence of being in the system.
Part of the problem too is that it can’t help but seem hypocritical or self-serving of those most rewarded by the system, tenured professors, to denounce the system and tell potential grad students to suck it up and get a job at some insurance company. Michael Berube is a really bright guy and says all the right things on this subject, but it’s hard not to think that it’s a little cruel for a tenured professor with a great reputation and a position as a pundit that trades on his academic cred to turn around and say “Don’t try and get what I have.” (Berube is one of my real favorites, and I loved his latest book, but he can be really frustratingly inconsistent. For example, in What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? he makes a show of being annoyed by people dissing Penn State’s academic status, but turns around and insults everyone who, like me, went to a “directional college”; because apparently dissing people at Happy Valley is an unforgivable crime, but dissing the thousands at West U. is cool.)
Anyway– it’s a sticky problem. I think ultimately the academy as a whole has to do what it so often fails to do and live up to its ideals, but who knows. Many have predicted a sudden and dramatic uptick in the academic job market when the Boomers retire en masse. We’ll see. I’m interested to see how the financial crisis changes this dynamic. (I wrote about some of the consequence of recession to the academy here.) In the meantime, well. Publish or perish.