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In Pursuit of the Ph.D.

"This is a long, detailed, and at times somewhat tedious book" [p. 8]. That description is the authors' own, and it is appropriate. The book is also an intellectual and marketing tour de force. It will become a standard reference for analyses of higher education for years to come.

The importance of this book should not be surprising, given its authors: Neil Rudenstine, the President of Harvard, and William Bowen, the former President of Princeton and now President of the Mellon Foundation. Both were distinguished researchers before they moved into administration. Combine such distinguished researchers with significant funding and support staff (it was underwritten by the Mellon Foundation, and the authors list four collaborators), and such a tour de force could easily have been predicted.

The book is divided into three parts, each of which provides a wealth of general and statistical information on graduate education. The first part, "Trends in Graduate Education," contains five chapters describing the broad contours of graduate education. In this section the authors discuss the forces that led to the recent expansion and contraction of graduate programs, and the continued growth in the total number of graduate programs. The second part, "Factors Affecting Outcomes," consists of four chapters. In this section the authors sift through and analyze mounds of original data, much of it derived from a ten university data set that the authors collected for this project. This section defines key measures of outcome, analyzes those measures, and ultimately reduces all the measures to a single "student year cost of a Ph.D." measure. Although, as the authors point out, their data set focuses on elite educational institutions, the development and analysis of this data set is a major step in filling in a number of voids that have existed in the analysis of graduate education. The third part, "Policies and Program Design," consists of five chapters that focus more on policy related issues, and concludes with a chapter of policy recommendations.

The actual informational findings of the study are not surprising. For example, the authors report that "time-to-degree" has increased, but not nearly as rapidly as governmental studies have suggested" [p. 11] and that "time-to-degree" varies directly with the size of the program. They further find that "the ways in which programs are defined, carried out and monitored make a great deal of difference" [p. 14]. These, and their other findings, are well documented, but are not earth shattering.

Actually, these findings have little to do with the policy conclusions that follow, which was a bit annoying. As they move into the policy section it is as if they stepped out of their social scientist role and into their university president role - asking for money. (Their policy proposals are more closely related to an earlier Bowen study that predicts an upcoming serious shortage of university professors, especially in the humanities.) They argue that more money is needed for graduate education. That money is to come from government, from unrestricted funds from within the university, and from foundations.

After reading these proposals, I felt that the initial analysis, instead of serving as a foundation for the policy conclusions, was more of an ice-breaker - the part of a sales presentation designed to soften up a client. After being hit with the policy conclusions, I felt like a Group A Alumni (good for over a million) must feel when he or she has been hit up for money after being artfully wooed.

I don't think they make this shift from social scientist to salesperson consciously. They are, after all, two of the pillars of higher graduate education who in their role as university presidents have make the funding pitch so many times that it probably comes out without their even thinking about it.

I do not dispute their claim that the current state of graduate education requires something be done; I agree with their quotation from Derrick Bok, the former President of Harvard, to the effect that graduate education is the "soft underbelly" of higher education. But the policy question is: What to do about it. They offer a set of proposals to prop existing institutions up. All their proposals will cost lots of money, and will divert resources from undergraduate education to graduate education. The alternative policy approach would be to say that maybe pouring more and more money into that weak underbelly will simply make it weaker and weaker and that maybe it is time to question the entire institutional structure. After all, graduate programs have not always existed, and the Ph.D. is simply a piece of paper, the granting of which is not necessarily what higher education is about.

The real policy question is whether we accept the current institutional structure as given, as they do, or whether we imaginatively consider the purposes of graduate education and try to modify the institutions to encourage people to develop intellectually and serve the purpose society would like them to serve. Perhaps it is time to stop implicitly accepting that the number of Ph.D.'s correctly measures what graduate schools should be doing and ask some more fundamental questions about institutions of higher education.

Let me explain what I mean. In the humanities and social sciences, the two areas the authors single out, the primary job that their graduates do is to teach undergraduates. Yet, much of what is taught by graduate schools in these fields is only tangentially related to the type of knowledge future professors can usefully convey to undergraduate students and to teaching graduate students the skills they will be teaching. Graduate schools are not seen as subservient to the needs of undergraduate education; undergraduate education is seen as subservient to graduate school and graduate schools put pressure on undergraduate schools to prepare undergraduate students for graduate work. In my mind the current relationship is backwards and the authors' policy proposals would not help matters. Thus, my problem with policy proposals in the book is that they accept the current, I believe, perverse situation in higher education.

While there are many instances in the book of the general acceptance of the cuffent situation I have space to mention only one. At the beginning of the book, the authors offer "as incontrovertible evidence" of the "preeminence" and "quality" of graduate education in the U. S. the large, and rising, number of foreign students who choose to do graduate work here. I find this evidence far from incontrovertible. Many foreign students that I've talked with choose to study here because it offers them their only chance at immigrating to the U.S. If that is true, the rise in foreign students can be seen as evidence of the failure of U.S. graduate education to attract U.S. students. To keep their programs going many U.S. graduate education programs must bring in foreign students.

My point here is not that all current graduate programs are bad; it is simply that a serious discussion of policies to deal with graduate education must meet head on the hard criticisms that writers such as Martin Anderson are presenting. The authors have not done that. Instead, their pro-existing institutions bias has significantly colored their policy conclusions, and made that part of the book more of a sales pitch than a serious set of proposals.
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Author:Colander, David
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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