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How Many Grad Students Do We Need?

November 17, 2010

Tags EducationFree Markets

The recent fad of text-to-speech videos has placed its crosshairs on the unfortunate case of many young Americans who — facing a much higher unemployment rate than the nation as a whole — have turned to graduate school in record numbers. They typically do so to improve their job prospects, fulfill their intellectual fantasies, or simply escape the harsh reality of a depressed economy for another few years. It is clear that this trend cannot end happily for a large number of these students.

Experts have for some time been acknowledging that too many people are paying too much for schooling they don't need. But the machinery is in motion, and, even though the bubble in academia is well-known, personnel and resources are still being directed toward it at an incredible rate. And while the collapse of the industry may itself be relatively distant, its distortions are already evidenced in the lives of those who are getting burned by the overheated market.

One video pits an innocent, wide-eyed law-school candidate against a cynical veteran of the field. The young woman just knows that she will love it, and has aspirations of doing everything from constitutional law to pro bono defense work. The depressed (and defeated-sounding) lawyer responds that, like him, this young woman will spend 20 years paying off student-loan debt, hate her job, and will hardly ever see her kids — who by the way will likely be drug addicts or in prison.

Two more recent videos focus on the less-highly leveraged field of the humanities. The first video pulls out all of the usual complaints about graduate school and the academic life: the low pay, the low rate of PhDs securing tenure-track jobs, having to live in the middle of nowhere, working long hours to publish in obscure journals that no one will read, jaded colleagues and uncaring students, sharing an office with four others, etc.

The jokes are well worn, but they remain relevant because they touch on a real phenomenon: trying to become a scholar is a difficult and risky path. There are great rewards for those who make it, but the ones who do seem to be the lucky few indeed. For those on the other side, the uncertainty of success makes the costs and sacrifices all the more daunting. And, for those who have been chewed up and spit out by the process, it makes the idealistic college graduate who fancies a career in ideas look foolish and naive.

But the disappointment of high expectations in no way implies that graduate school isn't worth it. A response video lampoons the gloomy outlook of the first, noting that it was "probably made by people who are hoping to limit the application pool to the places where they are planning to apply." It emphasizes the sunny side of grad-student life: that students often get paid simply to do what they love, travel on the school's dime, and in general pursue a calling whose reward cannot be adequately expressed in terms of money.

In addition to praising the opportunities afforded to modern PhD students, the professor in the video cites John Adams, who said,

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

"Do you realize," the professor continues, "that the privilege of studying something like art history is, according to Adams, the result of the sacrifice and toil of generations, and that it is a high calling indeed?" And this is a truth that is often overlooked: high culture and civilization have always had a place for some to study the great ideas. The contemplative life is not only a luxury purchased by the hard work of previous generations but also a crowning achievement of the political life of man. Is it any wonder that such a field would be highly competitive in a society that affords its young members a choice of vocation?

The problem, then — if there is one — boils down to the issue of economic calculation. I've written previously about the overabundance of resources that in recent decades were directed to university faculty and staff positions. There I argued that institutions of higher learning, nearly all of which overexpanded during the boom years, must either downsize in the recession or force the public to pay for their poor decision making.

The debate over the relative worth of graduate programs concerns the same problem: money in the boom years flowed into new or expanding graduate programs, most of which have not contracted in response to the recession. Universities are continuing to produce PhDs at a boom rate during a bust era. The result is a vast overproduction of academics relative to the number of jobs that await them on the other side. This shortage of jobs, combined with the recession phenomenon of increased applications to schools, has resulted in a highly competitive admissions process for the mere chance to enter an already-crowded field.

And worst of all, the academic job market — anemic though it may appear to be — is still in its bubble phase, fueled by the state-backed student-loan industry. When that market collapses, as it must sooner or later, with it will go many of what few opportunities remain. The public funding that was meant to encourage nobler callings will, ironically, be the undoing of it all.

If I appear to be oscillating between praising academia and deprecating it (and predicting its doom), that is because I think that both of the videos are correct — each in its own way. On the one hand, it would be foolish to deny the value in high callings such as philosophy, literature, art, and other allegedly "useless" vocations. Whenever and wherever civilization has flourished, the wealthy and privileged have indulged in these very activities with great satisfaction. And in a society where ever-increasing numbers of people enjoy a high level of material well-being, we have every reason to believe that large numbers of people will be drawn to these abstract, intellectual efforts.

On the other hand, we cannot suppose that the only thing standing between us and an intellectual's paradise is a lack of will power or a dearth of public grants. Education is a bigger industry now than it ever has been — thanks to a bubble that has yet to burst — and yet so much of it is mismanaged. Without a solid connection to the desires of consumers in a liberal market economy, this waste is inevitable.

Should we have more PhD students? Fewer? Are there too many programs with too much funding — or too few with too little funding? These questions, and others like them, are important to ask. Finding the right answers, however, is a process that would be much simpler and more straightforward if natural profit-and-loss mechanisms were allowed to operate.

Few relish the idea of putting a price on the noblest of pursuits, but until we reach a point where the abundance of material goods permits an abundance of carefree lifestyles, the cost of education is a reality we cannot afford to ignore.


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