“The most striking thing about the American university in its formative period is the diversity of mind shown by the men who spurred its development. Those who participated in the academic life…displayed sharply dissonant attitudes. Their outlook offered no smooth consensus.” – Laurence Veysey, The Emergence of the American University
The problems of American higher education, particularly with doctoral study in the humanities, are legion: the increasing and unchecked diversity of its fields of study, which threatens to devalue the usefulness of doctoral education and the degrees it confers in the humanities; the increase in the total number of graduates of doctoral programs in the humanities, which devalues both the courses of study and their graduates’ studies; and the unchecked decrease in total public and private support for humanities-based doctoral study (Johnstone 317). Graduates of these programs now compete for a shrinking number of tenure-track professorships, administrative positions and other research-related humanities jobs in think tanks like the Brookings Institute and in positions with the federal government as colleges and universities decrease access to the tenure track. Many organizations operating in the service-based economy now focus on hiring both highly skilled and highly educated men and women. Companies competing globally in technology and other sectors and the increasing complexity of organizations competing for a global pool of capital raises the barriers to entry for entry-level positions in fields as diverse as “green” technology, automobile manufacturing, chipset manufacturing and design and the manufacture and distribution of computer servers designed to accommodate a global increase in “cloud” computing. Additionally, colleges and universities, once the ultimate career destination for graduates of humanities programs, are eschewing or, in many cases, eliminating the tenure track altogether in lieu of contracting more part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses (Townsend, Mason 77). As these colleges and universities compete for a shrinking slice of the public and private funding pie, they are forced to slash costs. Legacy costs for faculty constitute a large portion of college and university budgets (Kaplan 124).
Few graduates of doctoral programs in the humanities make their way to the academic c-suite (college and university executives and their immediate reports) as graduates of business and technology programs have infiltrated fields that were once the exclusive province of humanities doctoral students (Townsend, Mason 72). More than sixty percent of all humanities doctoral graduates were college and university administrators in the late twentieth century versus less than fifty percent of the same cohort in the earlier part of the twentieth century (ibid). The overwhelming majority of these were male into the late twentieth century (ibid). College and university presidencies, including provosts and their ilk, are now, often as not, filled by business people rather than humanities doctoral graduates (Kerr 7).
The continued splintering of American humanities-centered higher education and a concomitant decrease in public funding and other resources for higher education, especially in the humanities, effected a net change in both the public and private view of humanities-centered higher education. That is, national and global competitive pressures have conspired to focus American public and private stakeholders’ energies – and, most importantly, fiscal resources – on so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) while significantly reducing resources allocated to humanities-based doctoral education, even those with the ostensible imprimatur of quantitative analytical tools like economics.
There are several thousand accredited degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States. Of the 1.35 million research doctorates awarded in the United States by the hundreds of graduate schools conferring doctoral degrees in the last eight decades of the 20th Century, 38 percent were in the liberal arts and humanities (Thurgood, Golladay, Hill 23). There are 363 major fields in which it is possible to earn a doctoral degree in the United States (ibid).
In his article “Reform the PhD System or Close It Down”, Columbia University’s Mark Taylor describes the system of PhD education in the United States as “broken and unsustainable”, arguing that it “needs to be reconceived (Taylor 261).” American doctoral students and the universities serving them are, by his reckoning, afflicted with the “tyranny of choice”; that is, they can choose among more higher education options in more diverse fields than has ever been possible before (Taylor 261). To an extent, the opportunity to choose from a wide and increasingly diverse variety of higher education options in doctoral programs can enhance participants’ lives. It is only logical to think that if some choice is good, more is better; students and institutions who care about having a variety of course offerings and options will benefit from them, and those who do not can always just ignore the hundreds of versions of study they have never tried. Yet recent research strongly suggests that, psychologically, this assumption is wrong. Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more is not always better than less (ibid). Students report dissatisfaction with the employment options available to them upon earning their doctoral degrees (Townsend, Mason 76).
The shrinking pool of desirable post-educational options has soured many students on the efficacy of their humanities-based educational choices (ibid). The staggering array of available programs has, in many cases, caused students to extend the total time spent acquiring their doctoral degrees in humanities-based programs as the total time to completion increased from approximately five years on average to nearly eight from 1977 to 1999 (ibid 69). The same cannot be said for universities granting degrees in STEM fields as the total time to completion of a doctoral degree, while it has increased, has increased significantly less that that of humanities-based doctoral degrees, a mere 2.5 years, on average (Thurgood, Golladay, Hill 39). In total, there were nearly 300,000 more doctoral degrees earned in STEM fields than in humanities-based fields (ibid 24).
Higher education is, in many instances, an economic engine for the organizations and people funding it; the communities in which colleges and universities are sited and the global concerns invested in its continued operation and improved effectiveness. Higher education is also a “gatekeeper to individual positions of high remuneration and status” (Johnstone 317). Advanced education – particularly in high technology, information processing and sophisticated management and analysis – is thought to be essential to maintaining America’s economic position in the increasingly competitive global economy (ibid). Studies have shown that men and women possessing advanced degrees have better quality of life, increased incomes, greater life expectancies and more wealth. They also send their children to colleges and universities in far greater numbers than the general population.
The funding of higher education is a large and complex topic, made more so because of its multiple sources of revenue and its multiple outputs, or products, which are only loosely connected to those different revenue sources (Johnstone 315). Higher education must now contend with issues surrounding educational quality, including the relationship between public and private funding and the quality of the education outcomes for students graduating from doctoral programs in the humanities. Additionally, as colleges and universities have broadened access to students from multiple socioeconomic backgrounds, funding sources have necessarily shrunk as the pool of available resources is stretched to satisfy increasing demands. Changes in laws and mores have led to increased calls for and research into social equity, or in who benefits from, and who pays for, higher education (ibid). The limited pool of capital to fund higher education programs has led to increased calls for efficiency, or the search for a cost-effective relationship between revenues (particularly those that come from students, parents and taxpayers) and outputs (whether measured in enrollments, graduates, student learning or the scholarly activity of the faculty) (ibid). Public and private funding are now tied to increasingly detailed metrics designed to measure the effectiveness of doctoral education. Funding and education outcomes are inextricably linked. This level of scrutiny will only increase.
Universities face growing financial challenges. Most in the United States, for example, have not recovered from losses incurred on investments during the financial fiasco of 2008, and they probably never will. State and federal support for higher education continues to shrink; institutions cannot afford to support existing programs, some of which suffer from a blinkered insularity and navel-gazing myopia. In the spirit of long-term reform, however, growing competition for dwindling public and private resources may refocus institutional priorities and force changes to doctoral education.
Policy, Knowledge and Study
Many doctoral programs are themselves recent phenomena, dating from the latter half of the twentieth century. In recent years doctoral education and training has become part of the focus and scrutiny of public policy formation. If humanities-based doctoral education is to remain viable in the twenty-first century and beyond, universities must tear down the walls that separate fields, and establish [programs] that nourish cross-disciplinary investigation and communication (Taylor 261). Curricula must have utility, practical applications furthering the practical application of the theories under study in fields with real-world applications focused on solving practical problems. Students, administrators, trustees and public and private sector stakeholders must create pressure for reform (ibid).
Burton Clark, writing for “The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University”, argues that universities are facing “enormous pressures for change” (Clark 322). He cites four converging trends feeding information “demand overload”. The first, a shift from elite to universal access to higher education, exerts pressure on institutions and their funding sources to constantly broaden access to a widening pool of participants, resulting in “a growing entitlement of young people to receive more education” and “a lifelong entitlement for both repeated professional upgrading and cultural enrichment” (ibid). Additionally, more segments of the labor force demand university graduates trained for increasingly technical and, thus, highly specialized occupations (Clark 322). Further, patrons in government and the private sector increasingly exhort universities to assist in solving societal problems as broad as poverty and poor health and as specific as city charter reform and local traffic control (ibid). Finally, the trend toward what Clark calls “knowledge acceleration”, a phenomenon in which “knowledge outruns resources” and social pressures on universities augur the creation of increasingly specialized courses of study, threatens to stretch college and university resources to the breaking point.
It has become clear that doctoral education and training is no longer exclusively regarded as the disinterested pursuit of knowledge as it was at its inception but that the generation of new knowledge has become both an important strategic resource and a factor in a country’s economy. Thus, policy makers have begun to scrutinize doctoral education and training, and as a result universities have been requested to develop institutional strategies to improve it, rather than leaving it in the hands of individual professors or departments (Kehm 67).
The necessary changes are both curricular and institutional. Many doctoral programs are overly specialized, serving faculty and arcane fields yielding little in the way of real-world applications with curricula fragmented and increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia. Expertise, of course, is essential to the advancement of knowledge and to society. But in far too many cases, specialization has led to areas of research so narrow that they are of interest only to other people working in the same fields, subfields or sub-subfields (ibid). Currently, a number of reform initiatives are being undertaken to improve the teaching of doctoral students (ibid).
The international growth and dispersion of knowledge as defined and delineated by students pursuing doctoral studies is fed, in part, by the “universality of scientific disciplines” (Clark 325). It is now spurred by what Clark calls “a virtual quantum leap by the globalization inherent in computer-age technology” (ibid). New disciplines continue to emerge as technology continues its inexorable advance. Clark argues for a halt in what he calls “continuous knowledge eruption”, the increasing development and staging of ever more esoteric fields of academic inquiry. “No one,” he writes, “controls the production, reformulation and distribution of knowledge.” He continues:
“Never ceasing, rampaging knowledge has no stopping place. Fields of knowledge are the ultimate uncontrollable force that can readily leave universities running a losing race.”
Clark’s “subject fragmentation”, then, feeds a system of higher education that constantly increases in complexity, a source “more powerful and extensive in its effects than the expanded inputs of students” and “the more varied outputs to the general labor force.” Analysts studying the effectiveness of higher education miss this, by Clark’s reckoning.
Meanwhile, the humanities in many instances remain siloed bastions of what
65 Veysey called “liberal culture”, itself “unfriendly toward practicality and minute investigation” (Veysey 180). Proponents of liberal culture were themselves sentimentalists who, according to Veysey’s account of Hugo Münsterberg’s writings in 1913, “miss in the technique of that new university method: the liberalizing culture which was the leading trait of Oxford and Cambridge” (Veysey 181). Indeed, education, said an instructor at Nebraska in 1897,
“Divided into two parties: the party of those who seek fact and the party of those who seek inspiration through fact; the party of mere science, and the party of those who demand not only science, but beauty.” (Veysey 181)
This false dichotomy between the humanities and STEM studies persists in higher education. With few exceptions, both camps have retreated to their respective corners, retrenching, either producing screeds extolling the virtues of a focus on their fields of inquiry that are often mere advertorials covered in a fine patina of academic claptrap or doubling down on playing up the differences and advantages of their disciplines. Many universities are able to cap their size and to limit their training lines, but they cannot control the national and international growth in knowledge (Clark 326). The growth and differentiation of knowledge, Clark writes, “fractures the foundation of the university into a thousand pieces” with major research universities offering thousands of courses. “Research production and related specialization,” he continues, “also turn cognitive fragmentation into…complicated forms of institutional differentiation.”
Responses and Reform
National and international forces and developments have triggered extensive criticism and a major rethinking of doctoral education over the last 15 years. In his analysis of doctoral education, Garth Williams stated that “globalization has altered both the context and substance of university education, advanced research and doctoral training”, with ‘globalization’ being characterized by a number of factors such as the new economy, the growth of multinational corporations, greater international movement, a revolution in communication technology, increased production and more intense economic competition worldwide. Kehm’s research into the problems with humanities-based doctoral education has identified several major issues and suggests possible long-term solutions:
- Institutional structures and the shape of doctoral education
A clear trend to give doctoral education more structure and to promote greater integration in and among disciplines will require greater support across disciplines and will require increased integration across institutions throughout the United States and further afield. The traditional ‘master–apprentice’ model is still widespread. The problems with the master–apprentice model are well known: there is a high degree of personal dependence on the supervisor, a frequent lack of quality in supervision, high dropout rates and an overly long period before the degree is completed.
- Admission to doctoral education
Admission to humanities-based doctoral education programs ranges from the highly regulated and competitive to the rather informal and unregulated. Eligibility, selection criteria and admission procedures are frequently as nontransparent and varied as the requirements for admission in terms of the candidates’ previous studies and formal qualifications. Greater transparency, standardization of curricular requirements, a formal standard for admissions and a single admissions test would go a long way toward ensuring a uniform student cohort at the outset of the educational process.
- Status of doctoral students and requirements
Doctoral students’ status within their host institutions can vary considerably. In North America, it is that of a student, where tuition fees have to be paid, thus providing an income for the institution. Increasingly, contractual relationships between the doctoral student and the institution or department are established to provide more transparency in terms of the requirements and obligations of both sides. Clearly delineating students’ status and institutional recognition same as the beginning of a professional career rather than as a continuation of the individual’s studies will aid in the standardization of educational requirements for students in humanities-based higher education.
We find tuition fees at the one end of the continuum and salaries at the other. In between are scholarships and state grants, part-time jobs and paid teaching positions. As a rule, the insecure financial situation of doctoral students has contributed to high dropout rates and an increase in the time needed to successfully complete this period of qualification. Dropouts and lengthy periods tend to occur in the period between finishing the coursework and before the submission of a completed thesis. Standardized funding sources will reduce dropouts and increased the total number of students seeing their studies through to completion in a shorter time.
Other issues with humanities-based higher education include an increase in the number of doctoral students, which occasions the devotion of a dramatically reduced pool of resources to their effective training; transition into an academic career, as available positions are taken by part-time faculty; professional doctorates, or the development and widespread implementation of programs designed to provide the necessary skills and competencies to increase employment opportunities outside academia; mobility and exchange, the lower than expected limited period of study and research abroad which could be useful in developing international higher education standards via the exchange of doctoral students between countries; supervision and quality control, where higher education programs lack standard measures of quality and effectiveness; and duration of doctoral studies, where students’ time to completion of degree requirements has increased significantly from as recently as two decades ago. While initiatives designed to address these issues are underway, there is more still yet to be done.
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Golladay, Mary J., Hill, Susan T., Thurgood, Lori, U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century, National Science Foundation, Arlington, 2006
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