Q: What is the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education in the United States?
A: The Commission is a joint initiative of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and Educational Testing Service (ETS). It was formed to examine the role of graduate education in sustaining and enhancing U.S. competitiveness and innovation in the global economy. It guided the production of the report The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States, which explores vulnerabilities in our nation's graduate education system and offers policy recommendations for universities, employers and policymakers to enhance graduate education, a strategic national asset.
Q: What issues does the report identify?
A: The report identifies several trends and areas of vulnerability. Trends include the changing demographics of the United States and increasing international competition for students. Areas of vulnerability are identified in the university, industry and government domains. Examples include the fact that the majority of engineering graduate students are international and the need for more transparency in career pathways for graduate students, particularly at the doctoral level, in all fields.
Q: Why is this of concern to the future competitiveness of the United States?
A: Graduate education is the engine of a highly skilled workforce. The number of jobs requiring an advanced degree is estimated to grow by 2.5 million by 2018. Of that number, those requiring advanced degrees are projected to increase 18 percent, and those requiring a Ph.D. are projected to increase 17 percent.
Solutions to many of the greatest challenges facing the nation and the world in the 21st century will depend upon having a highly skilled workforce. Grand challenges such as finding efficient alternative energy sources, improving agricultural practices in developing countries to feed their growing populations and understanding other cultures that must co-exist in the global village will require individuals with graduate-level education.
Q: Why is the dominant global position of U.S. graduate education threatened?
A: There are several factors. While the United States has long been the number one destination for the world's best students, they now have increasing options to remain in their home country to attend graduate school. Countries that have traditionally competed with the United States for top students have stepped up their efforts to attract foreign talent. As a result, the U.S. share of the global international student market is shrinking. Additionally, too few U.S. students are pursuing and completing graduate studies, especially in science and engineering fields.
Q: What are other countries doing to compete with the United States?
A: Many countries are investing substantially to improve graduate programs and develop human capital as an engine of economic development. This includes countries that have historically sent large numbers of students to U.S. graduate schools, such as China and India. These countries are also offering career incentives for their students who do study abroad to return home for their employment. At the same time, other countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K., which are the most direct competitors to the United States as a graduate school destination, have adopted policies to attract and retain international students.
Q: How do other countries compare to the United States in Ph.D. degrees awarded?
A: The United States has long produced more doctoral degrees than any other nation, but other countries and regions have begun to catch up. For example, Europe is producing more Ph.D.s in science and engineering than the United States, and it is believed that China has now surpassed the United States in awarding doctoral degrees in natural sciences, math and engineering.
Q: What are some of the vulnerabilities in our graduate education system that must be addressed?
A: Too few U.S. undergraduates, especially students from underrepresented groups, embrace the value of graduate school or consider it a viable option. Also, there are only a limited number of programs that attempt to identify talented undergraduate students and prepare them for graduate education.
Q: What are the completion rates for graduate degrees?
A: The ten-year doctoral completion rate is only 57 percent overall, ranging from 40 percent in humanities fields to 64 percent in engineering, with rates varying substantially by gender, race/ethnicity and citizenship. There are currently no comprehensive data on completion rates at the master's level.
Q: Do we need a special focus on encouraging minority students to pursue graduate education?
A: Yes. More students from traditionally underrepresented groups need to complete an undergraduate degree in order to have the preparation required to pursue graduate education. In addition, demographic trends portend a more diverse student population and the need for new policies and programs to support graduate education.
Q: What are the Commission's recommendations?
A: Graduate school must be a viable option for a growing, rather than shrinking, number of United States citizens, and we must ensure that students who begin graduate programs can complete them. There is a role for government, industry and universities in enhancing U.S. graduate education, a strategic national asset. The Commission's recommendations include:
The federal government should:
Q: Given the current economic situation, how realistic are the Commission's recommendations for policymakers?
A: It is clear that the country faces serious fiscal challenges and that every effort must be made to invest both federal and state dollars wisely. That is one reason why the Commission included non-financial policy recommendations in addition to those that address what universities and employers can do to increase efficiency and outcomes.
In fact, the effort now under way to reduce the U.S. federal deficit is driven by President Barack Obama's conviction that substantial debt will make it harder for the economy to grow and create jobs. In a February 2009 address to a Joint Session of Congress, he asserted that we need to reduce the deficit to create the capacity to invest in the future. The recommendation for new expenditures, such as a COMPETES doctoral traineeship program, reflects precisely the kind of investment required for the economy to grow.
Q: Why has the Commission recommended creation of a COMPETES doctoral traineeship program?
A: The United States currently has a patchwork of programs that support doctoral education. In the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the primary support method is a research assistantship (RA) tied to an individual faculty member's research grant. A federal traineeship program provides grants to universities, which then provide support to students. Examples include the National Institutes of Health's National Research Service Award, the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, and the Department of Education's Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) program. Portable fellowship programs provide support directly to students; these include the Graduate Research Fellowship program at the National Science Foundation and the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship program at the Department of Education.
Each model has its own strengths and all of these programs need to be continued. But the research powerhouse that has emerged over the past 50 years was built largely on the foundation of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The NDEA provided funds to a broad range of institutions of higher education for, among other things, developing doctoral programs to educate the next generation of scientists, engineers and knowledge creators. It was a resounding success in terms of creating our current intellectual workforce and serves as the model for the COMPETES doctoral traineeship program.
The COMPETES traineeship program would be tied to the "grand challenges" we face, including healthcare, energy independence, climate change, cyber security, and other issues we cannot even imagine today.
There are about 800 doctoral-granting institutions in the U.S., about half of which have a significant number of research doctoral programs. The COMPETES doctoral traineeship program would provide training grants on a competitive basis to address the grand challenges, some of which are clearly interdisciplinary. Our expectation is that about 150 institutions annually would receive awards, each of which would support 10 to 15 students.
The Commission's proposal is to fund about 25,000 students initially and ramp-up to about 125,000 students in 2016. This would put doctoral training support at roughly the same level as related areas such as research, funded at about $30 billion annually, and the Pell Grant program, currently funded at about $26 billion annually. The need for a competitive graduate traineeship program on the same order of magnitude as the Pell program and the aforementioned research enterprise has been advocated by others, including three academic leaders at the University of Michigan in a recent column, "Needed: A National Strategy to Preserve Public Research Universities," in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Clearly, the Commission is not alone in recommending a significant investment in graduate education. Another recent proposal, in a paper, "Exploring a New Role for Federal Government in Higher Education," by University of California President Mark Yudof, suggested providing about $3 billion a year to expand graduate programs to train the nation's future faculty and researchers and to keep graduate students flowing through the pipeline. The objective would be to provide federal support to institutions, in order to sustain graduate-level training in areas of critical importance to the nation. That training, in turn, would play a direct role in strengthening our innovation and competitiveness.
Q: This "Path Forward" report is all about workforce and fails to address the profound questions that actually inspire and motivate the best of our faculty and are at the heart of why a society has great universities and rigorous advanced study. Doesn't it simply miss the point of graduate education?
A: This report was developed with the policy-making community as its primary audience — without whose support graduate education in America cannot thrive. While the importance of graduate education is generally understood and appreciated in the executive and legislative branches in Washington and in many states as well, in financially constrained times like these more than a benign feeling is necessary for resources to flow.
This report is not about all that universities do well, nor does it address many of the passions that drive the best of our faculty. It is a policy document designed to explore the assumption that America's future hinges on our capacity to produce appropriate numbers of advanced degree holders, and to assess how well we are progressing toward that goal. It explores what our vulnerabilities are and what we should do about them in the current policy environment.