Saturday, September 15, 2007

The great divide...

between administrators and academics, from a NYT article on the growth of tuition-paying master's programs (conspicuously centered on Chicago's MAPSS program):

“Sometimes there is unused capacity in graduate classrooms,” Mr. Mehaffy said. “If there are 10 people in a graduate course one year and 15 the next, there is a 50 percent growth but no real drain on the institution.”


(I feel odd either expanding on what's wrong with this, which would seem pointless to those who have taught or taken graduate seminars, or not doing so, which would seem snobbish to those who haven't. Suffice it to say that the number of chairs in the classroom is not the only relevant measure of "capacity.")

The article itself is fine. I used to worry that these programs were purely exploitative of tuition-paying MA students. I then taught enough of them who were able to springboard into better doctoral programs than they otherwise could have done, and enough who were able to discover that grad school in the long term wasn't for them without going through the soul-crushing experience of leaving a doctoral program partway through, to decide that the students often seemed to think they were getting their money's worth.

Now I worry about something oddly unmentioned in the article. Elite undergraduate education has an ocean of financial aid and scholarships supporting it. Doctoral programs pay (meager but still measured in positive numbers) stipends that allow the students to get by, and typically don't charge tuition. To the degree that we arms-race our way into a position where this other credential is needed either for competitiveness in the job market or for competitiveness in doctoral admissions, we've introduced a stage that is wholly dependent on prior resources-- that is, a class-reinforcing rather than a class-mobility stage. This is already at the margins undermining some of the good of the wonderful American system of financial aid for elite undergrad education-- some undergrads are getting to the end of their BA and finding that they think they need a new degree, @ $30,000-$40,000 of tuition p/a for 1-2 years. And it seems likely to accelerate-- as the article notes, the interests of the students who can pay and the interests of the universities getting paid are simpatico here and will spiral. (The competitive value of the credential drives ever-more people to think they need it.)

This is less an indictment than a worry. I don't know how far along this path we are. I don't know how unavailable financial aid for those programs is. But I worry that a new piece is getting put into place in American higher education that works at cross-purposes to some of the existing pieces.

(Disclaimer: MA programs in the liberal arts disciplines such as political science are routine in Canada, and typically needed for admission to PhD programs-- bu tthe financial structure of them is very different, and the dynamics of the whole system are changed by the expectation that everyone will get such an MA. I'm not sure what I think about the Canadian system yet, but any problems with it are different from those described here. No one has to drop $35,000 to get one of our MAs in political science.)