• September 1, 2014

As Debt Rises and Job Prospects Dim, Some Say It's Time to Put a Warning Label on Graduate School

This isn't just the year of the massive open online course; it's also the year of two other hot topics in higher education—student debt and a barren job market for graduating students.

While people in higher education are struggling to adjust realistically to the supply-and-demand changes in the labor market, students need more-transparent information about the pathways into and out of graduate school now. That was the consensus among attendees at the Council of Graduate Schools' annual meeting held here last week.

In various sessions, deans and administrators discussed everything from faculty perceptions of the job prospects for graduate students and the ways some institutions are trying systematically to track outcomes (or not), to how to increase financial literacy on campuses at a time when undergraduate student debt and recent changes in federal loan policies are making it more difficult for students to attend and finish graduate school.

"The situation we face today is one of good news and bad news," said the council's president, Debra W. Stewart. "The good news is that there is broad bipartisan agreement here in Washington and among elite stakeholders that educating people up to the highest level possible is necessary for America to be competitive and prosperous. There are very few people who say they don't want their kids to go beyond college."

The issue going forward, Ms. Stewart said, is, "How are we going to find the money to do it?"

The student-debt problem, coupled with the dearth of jobs, has sparked a national conversation about whether going to graduate school is worth it. Attendees at the conference said it is unethical to keep admitting students to programs and training them for jobs that don't exist while they are racking up piles of debt only to risk finding university employment as just an adjunct, or obtaining some other low-wage job for which a graduate degree is not necessary, or ending up on food stamps.

Financial Literacy

There was a general sense of frustration at the meeting with the attacks on faculty labor and graduate-student unions. Undergirding conversations were questions about how to redefine what education is, what its value is, and what students, especially those in the humanities, are being trained to do.

At a Friday session called "Graduate Student Debt: Issues and Implications," three deans discussed how institutions could provide students with guidance and resources to help them better understand their options for financing graduate school and managing their debt.

Ramona N. Mellott, a graduate dean at Northern Arizona University, gave an overview of financing options that are available to students and noted the recent change in federal policy that requires graduate students to pay the interest on their loans while still at university or let it build up until they graduate, adding to their debt. Ms. Mellott said that the high level of student debt, which now exceeds $1-trillion, has contributed to a second year of declines in enrollments in graduate programs, except in health sciences.

Ms. Mellott and others talked about the importance of helping students understand debt issues early in their academic careers. Students with no debt are almost twice as likely to go to graduate school as those with loans, Ms. Mellott said.

Jerald Ainsworth, a graduate-dean at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Deborah Smith-Howell, associate vice chancellor of academic affairs and dean of graduate studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said that their campuses were becoming more proactive by integrating financial literacy into every aspect of the student experience.

Classes on those two campuses teach new undergraduates how to understand the terms of their loans and their repayment options. Bankers are invited to speak to students, while peer counseling programs, Greek organizations, and business-school students give special presentations and life-skills talks in residence halls. The University of Tennessee has hired a financial-aid counselor specifically for graduate students.

"If we don't take care of the undergrad-debt problem," Mr. Ainsworth said, "then we won't have grad students to worry about."

Mr. Ainsworth highlighted a program on his campus in which people wear T-shirts with the slogan "Live Like a Student" to remind students to live within their means.

"We have to help students know there is a reward for not having something now," he said.

It's not clear how effective those programs are at reaching graduate students who generally live off campus and have more adult responsibilities. "We haven't asked many questions about graduate debt," said Ms. Smith-Howell. "We need to know more about student profiles—who are they, why do they take out so much debt, how much debt do they have?"

In a question-and-answer period after the session, some attendees criticized the T-shirt campaign as a Band-Aid approach to a much bigger structural and political problem.

Cosmas Nwokeafor, a dean at the graduate school for business and graduate studies at Bowie State University, said that contrary to the assumption that students are indulgent spendthrifts, graduate students at his institution are not living above their means. He counsels many nontraditional students with families to feed.

"The students I see are living off of what they borrow to pay for food, rent, the car. These are not 20-year-old kids," Mr. Nwokeafor said, as members of the audience nodded in agreement.

'Clueless' Faculty and Administrators

Some people in the packed room said that faculty and administrators are "clueless" about the everyday realities of graduate-student debt and that graduate programs have become enablers by not limiting admissions, providing full financial support to students, and cutting down the time-to-degree span so that students finish much faster and limit their debt.

"More students are now delaying completing their degrees until they can find an academic position, and so they are piling on more debt," said Ms. Smith-Howell.

Mr. Ainsworth complained that graduate assistantships are not keeping pace with rising student fees.

"Student fees are the dirty little secret," someone in the front of the room blurted out. A number of people in the audience said that state legislators didn't want to raise tuition, so student fees rose instead.

While conversations at the conference yielded no hard-and-fast solutions, they did indicate a growing awareness of the student-debt problem and the difficulties of the job market. Some attributed those problems to the national economic crisis, declining state support for public education, and universities' priorities in terms of spending on administration and student services.

There was also some debate over whether faculty shortcomings in preparing students for bleak job prospects, and their will to track outcomes, reflect their own self-interest in trying to preserve themselves, and their fear of a declining demand for Ph.D.'s in certain fields, or if there was more broadly a lack of clarity on alternative career paths because faculty often don't have connections to the world outside of academe.

Others questioned whether people who were trying to improve graduate education were merely spinning their wheels to manage what they see as either the rise of a new business model of higher education that de-emphasizes liberal arts in favor of science and health fields, or the colonization of academe by conservative political forces. And some complained that the failure to train graduate students for alternative careers was not the responsibility of academe alone, but also other industries that have shown no great interest in hiring Ph.D.'s.

In other words, there isn't necessarily a disconnection or lack of knowledge among faculty about student debt, its burden on graduate students, and the consequences for program completion, but a disconnection between higher-education administrators and state officials who don't see the short-term and long-term consequences of some of their decisions.

What graduate programs can do, some presenters said, is offer warnings, information, and guidance.

That process, some people said, should begin at admission with disclosures about what debt and repayment options would look like with or without a fellowship. Individual programs should also provide comprehensive data on where recent graduates landed jobs and what types of salaries they're earning.

Armed with that knowledge, students will then have to decide for themselves whether pursuing a graduate degree is worth it or not.

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