Graduate School Realities

This issue of HO is dedicated to graduate education. That level of specialized education used to be the domain of the highly intelligent and privileged in our society. Sometimes being privileged, financially secure, was more important than academic superiority. The Ph.D. has long been the pinnacle of graduate education. It was first developed in Germany and contained all the admirable and less than admirable characteristics of that culture. The program of study was rigid, academically sound, demanding, elitist, and a method of conducting research that included strict compliance to scientific precepts. It was also sexist with a blind allegiance and acceptance of everything Herr Professor pontificated from on high. There was no room to question his views or authority. It could be a brutal experience.
Yet it was the standard bearer worldwide. America’s elite flocked to Germany to study. Ultimately, our universities copied the German masters. Remnants of many of those early characteristics existed in American uni-versities as late as the 1970s. They still do at some.
Originally, few students were admitted, and many fell by the wayside. But the system chugged along and in its fashion worked. Many outstanding students survived and went on to serve themselves, their community and the world most admirably.
Doctoral programs are more egalitarian nowadays. The old-boy net-work is less evident, and truly talented and hardworking students, men and women, abound. Many professors are now collaborating colleagues instead of “the sage on the stage.”
Unfortunately, few Hispanics go to graduate school. What can we do to encourage more to pursue graduate education? Which fields seem particu-larly promising? Hopefully, this column will provide some useful suggestions.

Recent Trends

Historically, graduate applications rise when the economy falters. Bright people unable to get the jobs they want frequently decide to enhance their edu-cation with a graduate degree or two in order to help them in the job market. The recession, which began in 2008, saw the same phenomenon repeat itself.
Applications to graduate schools in the United States rose by 8.3 per-cent from the fall of 2008 to the fall of 2009, the last year studied by the Council of Graduate Schools.
By contrast, over the previous five years, from 2003 to 2008, the growth in applications to graduate schools had been flat, rising by an aver-age of less than 1 percent a year.

Most Popular Fields

Among those entering graduate schools in 2009, the most popular fields were business, engineering, and selected social and behavioral sci-ences. But the bloom was off business, and engineering requires a disci-pline not in vogue with many young people.
The fastest growth was seen in the health sciences. Applications rose by an astounding 14.6 percent. Part of the reason, it is believed, is related to all the discussion about national health plans and the realization we are living longer and need more medical care. That trend is not going to abate.

Men and Women

The report also revealed that women reached a milestone during the 2008-09 academic year. For the first time in the nation’s history, women earned a majority of the doctorates awarded in the United States. It was part of a continuing trend. Women had heretofore already accounted for solid majorities of degrees awarded at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s levels.
Men regained some ground, however, in terms of their share of all graduate studies. They reversed a long-term trend – men’s total enrollment in graduate schools grew by a faster rate than enrollments of women from 2008 to 2009. Men’s enrollments rose by 6.7 percent while women’s increased by 4.7 percent. No provable explanation springs forth.
Female graduate students varied greatly by race, ethnicity and citizen-ship status. For example, women accounted for about 71 percent of Black U.S. students but just 42 percent of international students who enrolled in graduate schools.

Other Key Findings

Minority representation in U.S. graduate schools continued to grow, ris-ing from 28.3 percent of first-time domestic enrollment in 2008 to 29.1 percent in 2009.
International students’ share of first-time graduate enrollments dropped from 18 percent in 2008 to 16.5 percent in 2009.
From 2008 to 2009, first-time graduate enrollment increased faster at the doctoral level than at the master’s level, rising by 6.3 percent at the for-mer and 5.1 percent at the latter.
Nevertheless, about three-fourths of all graduate students enrolled in 2008-09 were at the master’s level, and almost 90 percent of graduate degrees conferred that year were master’s degrees.
Hispanics continued to lag behind. Only 4 percent of them were in graduate school. That bodes poorly for their role in our society.
Graduate education has not always progressed in an errorless trajecto-ry. It stumbled in the 1980s, when there was a flurry of new M.B.A. programs. Some were good, many were just moneymakers for the colleges, who bent their very values to rush in where angels dared not tread.
Luckily, today many good programs exist, and since many higher-level business positions require that credential, students will continue to flock to them. Should Hispanics? Yes, why not?
How to decide which one to attend? Easy enough, the famous, estab-lished ones are a good bet. For the others, the proof of their quality is to track how well their graduates have done, how many received job offers and how many were promoted. That information is available at any good college. If they don’t readily offer it, move on.

The Current Scene

One thing that has become clear over the past 30 years is that most good jobs now require a graduate degree. They are no longer merely the province of professors and researchers. The business world, government service and other arenas seek out those with graduate degrees. It is a screening mechanism. It proves, to some, that one has brains and determi-nation. That may not be always accurate, but it is assumed to be true.
The best opportunities go to those with graduate degrees. Young Hispanics should be made aware of that reality.

Council of Graduate Schools

Many fine organizations work to facilitate the process of and improve gradu-ate education. But the premier umbrella group is the Council of Graduate Schools. It is composed of nearly 500 institutions in the United States and Canada that engage in graduate education, research and the preparation of can-didates for advanced degrees. They award more than 90 percent of the doctoral degrees and over 75 percent of the master’s degrees in the United States.
Hispanic students considering graduate education should become acquainted with the council’s services and its many excellent research reports and recommendations.
It emphasizes the importance of graduate education not only for the individual but for the nation. It recently sounded a warning: “It is tempting to be complacent about the future of American competitiveness. The United States is the world’s largest economy, and our higher education sys-tem is the envy of the world. As the home of Google, Genentech and other path-breaking enterprises, we are known for our innovation and creativity. Our investments in scientific research have produced products and processes that have improved prosperity and national security.”
After that soul-enriching preamble, it then quickly burst the bubble by stating we are falling behind in leadership, in innovation and in our com-petitiveness. It warns that we face the risk of losing our highly trained work force that is essential to maintaining our economic leadership.
Is that really true? What’s the evidence? Well, warning signals exist. For example, the National Science Foundation reports that the number of sci-entific papers published by Americans has fluctuated around a constant number over the past decade. Meanwhile, the number of scientific papers published in other countries has grown by more than 30 percent. That is ominous and easily predictive of the future.
U.S. scientific and technological leadership has until now been assured by the combination of graduate programs unparalleled in excellence (for-eigners have long flocked to American graduate schools).
Since World War II, there has been a steady supply of the world’s most talented students to our graduate schools. However, other countries have begun to significantly increase their investments in graduate education. They are now attracting top students worldwide, including Americans.
Policymakers, business leaders and higher education officials, it is sug-gested, should unite to make the necessary investments to enhance U.S. innovation and national security through stronger support for and attention to graduate education. That is not happening as of yet. Too many are relying, coasting on, past successes.
A highly trained work force is essential to America’s future economic competitiveness and national security. Graduate education, as a vital part of the U.S. education system, must be strengthened as part of a national strate-gy on innovation and competitiveness. The work of graduate students con-tributes directly to the nation’s sustained economic growth and prosperity.

U.S. Competitiveness

We know the world is in the midst of a knowledge-based transforma-tion. Quality graduate education ensures that “the knowledge creators and innovators of tomorrow have the cultural awareness, skills and expertise to compete effectively in a knowledge-based global economy.”
The council, in several reports, has recommended an action agenda to strengthen U.S. competitiveness and innovation through a renewed com-mitment to graduate education.

It suggests the following steps:

•    Develop a highly skilled work force by fostering collaboration among leaders in higher education, business and government. This seems to be a no-brainer, but in times of economic uncertainty, many good ideas are placed on the backburner.
•    Encourage graduate schools to urge their students to become citizen scholars by using their knowledge and skills in a real-world setting to gain scholarship and experience through service to the community, the state, the nation and the world. Rather idealistic but I guess pragmatic as well.
•    Identify successful models that incorporate entrepreneurship across graduate curricula, as well as future directions for exploring the power of entrepreneurship in graduate education. If it’s America, entrepreneurship has to be interwoven in every program.
•    Provide more opportunities for doctoral students to evaluate the entire range of career options in various nonacademic settings so that they can make sound career choices and successfully prepare for and pursue nonacademic careers. Beginning in the 1970s, many doctoral graduates could not find employment in their chosen academic fields at our universi-ties. Many, out of necessity, looked outside academia; some found mean-ingful jobs, some did not. Our universities weren’t very proactive in warn-ing them about the realities they faced after graduation. What is now being suggested is that those employment and career options be provided stu-dents long before they graduate so they can plan accordingly.
•    Continue to expand innovative professional master’s degrees in order to address pressing national needs in such critical fields as mathematics, sci-ence, engineering, social sciences and humanities.
•    Continue to provide exposure to the array of roles and responsibilities graduate students face as part of the professorate of the 21st century.
•    Broaden awareness of the risks associated with underfunding graduate education and the impact on innovation and national security.

Bottom Line

One can only assume or hope that powerful elements within govern-ment and business sectors will heed these suggestions. They seem practical enough, and America still has an entrepreneurial spirit and can-do mental-ity. This is hardly the time for defeatism.
For our purposes, opportunities abound for Hispanics both within the academy and beyond. Our problem is to get more Hispanics to graduate from high school and to be prepared to pursue college work. Serious soci-etal realities are at work to impede such progress.