Graduate Students

At Annual Meeting, Graduate-School Administrators Focus on Changing Demographics and Tight Budgets

December 08, 2011

Hundreds of graduate-school deans and administrators attending the Council of Graduate Schools annual meeting have gathered here to grapple with how to bolster their programs in tough times.

The job market for new Ph.D.'s is grim, money for graduate programs has been sharply curtailed, and, for the first time in seven years, the latest graduate enrollment data has shown a drop from year to year. Add growing public skepticism toward the value of advanced education and research to those downward trends, and it's easy to understand the crowd's sense of urgency.

"These are hard times," Debra W. Stewart, the group's president, told the audience at the opening dinner.

In scheduled sessions and side conversations, attendees are noting the frustration and uncertainty among graduate-school administrators and faculty, due to the duration of the financial crisis and its effect on their programs. Economic shifts and an unstable job market, they say, are complicating institutions' ability to plan the future course of their graduate programs.

In response to the challenges, administrators are stressing the need for graduate programs to perform more effectively by working across fields instead of in isolation. Other attendees are emphasizing the need for faculty to think broadly about how they train graduate students and for graduate programs to be open to helping graduates pursue and prepare for jobs both inside and outside of academe.

A Focus on Diversity

As attendees discuss strategies for helping their institutions adapt to economic realities and rapidly changing demographics, many are focusing on how to appeal to a more-diverse group of students and ease their transition from college to jobs. Their discussions are coming just days after the Obama administration released guidelines on affirmative action that take an expansive view of the educational benefits of diversity and the ways colleges can achieve it.

The focus on inclusiveness in many of the sessions also grew from the group's decision to hold the meeting in Arizona, despite many groups' boycott of the state over its 2010 immigration law. The planning committee weighed the decision to hold the meeting here carefully, said Ms. Stewart.

"We came to a consensus that the most productive thing to do would be to stay and to focus the meeting very sharply on the relationship between inclusiveness, innovation, and excellence in graduate education," Ms. Stewart said. "Our objective is to bring an active and vibrant discussion of diversity to this setting." The Hispanic population in the state stands at 1.9 million people.

During a question-and-answer portion of a Thursday-morning session on diversity and admissions practices, Rebeca C. Rufty, an associate dean at North Carolina State University who introduced herself as being Hispanic with a deceptive last name, joked about her fear of traveling to Arizona.

"It was with some trepidation that I came here," Ms. Rufty told the audience. "Although I have pale skin, I brought all my papers with me just in case I get stopped for being Hispanic."

Karen Jackson-Weaver, associate dean of academic affairs and diversity at Princeton University, said that given the socio-political climate of Arizona, it is understandable why the council considered holding the conference elsewhere. Ms. Jackson-Weaver, who led a well-attended workshop on recruitment and retention strategies for underrepresented groups, applauded the decision to stay in Arizona.

"I hope the fact that we have graduate-school deans and other administrative leaders from around the country and a number of institutional leaders from around the world here in Arizona tackling the issue of diversity front and center, will send an important message to the political leadership of the state of Arizona," she said. "Given projected demographic data on the United States' population, it will be imperative for us to cultivate talent and develop new strategies and approaches which will train a diverse citizenry for leadership opportunities in the academy."

Graduate programs have made progress in enrolling more diverse groups of students. Today, half of all graduate students are women, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. And, while their numbers are still small, students from underrepresented minority groups are earning more degrees than ever before.

Despite gains over the last 30 years, however, attendees emphasized that graduate programs have more work to do in recruiting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds, who often face social and economic barriers to successful degree completion.

Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, who spoke at the meeting's opening session, said that diversity in graduate schools is critical to innovation, discovery, the development of a highly skilled work force, and economic prosperity. But, Mr. Crow said, "leading institutions increasingly define excellence through admissions practices based on exclusion."

While graduate schools have been successful at producing leaders in all sectors of society, including in higher education, the arts, business, and government, Mr. Crow said that universities must change policies from within and offer greater access to a broader demographic.

"Disproportionately few students from historically underrepresented groups are encouraged to pursue graduate study or offered opportunities to realize their potential," he said. "It is imperative that academia champion diversity at all stages of the process. ... If our leading institutions remain elitist and exclusionary, our standard of living will begin to decline steeply in coming generations."

Making a Case

Over the next two days, attendees also plan to discuss evaluating of graduate programs, accountability and openness, mentoring, timely progress toward degree, reducing attrition, and improving retention. A major concern among many administrators is the difficulty of achieving diversity and maintaining quality in graduate programs at the same time they are also cutting costs.

"We've got to do more with less and we've got to do more and better with less" said Philip G. Cohen, vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. "It's not enough to be teaching well; it's probably more important to ask if students are learning well."

Mr. Cohen spoke at a session on Thursday called "Making the Case for Graduate Education," in which he and other panelists urged administrators to develop information systems that will effectively communicate what is going on within programs in terms of applications, admissions, financial support, student research, and job placements. Doing so, he said, will improve relationships with external agencies that are sources of funds and the broader public.

Mr. Cohen said doing so is particularly important amid growing calls for accountability and new scrutiny that has led to program closures and cuts. He mentioned a recent controversial review process in Texas that deemed 20 percent of the state's master's programs and 15 percent of its doctoral programs low-performing. As a result, 144 graduate programs in Texas have been discontinued, 88 have been consolidated, and 307 are actively renegotiating ways to improve productivity, he said.

"It is especially important to educate state officials and other stakeholders about the value of graduate education, especially during a time of reduced funding and increased calls for accountability," Mr. Cohen said. He also emphasized the need for departments to incorporate professional-development training, including how to teach, apply for grants, work in teams, and develop communications skills.

"Grad education trains the work force of the future," Mr. Cohen said. "A lot of blue-collar and white-collar jobs have gone abroad, probably not to return. So the question becomes: What's left and where do we go? It's not going to be about manufacturing. Now more than ever, there's the need to develop the human capital through education to participate in the information economy of the 21st century."

The need to make a strong case for the future of graduate education has been prompted in part by increased attention to the plight of undergraduate students, including public criticism of how much debt they are accumulating and questions of how well students are learning.

"There is not a general belief that graduate education in this country is failing. The perception is that graduate education in America is the best in the world and will continue to be a successful enterprise," Ms. Stewart said. Still, Ms. Stewart and others here believe graduate education is not immune from potential attacks and it is important to hone messages to make the case for the need and value of advanced-degree programs.

Many attendees here say that the calls for greater diversity and plurality of approaches to student training are essential for shaping the future competitiveness of graduation education in a global economy.

Maureen Grasso, graduate dean at the University of Georgia, says that some innovative faculty have that broad mind-set but that others do not.

"You will find graduate leaders who are open to new ideas," Ms. Grasso said. "There are those who will never change their perspective. And there are those who do not know what to do beyond the academy or how to teach students about the different options out there. We have to find the ones willing to put their toes in the water, support them, and provide platforms where they can share their experiences with other faculty members."