Why Not a 2-Tier System?

It's time to blow up the old faculty career track and put something else in its place

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

April 15, 2013

In recent years, some very smart people—like Michael Bérubé, Marc Bousquet, Anthony Grafton, and William Pannapacker, to name a few—have offered on these pages their thoughts about how to fix graduate education and, by extension, the academic labor market, which, we all seem to agree, has "unraveled" (as Bérubé recently put it).

I approach this issue from a different perspective: as someone who does not work at a prestigious research university but rather at a two-year teaching college; as someone with several decades of experience on faculty search committees; and as someone who does not hold a Ph.D. but instead something much closer to what Bérubé describes as "a rigorous four-year M.A."

Indeed, it was that passage from his Chronicle essay in February, "The Humanities, Unraveled," that prompted me to enter this particular fray. Bérubé wrote: "Should there now be two doctoral tracks, one hard-core, old-school research with a traditional dissertation, and another more like a rigorous four-year M.A.?"

He then answered: "I think that is a solution few will want to pursue, because it opens onto yet another thorny issue, namely the fact that we have in effect already created such a two-tier system in the academic labor market, where we have a relatively small cadre of tenured faculty doing research and a much larger cohort of professors who are basically on a teaching track. It seems a mistake to institutionalize that division of labor still more emphatically by building it into the structure of doctoral education."

I have great respect for Professor Bérubé, but reading that passage left me wondering: Why not a two-tier system? Why shouldn't we at least consider it, given that nothing else seems to be working?

After all, as Bérubé acknowledges, we already have a two-tier system—it's just not a very satisfactory one for the people on the second tier, most of whom aren't there by choice. It's a system based not on rational criteria, such as qualifications, but on the whims of the labor market and, often, on luck. It's a system of haves (those who have permanent, relatively secure positions) and have-nots (those who don't, often regardless of their degrees and qualifications).

But what if we could create an equitable two-tier system? One that acknowledges the worthwhile contributions of those on both tiers? A system in which people on the second tier are there by choice, with an opportunity to earn a decent living in their profession? There is interest: An October 14 article in The Chronicle on the notion of two tracks for faculty members attracted dozens of comments.

Such a system might well offer solutions to the two main problems with the academic labor market: namely, the glut of Ph.D.'s and the resulting "underclass" of highly qualified people who might never find secure, permanent employment in their fields.

A pipe dream? Perhaps, but it's one worth exploring. Instituting a system like the one I'm about to describe would require major changes on the part of both graduate programs and hiring institutions.

But first, for those who remain skeptical (if not hostile), can we acknowledge that other professions have employed two-tier systems for a long time, quite successfully? People who don't have the time, money, patience, or desire to go to law school can pursue rewarding and relatively high-paying careers as paralegals. They might still decide to go to law school some day, and in fact would probably enjoy a distinct advantage, but in the meantime, their paralegal work is a respected and valued career path in its own right.

Perhaps a closer parallel to what I'm proposing can be found in the medical profession. As health-care costs have exploded in recent years, the industry has adapted by creating more and more "second-tier" positions for physician assistants and nurse practitioners. These are highly educated, well-respected (and, in many cases, well-paid) medical professionals who are being entrusted with tasks once reserved for doctors.

More to the point, they aren't people who couldn't find jobs as doctors, nor are they necessarily people who wanted to be doctors but somehow "fell short." They are professionals who made a conscious, rational choice and opted into the second tier of medicine.

Inherent to this two-tier system is the implicit understanding that people don't always need to see a doctor. I undergo a checkup every few months in order to keep my hereditary high-blood pressure under control, and I've probably seen my doctor twice in five years. Meanwhile, I've established an excellent relationship with the office's physician assistant, who has shown herself fully competent to treat my condition.

Perhaps we in higher education can learn from that model. Is it absolutely necessary for every college student, in every class, to sit at the feet of a Ph.D. professor? Community colleges have demonstrated that it's not, and most universities have implicitly agreed by relying heavily on graduate students to teach lower-division courses. So if it's not essential for college students to be taught by Ph.D.'s, then why are we still producing so many Ph.D.'s?

Here's my proposal: Graduate schools should create a degree that specifically qualifies recipients to teach in college but not necessarily to be researchers. This new hybrid degree would bring a lower salary than a doctorate, but would take far less time and money to earn than a doctorate. A college-teaching degree would carry more weight and respect than a master's, which, as many critics have noted, has become somewhat watered-down in recent years (if not in the sense that the degree itself has become less rigorous, then at least in the sense that more and more people seem to have one).

Our colleagues in elementary and secondary education have long had an alternative degree in their profession—the "education specialist" degree, or Ed.S., which is basically a master's plus 30 semester hours. Academe could adopt a similar model, perhaps even calling it a "specialist's degree" in college teaching. To earn that degree, students would have to complete 30 or so additional credit hours, including courses in pedagogy, beyond what would normally be required for a master's. Then they could finish with some sort of teaching-focused capstone project or thesis (but not a dissertation).

To make such a degree practical and attractive to students, departments would need to take several steps, beginning with making it much harder to get into a Ph.D. program than it is now. Only those students with demonstrated potential to become first-class researchers—and with a burning desire to do so—would be accepted. The faculty would have to determine what constitutes "demonstrated potential to become a first-class researcher," but, clearly, many of the people admitted to Ph.D. programs these days would not qualify. Such a step would, in time, go a long way toward alleviating the oversupply of Ph.D.'s.

At the same time, no graduate professors would need to lose their jobs. Departments would be creating a second track, the specialist track, and those students would take many of the same courses as their Ph.D.-seeking classmates. If the specialist track did, in fact, become a realistic route to gainful employment, some departments might even see an influx of students.

Along with creating distinct degree programs for teachers and scholars, departments would also need to create two tracks to support graduate students: teaching assistantships for those in the specialist program, and research-only assistantships for those in the Ph.D. track. Departments that have relied heavily on doctoral students to teach entry-level courses could transform those many T.A. positions into a smaller but still sizable number of full-time posts filled by candidates with specialist degrees in college teaching.

Of course, it's not just the graduate departments that would need to change the way they do business. For an equitable two-tier system to work in academe, the end users—colleges and universities that hire faculty members—would have to make significant concessions, as well. For one thing, institutions would need to recognize the specialist degree as a valid qualification for teaching the vast majority of the courses—all, perhaps, except for a handful of upper-division and graduate-level courses.

Second, institutions would need to make a commitment to hiring more full-time instructors and using fewer adjuncts. But the idea is that, because they wouldn't be paying teaching specialists as much as they pay research Ph.D.'s (just as physician assistants don't earn as much as doctors), institutions would find that they are able to finance more full-time faculty positions.

In particular, colleges with teaching missions—two-year and small liberal-arts institutions—would need to hire more candidates with the teaching degree and correspondingly fewer Ph.D.'s. That would potentially create a lot of additional full-time positions, given that salaries would be lower for teaching professionals than for scholars.

If nothing else, graduates of teaching-specialist programs wouldn't be in school for a decade and so wouldn't incur as much debt. And they would earn a credential that could well qualify them for other jobs, such as teaching at secondary schools.

I understand that many readers will think this is a harebrained notion, and maybe it is. Others may conclude that the idea is simply impractical. But what we're doing now isn't working and hasn't worked for some time. Minor tinkering with the system, tweaking it here and there, doesn't seem to be helping much, either. It's time to blow up the system and put something else in its place—something that takes into account current realities and offers more hope for people entering our profession.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges." He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for "On Hiring." The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.