Sunday, August 12, 2007

Higher Education and Access

In the course of clicking around on the UC office of the president website for some info (“State Budget Still on Lockdown! Education System to be Folded into a Shape Smaller than a Handkerchief and Funded with Pocket Lint!” --- hmm, yes, but will there be any exploitative TAships this year for me?) I ran across a truly --- unsettling --- tidbit in a survey of UC undergrads.

Now this is UC-wide and I’m not bothering to see how it breaks down by campus or major or astrological sign, but among statements like “23 percent of UC undergraduates were born outside of the United States” and “87 percent of lower-division and 89 percent of upper-division students report satisfaction with the quality of faculty instruction” (heh) was this little gem:
78 percent of [UC] juniors and seniors plan to earn a graduate or professional degree.
Hmm. Ok, I’m sure this includes all the med- and law-school hopefuls and maybe MBAs, and I also know that what undergrads say on a survey and what they actually attempt to do --- much less succeed at --- are two very different things. But this number seems frighteningly huge. So I thought, I wonder what percentage of college graduates actually go?

I was also prompted to look into grad school statistics because of the “tell me about yourself academically” narratives I had my students write. Their answers shocked me, because 7 out of 20 of my upper-division-required-for-this-major-but-it’s-not-English course are thinking of doing a PhD or some sort of vague “grad school/I want to be a professor” goal. In addition one is thinking law, another an MS (I’m not worried about job prospects for that one) and another an MFT. So that’s half of my class is planning some form of grad school. That blew my mind until I saw the 78% number up above. I guess my juniors and seniors are behind the curve.

Now, when I went to look up the numbers of college grads who actually do go on, I couldn’t find a straight answer. (Can anyone else find a good source that breaks it all down for me? Is it that no one has bothered to track these numbers or that I need to retake Googling 101?) I did find a quote from a University of Iowa publication that said only about 9 % of graduates go on to “grad school” nationally. And that didn’t break it out by degree or discipline.

Now you know I am not rosy and bright on grad school ---- a PhD program is no fuckin’ rainbow and I have yet to see any value whatsoever to a MA in English ---- but I am very ambivalent about what, if anything, I should tell my students about it. On the one hand, I should do my job of getting them to understand difficult material and become the best writers they can be; that would help them regardless of whether they do a job or a grad school application. (Our major lesson for next week: specific is better than vague!) On the other hand, it’s clear that quite a few of them don’t know the first thing about what grad school is like or why you should go, and a wake-up call might be beneficial. And, while I haven’t gotten their papers yet, I’m not sure they have the stellar skills of writing and analysis and reading speed that would keep their heads above water in a grad program, or help them make the cut to get into a top grad program.

On the other other hand, this is the largest group of first-generation-people-of-color students I have yet to teach in a single classroom.

You can see my ambivalence here. I come up against this every time I want to rant that two-thirds of all PhD programs in the humanities and almost all MA programs should be shut down. If we were more like, say, the American Medical Association and did more gatekeeping at the entrance to grad school, we wouldn’t have quite as bad a job market problem. But every time I start to say that, I realize that this gatekeeping would have disastrous effects on our attempts to create diversity in the professoriat in terms of race, class, sexual orientation, even public school attendance vs. ivies for undergrad. If the immigrants and single moms and first-generation college students and ESL writers and people who were told they’d never make it in college because of the color of their skin do go to college, they don’t get into the ivies and elite SLACs. And when they graduate as #4650284 from Big Public Anonymous U, they don’t have the same writing skills and benefits of one-on-one advising that I see, for example, in some of my fellow grad students who went to fancypants places. And they definitely don’t take a year off on their parents’ dime to retake the GRE and take test prep classes until they have really high scores.

Sigh. Maybe I should just inform them that they can get profs to write a letter of rec now and the career center will store it for them for 5 years, and that they should try working first. I don’t know if that’s feasible if you’re funding yourself through undergrad. I also don’t know how grad programs in this subject would work or their job prospects --- much less the professional degrees I mentioned up above. I don’t think this dept. ever does any “advice on jobs with this major” or “how to go to grad school” workshops though. I just don’t know.


Bardiac said...

I try to have a copy of the ADE (Associated Departments of English) workup of the MLA job hiring information, and make a copy available to students who are talking about going on. It's hard, but I try to balance encouragement and a reality check. We also work on helping students think about how their liberal arts degree contributes to their potential careers and opportunities.

It's a tough, tough problem, though!

Flavia said...

I'd say that the UC figure includes *everything*: MA/MS, PhD, JD, MD, MBA, MSW, etc., etc. And although it's still a startlingly high number, I think it reflects students' sense that a college degree alone may not be enough for them to succeed. And as you say, it's probably an aspirational number anyway. The Iowa figure, on the other hand, probably includes just grad (not professional) degrees.

So I wouldn't go out of my way to talk to your students en masse about how hard grad school is--I think the number who will actually take the step of applying to PhD programs is pretty small (and since an MA/MS is a necessary public-school teaching credential, that probably explains the attraction of that route).

But that's not to say that it's not worth talking to those who seem *serious* about grad school (for some students, I think "being a professor" is as vague and romantic a goal as "being a novelist," or "being a judge"), and I've definitely seen/heard the same thing. But unless they contact me to *ask* about grad school or to write a recommendation letter--in which case I give them all the warnings I can without being unkind--I just let it ride and assume that it's merely the romantic fantasy of someone who's always been good at school, but who doesn't really know what he/she wants to do.