Utility in Higher Education: The Doctorate

The worth of post-secondary education is increasingly questioned, according to Forbes. The return on investment of bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctoral degrees are all the subject of much discussion. Many corporations no longer require a bachelor’s degree: Apple, Google, Ernst & Young and Bank of America, to name a few. The nagging fear that the utility of the degree, the courses taught, the skills and insights learned, and their value in many industrial and commercial marketplaces are diminished is warranted. Nothing in what follows posits the idea that education only has value if it produces a job. However, the quality of education, the intensity of free and critical thinking, and the ability to reason and project oneself into the larger world do not provide a “pass” from the unemployment line or promissory notes. Average doctoral degree holders have nearly $100,000 in educational debt, reports the National Center for Educational Statistics. And that does not count the number of students who start but don’t complete. The value of the investment is worthy of continuous scrutiny. As a budding regional research university, these considerations are particularly important for the rapidly growing doctoral study at WT.

Nationally, the production of doctoral degrees has plummeted. The past year yielded the “steepest decline in Ph.D. production in the survey’s 65-year history,” according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, an effort of the National Science Foundation. Slightly over 52,000 doctoral degrees were awarded in 2021, down from slightly over 55,000 in 2020. Some areas of study are more adversely affected than others. In philosophy and history, the decline exceeded 10% in the past eight years. Between 2019 and 2020, “1,799 historians earned their Ph.D. and only 175 of them are now employed as full-time faculty members,” according to the American Historical Association. And, while faculty work is typically only one possibility for a Ph.D. in history, it is usually the goal. Overproduction and underemployment leave many graduates with a double whammy of debt and dissatisfaction, according to Nature. University faculty and leadership are loath to concede these facts, not just in history but in nearly every academic discipline where the overproduction of traditional Ph.D. students, according to Noah Smith, continues.

The causes for the overproduction of Ph.D.’s are numerous. One worth noting is that 80% of the professors in US universities are from less than 20% of higher education institutions. Even more startling, “Researchers also found that the five most common doctoral training universities—the Universities of Michigan; Wisconsin at Madison; and California, Berkeley; plus Harvard and Stanford Universities—account for one in eight U.S.-trained faculty members.” The value systems, insights and ideas from these five elite universities, and several other producers of academic workers, are carried with them to universities of every sort. Self-replication likely follows, needed or not.

According to Colleen Flaherty, such a limited reality may lead to “prestige hierarchies” for hiring faculty rather than individual ability evidenced through intellectual work products. The generation of ideas, the ultimate focus of all doctoral study, could be supplanted by propagating ideologies from a select group of institutions or academic legacy. Two no-nos.

The danger for institutions, disciplines, students and faculty looms large. With its relentless truth, the marketplace testifies to this simple reality: there are too many Ph.D. holders for too few jobs in too many fields. Some fear that a regionally focused vision for doctoral education will limit the nature of the study. Not at WT. It liberates and guides studies toward practical ends. In a word, it creates utility, meaning the nature of study connects academic content to personal goals, professional requirements, and regional needs.

There are several solutions to this problem. Universities could downsize their doctoral faculty and programs and reduce the number of graduates. This is a legitimate, if unpopular, approach. Another solution is to limit the development of new traditional doctoral programs that, by default or design, aim towards replication of the known. Little wisdom. The third option is responsiveness to a changing study and work environment: universities should innovate and develop new approaches to doctoral programs. This is our direction at West Texas A&M University.

Doctoral study can indeed be focused on regional issues. Such direction enlivens the work and creates value simultaneously. Properly executed, it can lead to a disciplined application of scientific thinking, creative engagement, and worth to individuals and communities alike. It applies art and science to problem-solving. The Doctorate in Educational Leadership at WT is focused on educational issues in rural school systems that comprise half of all schools in Texas. Most enrolled students have a minimum of five years of experience in various aspects of school life. Not a single student in the program comes straight out of undergraduate study. Areas of study and scholarly attention are focused on challenges faced in rural school systems brought to the program by students. They need to know and drive individualized curricula. Coupled with work experience, this approach leads to what Brandeis University calls “The Connected Ph.D.” Interestingly, the Brandeis program gives students the opportunity to integrate scholarly work with employment interests, a form of “utility.”

WT is marching toward an application of knowledge and insight to solve real problems in real communities. If that creates legacy, fine. It strengthens intellectual curiosity and solves problems. That has durable value and utility, to be sure.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.