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[dupe] The University Is a Ticking Time Bomb (chronicle.com)
72 points by jseliger 52 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 158 comments


If a story has already had significant attention, reposts are dupes before a year has gone by. This is in the FAQ: https://news.ycombinator.com/newsfaq.html

All true, but it slides by the main issue: what are all these Ph.D.'s going to do? In the post-WW2 era, when the percentage of high school graduates was going up, each professor could have several Ph.D. students go on to find jobs as professors. With no Baby Boom, and the percentage of high school graduates having flattened (which was always guaranteed to happen eventually), many fields don't have enough other options for people who get their Ph.D. In some fields, sure, there are corporate R&D centers or other places to put that to use, but in many fields, a job in academia is the only plausible place that Ph.D. students have in mind as their eventual destination, and there's just no way most of them can get a spot there.

The universities shouldn't be relying on 2/3 or 3/4 adjunct professors, but they're doing it because they can, which is because the system as designed produces way more candidates for professorships than there are positions available.

> what are all these Ph.D.'s going to do?

Get a job like anyone else would? Why must academia or industrial research be the only plausible options?

After doing a PhD you can be a high school teacher, a soldier, an actor, start a company, go into politics, do whatever you want. Nothing’s stopping you!

Most jobs just want capable educated people, and many vary diverse educational backgrounds.

Of course nothing is stopping you doing those things (and most people I knew who did PhDs do end up doing something fairly unrelated outside of academia) but if those things are your goal then why on earth would you want to do a PhD?

> why on earth would you want to do a PhD?

Is there nothing that you do inherently for the challenge or joy of it?

I did my PhD because it was a challenge and I had a lot of fun doing it and found it extremely rewarding.

Well sure -- if you can afford to spend six years of your life dedicated to a hobby by all means do so. Most people aren't afforded that luxury and need to worry about the practical applications of a PhD.

I'm failing to understand what your point is.

Like the parent comment said

>After doing a PhD you can be a high school teacher, a soldier, an actor, start a company, go into politics, do whatever you want. Nothing’s stopping you!

Most people don't go into debt for a PhD afaik. Failure to monetize a PhD directly just means falling back into the more traditional workforce.

Stable job in a small city isn't enough of a practical application?

The average PhD stipend is around 30k, even for high COL areas. If you have an undergraduate degree (especially if you've incurred debt to do so) it's not a particularly attractive option. Especially true considering how competitive and stressful most PhD programs are.

> it's not a particularly attractive option

It obviously is attractive, since people chose to do it.

Maybe they're thinking about more than money?

Why do you care anyway? Are these people who take a reduced income to better themselves and others through learning a particular thorn in your side for some reason?

> Maybe they're thinking about more than money?

My point is many people don't have the privilege to do so. The article specifically references individuals who sought higher education as a path to a better life -- so if I have a thorn in my side it's the tone-deafness of saying it's not about money.

> My point is many people don't have the privilege to do so.

But I don't think this matches up with what I know from reality. People get a stipend for a PhD. Yes it's not massive, but it's enough. I think all student loan systems that I know of have repayments means tested, so you don't have to repay if your income is low.

Maybe you lose some income opportunity, but I don't see how makes it less accessible as long as the stipend is enough to live on?

A PhD seems particularly accessible to me, actually! More accessible than an undergraduate degree since it's all paid for!

> Maybe you lose some income opportunity

It's just not opportunity cost. As the article references, many PhD degrees don't increase earning potential at all in part thanks to the adjunct system.

So to be clear in the US it's a four year undergraduate degree (which usually comes with debt), then five or six years of working for near-poverty wages to obtain a PhD, and when you finally get it you find that you haven't increased your earnings potential from when you had no degree at all. It's fine to wax philosophical about getting a PhD to become a well-rounded gentleman but the issue at hand is higher education failing those relying on it for professional success.

> Most people aren't afforded that luxury and need to worry about the practical applications of a PhD.

Most qualified people at reputable institutions get paid to do a PhD. I bought a house and had a baby while doing a PhD. It needn't hold you back.

The average PhD stipend is barely above the poverty line. You're financially better off doing just about anything else with your undergraduate degree.

I'm glad you had the luxury of pursuing a passion PhD without sacrificing your personal life or worrying about future career prospects. Most students I've known did not have that privilege.

I've been through the Ph.D. process and while I agree that stipends should be larger, it is not insurmountable. Specifically, what you're missing is that stipends are a 9 month salary and that many students, including myself, take summer internships that make up the difference. I was paid $23k in stipend a little over a decade ago. I also worked for a technical employer for three months each summer that paid about $35/hr, which brought in about $17k in additional income. Occasionally, I would work a month in the winter as well to bring in additional income. That said, I was making about $40k a year at the time and I know for certain that salaries both at my university and for said employer have risen.

And, yes, my final year I did not work the summer in order to finish my thesis. Yes, I understand that not everyone has the luxury of additional employment. However, it is not a truism that those of us who pursue a PhD must sacrifice their personal life or career prospects. It improved both of mine.

I think chrisseaton is in the UK - here a lot of people work as researchers on short term contracts and do PhDs at the same time. While not competitive with private sector salaries they didn't use to be too bad - I got married and bought a flat in the 1990s while working as a Research Associate on EU funded projects.

NB Traditional PhD studentships did get a pittance, but relatively few people seemed to do these (at least where I worked).

Edit: Also I had no student debt, which definitely makes things easier.

The article above is about the American University system (and non-STEM degrees at that). If it's different in the EU it's not particularly relevant.

6 years seems long?

3 years I think is standard in the UK, for example (https://www.prospects.ac.uk/postgraduate-study/phd-study/wha...).

Strikes me you should say your locality and field of study as doctorate length seems like it would be a function of both of those.

The structure of post-grad programs is fundamentally different between the two. In the UK you generally have a Master's already before beginning a PhD, while in the US you typically enter a doctoral program directly from undergrad and pick up a Master's "on the way".

6 years is probably pretty typical in the US for the sciences. For the humanities it's generally even longer (often due to the need to work to support oneself due to lack of funding). I recall seeing somewhere that the _median_ history PhD takes 11 years.

Edit: seems I misunderstood the UK structure, perhaps I was confusing with continental Europe? Not sure about the time difference in that case.

> In the UK you generally have a Master's already before beginning a PhD

No that's the opposite - in the UK you normally either do a masters or a PhD but not both. You can leave your PhD partway through and you get a masters though, maybe that's what you mean.

A canonical PhD in the UK is three years of undergraduate and three years of PhD, so six years from leaving high-school equivalent. Some people take one or two extra years in practice.

I had a colleague in Austria who did a full high-quality PhD with top-tier publications in just two years!

"In the UK you generally have a Master's already before beginning a PhD"

That's not my experience - you can generally go straight from an undergraduate degree to doing a PhD - I did and most of the people I knew did the same (and the people who had Masters either had done MEng as a first degree or had MSc conversion courses).

NB There is also the weird thing where some UK institutions give you a MA for still existing after a few years....

The article is specifically about the American University system.

Well, it seemed to address wider societal issues and use USA more as an exemplar of what's failing, to me, though I didn't read it in depth.

Even the article geographically contextualises its examples; which suggests to me they at least realise they address a global audience on the web.

Same here. Other friends joined the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or even the clergy for the same reasons.

Because you love the subject. Not everything in life is about pursuing material goals.

Because your family is rich enough for you to remain out of the job market all those extra years. I wouldn't be surprised if the PhD becomes a new indicator of wealth and power once everyone realizes how uneconomical it is.

Very few people from my science PhD program were from rich families. I can’t remember what everyone’s parents did, but it was mostly things like nurses, teacher, civil servant, and Christmas Tree farm owner. Professors’ kids were over-represented, but it wasn’t like a pack of Rockefellers and Kennedys. Also, you’re not really “out” of the job market; you’re doing the most viable first step for landing an R&D job.

I knew fewer folks in the humanities, but you might be right there: some were certainly doing this on a lark.

How did you form this opinion? Family wealth has almost nothing to do with an individual's financial ability to do a PhD. You don't pay tuition and you receive nominal wages to support yourself. It's not a tech salary, and there's a major opportunity cost for delaying your entry to industry (if you eventually go that route), but that doesn't mean you need a rich benefactor to sponsor you for five or six years.

A PhD is financially viable for anyone who could make ends meet while working at Best Buy. Most people working on a PhD have no family or mortgage.

This is only accurate for funded PhDs, which in the humanities (the implicit focus of the Chronicle) are a small minority.

Okay that's a fair point, my experience has only been with funded PhDs.

PhD is the new "I have a university degree". Now that basically everyone gets a university degree, you need a new way to signal that you are a very educated person.

2% of people in the US have doctorates. In the 60s around 13% of men had a 4 year degrees (it was lower for women, but fewer women were working).

Lets look at the 40s, instead of the 60s.

1940 - 4.6% had a bachelor university degree

today - 33% percent have a bachelor, but only 2% have a doctorate

> For the first time in history, 90 percent of Americans over 25 years of age have finished high school. In addition, more than one-third of Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree or higher.

> That is a big change from 1940. At that time, a Census Bureau study found that less than 25 percent of the U.S. population had completed at least four years of high school. It also found that just 4.6 percent had earned a four-year bachelor’s degree or taken additional classes after completing a study program at a college or university.


So phds are the new bachelor's degree in comparison to the old bachelors degrees of nearly 100 years ago when more than 2x the rate of people had bachelors who now have phds, not in comparison to the old bachelors degrees of 50 years ago when 8x the rate of people had bachelors who now have phds?

Look people aren't going into phds with the goal of signaling they are educated to the general job market the way people used to go for bachelor's degrees. They go into phd programs because on the whole they are very interested in a specific subject and desire to work in research or academia.

Your argument might hold for master's but not phds.

> not in comparison to the old bachelors degrees of 50 years ago

"Degree inflation" didn't happen last year, it was a slow process.


> people aren't going into phds with the goal of signaling

I've seen plenty of programming jobs with "PhD required". For example pretty much any "data-science" job at any company.

> Some jobs that used to require a master's degree, such as junior scientific researcher positions and sessional lecturer jobs, now require a Ph.D. Also, some jobs that formerly required only a Ph.D, such as university professor positions, are increasingly requiring one or more postdoctoral fellowship appointments. Often increased requirements are simply a way to reduce the number of applicants to a position.


>"Degree inflation" didn't happen last year, it was a slow process.

So you think we're going to get to a point in 10 years where 10% of the population has a phd?

>I've seen plenty of programming jobs with "PhD required".

So have I. For research jobs. Please show me the general programming jobs that have phds required.

Where do Master's fit in with this?

I know lots -- LOTS -- of people in various industries with a whole smattering of Master's degrees. A lot of them are MBAs, but plenty aren't.

Conventional wisdom says that PhD's are for academia & research. I'd posit that an MA or MS is the new "university degree".

> After doing a PhD you can be a high school teacher, a soldier, an actor, start a company, go into politics, do whatever you want.

Most PhDs dont want to do that stuff which is why they got a PhD in the first place.

That's tough. Not everyone who wants to be an actor gets to be an actor either.

People have to settle for not fulfilling their dreams every day.

True that, but a system that relies on a steady stream of people with unrealistic ideas about what they're doing and going to do, is not a healthy system. Either it will continue to receive misplaced hopes and turn them into cheap labor, or it will not. Either way is bad.

Not to take this off track, but imagine how much more prone to taking risks we would be if we had guaranteed health insurance. No one wants to risk financial ruin and death in poverty.

The "winners" usually come from old money and then just play with VC billions, never risking a dime, or at least not much.

I'm very fortunate to live in Canada, and can't imagine how much harder it would be to take risks in the states. When I left my stable job to pursue my own small business, my health wasn't even one of the factors I considered. I have never asked for details about health insurance prior tom accepting a job.

Yet for whatever reason Canadians are far less likely to take risks than Americans.


That’s the culture. The risk takers just need to go south for more opportunities anyway, why stay in Canada?

I don't know why this is getting downvoted. I'm an American living in Canada and I totally agree. Canada has a better minimum wage, so the middle-of-the-bellcurve crowd has it a lot better. Like, I could afford to go back to bartending and live a decent lifestyle, albeit probably have a roommate (I'm married though, so that's covered).

However, STEM salaries are on the order of 40% lower -- lower overall numbers on top of 20-30% currency difference (CAD to USD, with CAD being weaker to drive exports). If you're a motivated engineer you're headed south, getting into oil & gas (where salaries are still decent), or learning to accept things as-is.

OTOH the number of well adjusted people, broke people, and all-around happy people is higher north of the border.

Right. Some people are afraid of discovering that they cannot compete in "real life". Those fears are mostly unfounded. In many cases this stems from over-demanding parents, making children question their worth. "Can I really be as successful as my parents if I enter the workforce? Or will I find out that I am not capable?".

And so they hide out in academia to see when they are ready to take that risk. After a certain point, they just stay there.

You cannot possibly be suggesting that academia is a path one takes to avoid competition.

If one is already in academia and is fairly successful, why not? I am not saying that's why ALL people stay in academia. Some really love it for what it is, but I have seen it first-hand.

One sibling working her ass off to prove that she can be as successful as her parents, under tremendous stress, and the other one never leaving school to not even deal with that.

Not OP: Seems a reasonable hypothesis with the proviso of "avoiding commercial competition". Competing academically is different to competing commercially/financially and it seems reasonable that those who've mastered working in academia might struggle to adapt to corporate or other non-academic roles?

That's not always true. After my dad didn't get tenure, he went to try to work elsewhere but kept getting told he was overqualified. He eventually found a job that didn't care, but the PhD actually did act as a barrier to employment for a while.

You certainly can, and that's what most do, but...that's not what they're getting a Ph.D. for. If you ask the people getting a Ph.D. why they're doing it, far more imagine themselves becoming a researcher and/or professor, than will be able to.

It's kind of like student spending huge numbers of hours playing basketball or football in college, when they have no prospect of making it as a pro. If that's what they want to do, fine, I'm sure the lessons about hard work and teamwork and practice and executing to a plan are all useful.

But, if far more of them think they are going to go pro, than actually will, then it's not ok. The current Ph.D. system is not ok.

All true, but the money for training science grad students comes from taxes (via the NIH or NSF), and it’s not insubstantial: figure 20-30k/year for a stipend, 25% fringe on top of that, and another 30-40k for tuition, which comes out to hundreds of thousands of dollars per grad student.

If we wanted high school teachers or soldiers, there’s got to be a better way. And realistically, it’s hard to pivot into some of these fields while relatively poor and in your 30s. Can’t join the marines after 28, for example...

>30-40k for tuition, which comes out to hundreds of thousands of dollars per grad student

Are there schools where tax money is actually paying tuition though, as opposed to the school just waiving tuition?

> Can’t join the marines after 28, for example

That's enlisted. If you have a phd you'd almost definitely join as an officer, which you can do until 30. And you have until 39 if you want to go into the Air Force.

Almost all of them!

In biomedical fields, the NIH provides institutional training grants that often cover all students' first 1-2 years. There are usually slot for more advanced students too. In parallel, there are also individual training grants (like the NSF's GRP and the NIH's NRSA) that also cover tuition. Alternately, an advisor's research grant (again, often tax-funded) can cover a stipend--and sometimes tuition too.

Waivers do exist, but they're often used for international students or in exchange for "service" (i.e., teaching) and fairly few people get through grad school entirely on waivers.

What percentage are funded through NIH training grants? Also I could definitely be wrong, but from a quick Google search it looks like NIH training grants limit tuition to $16k per year.

If you're looking at this: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-19-0... you need to add up all of the numbers.

They're covering a stipend at $24,816, tuition at up to 16k, "training-related expenses" at $4200 and an institutional allowance of another $4200. There are undoubtedly other sources of money too (center grants, etc).

I'm emphatically not saying this is a bad thing in general. However, I do think it might be worth considering diverting /some/ of this money to fund jobs for the people we're training.

>They're covering a stipend at $24,816, tuition at up to 16k, "training-related expenses" at $4200 and an institutional allowance of another $4200. There are undoubtedly other sources of money too (center grants, etc).

I get the stipend and expenses. It's the 30-40k in tuition that I'm questioning. At my school CS grad students just got a tuition waiver, and as far as I know it wasn't directly paid for by grants.

As for the stipend. They are doing research, so you have to evaluate the money in that context. If they are doing useful work for that $25k it's not a waste even if they don't end up working in research after finishing.

I don't have my offer letter (and in any case it is a decade old), but the tuition part was definitely higher than $16k. It is possible that the sticker price isn't very useful, and they're taking whatever they can from outside sources and waiving the rest.

There are other costs too: here's an interesting study that tries to estimate non-tuition, non-stipend costs https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4353078/#B6 These, since they're mostly faculty time, are also partially paid for by funders.

In any case, my point is that grad student labor is both important surprisingly expensive and it's not at all clear to me that we have the "right" amount of it. Specifically, I think it might be better, from a research productivity and a "system health" persepective, to have somewhat fewer grad student slots and a few more staff scientist positions: Maybe 70/10 instead of 100/~0.

To me the main issue is the wider one: what is the purpose of the university? Well, it's the keeping and reproduction of knowledge, which must be kept alive in the heads of a number of host bodies. But what is this knowledge for? Do we as a society actually want to know things? Because that's looking very much in question recently.

There is also the historical (especially 1960s, but really this dates back to the Reformation) role of the university as a political hotbed. It is this which has come into conflict with the wider world, and it is this which has caused heavy commercial pressure to destroy the intellectual independence of the university and turn it into just a training facility.

We've boomed, in The West, on the back of relatively cheap power, and abundance of resources both of which appeared initially to have little downside compared to the up. Society wants to rest there, not to face the future problems that power/resource usage has created.

We'll need to face those problems. And as we progress that need will become ever more stark and ever less ignorable even for the rich.

Knowledge will become fashionable again as its results - fixing the power deficit, the population explosion, the unwanted climatic changes - become demanded and crucially if they payoff.

Then we'll all grow fat and comfortable again only to realise we forgot the lessons of the past.

> Knowledge will become fashionable again as its results - fixing the power deficit, the population explosion, the unwanted climatic changes - become demanded and crucially if they payoff.

The other alternative involves killing a lot of people, either actively or through neglect, which is far more popular than you might expect.

This is the lesson of the global warming discussion, among others. Nobody wants to hear about problems, especially not when the solution involves changing their lifestyle. It's far easier to just deny. Truth in that environment is a threat.

In fact I think we entered a new counter-enlightenment. That is, over the last decade the zeitgeist has increasingly shown religious-like behavior and increased support for authoritarianism, rather than the Kant/Descartes style philosophy of thought.

There are people literally calling themselves "dark enlightenment" doing this.

Wow, thanks for pointing me to that.

I came up with the hypothesis that this was happening at 3am last night while writing, and to close the loop that quickly and see that it's a real thing I just wasn't aware of, is astonishing!

Do we really need to teach French to undergraduates that won't ever use it nor remember anything from these courses? My university also had a swimming requirement. Seems like more than half of the courses were not terribly useful or mind opening. Certainly since something valuable isn't being produced, the pay for producing that will be low.

Honestly, I think both foreign language training, and physical fitness ARE useful for keeping one's mind plasticity up and in turn having valuable downstream effects.

The goal for university courses shouldn't be strictly specific skill training, but also requirements that force people outside their comfort zones, encouraging them to think it new ways and adapt their problem solving faculties to new domains.

Foreign languages are harder to pick up the older you get. Starting one in college seems like a waste, and requiring it raises the bar unnecessarily.

Physical fitness isn’t going to come from a swimming class. If you’re an adult, you’ll take care of your body because it’s the right thing.

> Foreign languages are harder to pick up the older you get.

I don't buy that. I know plenty of people who've picked up languages all up and down the age range.

What I do think is true is that people are more likely to pick up their first additional language at a younger age. And I think that that's probably just an result of selection bias: If you actually need to for some reason (e.g., one language spoken at home and another in public), then those conditions will apply more-or-less from birth, so you'll learn it at a young age. And if you enjoy language learning, then you'll probably figure that out at a fairly young age, and so you'll have learned your second language at a fairly young age.

The people who're looking to learn their second language in their 30s or 40s, on the other hand, are likely to be less motivated in the first place, and therefore more likely to give up, or to be unwilling to put enough work into it to make consistent progress.

There's also a sort of. . . I don't know if it's immortal time bias, but it's similar: You don't see as many people who learn a language at an older age exhibiting near-native levels of proficiency simply because the timeline doesn't work out that way. You just aren't going to be speaking like someone who's been using the language 16 hours a day for 20 years if you've only been using it 1 hour a day for 5 years. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is probably selling something with a subscription pricing scheme.

I can also say, as a recreational language learner who is rapidly approaching middle age, that the real impediment to learning languages as you get older is not that you don't have a 6 year old's or teenager's brain anymore. It's that you have one or more 6 year olds or teenagers, and spending time with them is probably more fulfilling (or at least more important) than spending time with a pile of flashcards. Such is life.

As far as the value of requiring them in university. . . Offer, yes, require, no. Not because 18 is too late to start learning a language, but because nobody who's only taking classes in a 2nd language because a few credits in such a class is required for graduation is going to get any real value out of the experience.

If I could re-do my college degree I would have taken as few computer science courses as possible. Most of the important stuff I picked up along the way anyways. It's the random classes like Japanese Lit and Organizational Behavior that have really had an impact over a decade later.

For me some of the most life impacting and eye opening courses were very random. My Islamic studies class was a view into another world and ignited my desire to travel. A child development course really drove home who we as adults are shaped by things that happened when we were very young and what impact and when parents have on their children.

> Do we really need to teach French to undergraduates that won't ever use it...

As most US universities and colleges currently teach? Certainly not. If we were to teach it as most language schools and most european universities teach it. Then, yes. It would be another skill.

I took courses in Mandarin. While my spoken language is certainly rusty at this point it gave me an insight into East Asian history and culture that I would not have today.

We don't need to dance around the fact that swimming and French courses are just moneymakers for universities. Sure, they may hold some value to the careers of some people, but it's hard to believe that the motivation for foisting them upon each student was wholly altruistic.

With numbers like these, we should be foisting PE and nutrition on young adults:


How is a swimming course a moneymaker?

Yes, I believe a well rounded education is important for a good populace.

I agree with your point; there’s a lot of stuff taught in school that has limited or no usefulness to the average person. But swimming is not one of those. Everyone needs to know how to swim. Granted, college is a bit late to do it.

There’s a good chance in your lifetime that you may involuntarily end up in the water. Say your car crashes into a lake. You fall off a bridge or dock. Your ferry or duck boat sinks. Etc.

Learning to swim doesn’t take a ton of time and may very well save your life. Also you’re missing out on a bunch of possible fun / rewarding water activities.

So why choose to go to a university that does have more general classes if that's not what you want? Certainly the course (and indeed the university) I went to had no classes outside maths/CS/electrical-engineering and I sometimes think it would have been nice to have a bit more rounded education at that level.

I did Spanish at university and it's a skill I've got for life now.

Only in uni? I and many others did Spanish for 6 years from junior high into college, and remember barely any of it.

Foreign language perhaps more than other topics, schooling is nearly useless compared to immersion.

I really feel like schools should concentrate on conversational language skills before delving into any sort of grammar rules. A lot of the grammar rules end up sorting themselves out by “not sounding correct” when you speak the language.

This problem happened recently; during the clinton administration the NIH budget was doubled and the number of bio PhDs increased dramatically... while the number of faculty positions did not. Many of those people ended up working as data scientists (because getting a quantitative bio PhD often give you the skills in the area).

I certainly went through all this (wanted to be faculty) and ended up doing SWE and science work at a large internet company. In retrospect, though, I think I should have skipped the PhD and gone straight to tech.

> The universities shouldn't be relying on 2/3 or 3/4 adjunct professors, but they're doing it because they can, which is because the system as designed produces way more candidates for professorships than there are positions available.

And also because the accreditation process lets them. There are a handful of accreditation bodies in the US, and they certify schools. They look at education level of their instructors, but if they changed to also look at the employment classification because they decided it was better for the students to learn that way, you would see a huge change within a few years.

Adjunct means part time non-research. It doesn't mean bad teacher. Sure, many adjuncts are bad teachers, maybe more than full faculty are, but that should be measured by credentials and feedback metrics, not employment structure. I paid thousands of dollars for several out of touch tenured faculty who were not fluent in the language they taught in, and had some great adjunct professors.

Why should we assume that all people who can get a PhD are fit to become profs? Arguably it's good that there's a larger pool of candidates from which the best can go further in academia (in fields where industry is not so attractive or existent).

Setting aside whether the right criteria are used for career advancements or not, any meritocratic hierarchy is based on having more candidates on a lower lever compete to get into a smaller but higher level.

Academia could do a much better job clarifying expectations for prospective PhD students, for instance what percentage of a department's graduates go to research universities, to teaching colleges, to industry, etc. But there might be fewer applicants when people do the math and realize theres maybe 1 desirable academic job opening for every 10 students.

To the point stressed to death in another thread, sure you could go get another job that has nothing to do with your PhD, but many people see graduate education as a career step, not a lifestyle choice.

The universities shouldn't be relying on 2/3 or 3/4 adjunct professors, but they're doing it because they can

Exactly: https://jakeseliger.com/2016/02/25/universities-treat-adjunc...

Many humanities and social science academics also show extreme anti-market bias, and it shows up in the essay.

It’s also going to show up in their decision making which filters down to students. Such as widening the already massive disconnect from the economic reality of students (entering or choosing to continue university) and their ability to get jobs to pay for the heavily gov and academia incentivized cheap debt.

I feel like with the growing popularity of Online Courses these ratios will get even more skewed...

What happens when the majority of courses at a University are pre-recorded sessions from years ago, with only minor updates from year to year?

If your goal is education there is no need to go to a university anymore. There really isn't even any need to attend K-12 schools.

It may be better to go to formal physical schools, but it's no longer necessary. Not by a long shot.

It's just going to take another few decades for society to adjust to the fact that university degrees are no longer really that valuable and figure out new ways to evaluate individual competency.

>If your goal is education there is no need to go to a university anymore.

I think people underestimate how difficult it is to self study well enough to get an education like you can get from a (good) university program. Studying is hard! Maybe it is not so hard to learn a little bit. But to learn something with rigour and focus takes a lot of effort, especially if you have other problems to deal with as well. Aside from the value signalling of a degree, paid courses provide a strong motivation to do the uncomfortable and often unrewarding activity of studying.

Source: my own experiences with self-study and a recently started Masters in Biostatistics by distance education, all while working casually or full time.

The value of a school (or alternative study arrangement) is in its reputation for educating students well, in the eyes of the students and employers.

When reputable schools burn reputation faster than new schools build reputation, it's a broad social problem.

For most people, a university is the most time-efficient method of gaining education in any given technical topic. It's not guaranteed to be the most cost-efficient, but I don't see a defensible argument that the resources of a university don't make it possible to learn faster than self-study, for the modal student.

Discipline isn't the only obstacle for autodidacts. If nothing else, at a university you have professors, adjuncts and TAs with office hours who can help you learn something in a fraction of the time it would take to learn by studying a textbook or watching lectures online alone.

For example, vanishingly few people manage to teach themselves an undergraduate math curriculum without going through university.

In the early 2000s many of my electives were already taken this way. It was called CUTV (Carleton University TV) and the classes were broadcast on basic cable so one could setup a VCR to record them. Tapes could also be rented from a library of sorts. Occasionally the classes were from that very semester, but usually they were 1-3 years old.

I loved this because

1. I could watch the tapes on my schedule

2. I could pause or rewind to take notes or better understand something

3. I could fast forward through useless parts.

I remember one particularly useless course where all the professor did was read her slides verbatim. Since I had it on tape I’d just fast forward to the next slide, take some notes, and then repeat. Saved me many hours.

I was seriously considering doing a PHD in Politics but I always knew there was a strong possibility of not getting a job and being pretty much unemployable/moving back in with my parents. So I said no to that!

The problem is that colleges still regard themselves as educators and not job trainers, which most young people think of them as. I distinctly remember my politics lecturers telling us they weren't here to get us jobs but to teach us about politics. Which is maybe less problematic if college is free but obviously everyone wants a job after four years of study.

The likes of bootcamps like Holberton School are the way forward. There is no skin in the game for universities. If a graduate doesn't get a job it doesn't affect them one iota. (ok, it doesn't look great for their job report but they can fudge that. )

Coding bootcamps for instance which only make money when their grads get a job are the way forward. They have their incentives aligned with the students.

See this for an example: someone who was a broke artist did a coding bootcamp and is now a developer. But they would never have taken on the debt of a college degree because they weren't sure if they could get a job. The bootcamp gets them a job and if they are unsuccessful they don't pay anything. Bingo! https://www.nocsdegree.com/this-holberton-school-graduate-we...

> The problem is that colleges still regard themselves as educators and not job trainers

I think the issue here is that employers have outsourced hiring validation steps to the university, and the university never has, nor should be a platform for training people for specific jobs. Why would you need to go to a 4-year university to become a business analyst when you learn those skills in the job?

To me it makes sense that a university and its staff sees its mission as education and not job training, because that’s what it is.

We need to find a way to change this and stop wasting resources and time. College for most people is a really expensive way to spend 4 years not doing a lot. It’s mostly signaling.

Ya know how a popular defense for ridiculous interviews is something like "well, they have so many candidates that they will definitely have one that can do that." What about having a 4 year computer science degree?

If you grew up in the US, getting scholarships/grants to fund a 4 year degree is not rocket science. If you're smart enough to pass an algorithms interview you're probably smart enough to do that.

A lot of our problems are related to the fact that people need jobs.

Why do people NEED jobs? They could've all started services, small businesses easily. Especially for something like politics, there is always a new business to come up.

Ultimately, I think it boils down to student debt and healthcare. These two are weighing heavily on youngsters, stifling innovation. It's almost like a subtle throwback to medieval peasantry

> Which is maybe less problematic if college is free but obviously everyone wants a job after four years of study.

Someone is still paying for the college. If it's not the student, it's society as a whole. And public money is not an infinite resource.

He is not a developer. He fudges with scripts.

Good luck bootcamping someone to engineer. Civil or otherwise.

I get that people love the field, but if you're earning $25k a year and barely able to support yourself, maybe you should consider other opportunities in life than an adjunct professor. It's a shame that most of the higher education workforce is treated as disposable, and people shouldn't accept such employment terms and move onto areas where employees are better treated. Academia has a lot of bright, talented people that could easily transfer their skills to other industries.

Good advice in many cases - although academia has never been much of an 'industry'.

In Vojtko's case, she was an 80+ years old French teacher. How many 'other opportunities' would you suppose were open to her? Obviously her loyalty and long service were being taken for granted.

Long term the current university system is dead. I expect that some universities will exist for another hundred years, but not in it's current form.

Previous decades you had to go to a university to get access to resources that simply didn't exist in the rest of the world. Large libraries, labs, lectures, etc etc. Nowadays the internet can provide vastly superior resources then any Library for the most part. Sure there are lots of stuff not yet on there, but that issue that isn't going to exist forever.

Quality courses exist for free. Lots of others are available for hundreds were at colleges they cost thousands. Access to experts is something you can pay for. Don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on books. Can concentrate on what is important to you and you can go at your own pace. People who want to network and peers can still have access to one another through meetups and online messaging. etc etc.

K-12 education is terrible for most people. You can get far superior education for your children by simply enrolling them in Khan institute and hiring tutors for subjects you are not great on.

People think you need to government to solve the cost of education, meanwhile individuals and companies have reduced the cost of education to nearly zero in most cases. Just won't get those special degree certificates that everybody covets. But that won't last forever either.

>K-12 education is terrible for most people. You can get far superior education for your children by simply enrolling them in Khan institute and hiring tutors for subjects you are not great on.

I think that is silly. Really silly. You have no evidence for this. Learning is mostly a matter of motivation. It's like assuming that having an encyclopedia could replace instruction.

K12 education is way better than we think it is. It's just in the interest of k12 public education for people to think it is bad, so that it gets more resources. But it is one of the better functioning institutions in America. Much better and more per-dollar efficient at creating public value than the police, military or medical system.

Consider, would you rather have the bottom half of society skip it? I'd be terrified of a less educated populace.

> Learning is mostly a matter of motivation. It's like assuming that having an encyclopedia could replace instruction.

Or instruction can replace motivation...

K-12 in the US was heavily influenced by Prussian ideology, to turn schools into factories of subordinate, authority-fearing citizens. It’s why schools are filled with abusive, inept tyrants that bore kids to tears and often scar them so much that they’ll never take interest in things like math or literature.

I find arguments like this difficult to argue with since there are so many unfounded assumptions and so little evidence.

But the author of this article took the time to address the rhetoric systematically. http://hackeducation.com/2015/04/25/factory-model

Germany heavily influenced American government and institutions (schooling, esp. the academy which usually ends up pushing cultural changes and crafting institutions when they become administrators) during the 19th up to early 20th century. I think it's short-sighted to say that (which she does in the article you linked) because schools aren't exact replicas of factories, the Prussian influence idea is completely unfounded history.

It can, but the exchange rate is terrible.

“I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.”

--Stanley Kubrick

That is precisely what instruction is for.

> K-12 education is terrible for most people. You can get far superior education for your children by simply enrolling them in Khan institute and hiring tutors for subjects you are not great on.

I'd wager social skills are the most important things you learn in school with peers. Having to work with others, compromise with others, build self-awareness, talk to the opposite sex, and understand social hierarchies.

You can always learn "stuff" later in life, but it's very hard to change your core social identity.

People with no social skills are basically the underlings of society, like 4chan shut-ins and incels. Dismissing K-12 just seems like a way to guarantee even more children are robbed of their social development.

Real world environments aren't age segregated with the only authority figure being significantly older. Middle school is hellish precisely because of this.

Degrees, especially from prestigious schools, have become a kind of writ of noble title that can be purchased. Systems like that can be very sticky. Everyone who has one has a vested interest in preserving their value (like taxi medallions) and HR people can easily use them as a shortcut to hiring decisions that they'll never look dumb for making. The latter is the "nobody ever got fired for..." effect.

The only thing that will break this is if demand for labor exceeds supply, forcing employers to hire outside traditional parameters.

> The only thing that will break this is if demand for labor exceeds supply, forcing employers to hire outside traditional parameters.

I don't think that is the "only thing".

Many employers look for degrees because they are seen as valuable. But they are not necessarily valuable in the most obvious way. A lot of time people are not really interested in what you went to school for at all. The are only interested if you have a degree or not.

This signals to employers that they are interviewing somebody that is willing to make major personal commitments and defer reward for years for POTENTIAL gain. There is no guarantees that spending 10's of thousands of dollars will result in a good job. People who pay for degrees are hoping this is true. A employer can take advantage of these people easily.

If I needed somebody to just be a cog in a corporate machine and I know that they are wiling to work their ass off and make huge personal commitments on the PROMISE of future pay... then that is awesome. I know they will work their ass off and make huge sacrifices for years and I really don't have to pay them that much at all to do it. And I know that their debt will keep them scared and living paycheck to paycheck so they are not going to want to risk unemployment because of how devastating this is financially.

This is why when I am looking for jobs and employers make hard demands on educational certificates that they are probably assholes. It's fine to want degrees, but they are not willing to take professional experience as a alternative then that is a huge red flag.

Yeah it's sticky, but you can't expect the current situation to last forever.

Great I really want my bridges cars and medical instruments developed by someone who consumed video bits explaining how it is done.

Just because this approach works for CS and a lot of humanities classes this can not be generalized. I have the feeling on here the technology optimism sometimes clouds the view on the reality.

Just some examples here: biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, medicine... To be any use you have to have more than a couple mooc classes.

Online videos don't work for the humanities either. You really need interaction with your peers to explore new aspects of your subject and move the arts forward.

Reading literature and discussing it over video chat or through online forums seems like a great substitute.

You didn’t spend much time in the library at school, did you? The amount of stuff not online is vast.

It is if you know where to look.

30 years ago only the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries could have access to a lot of information. Now all you need is to know English and having a reliable internet connection.

The world is changing.

I invite you to find the Yellow Peril of Weiner online, or the Allepo Codex. I had to find a copy of Yellow Peril in Cerrar, still stamped declassified from WWII.

It's true a lot more research is online but lots of older books can be hard to find good quality pirated copies of, or have never been scanned.

Libgen and sci-hub will get you pretty damn far...

Khan Academy, not Institute.

Topical because a big push of academic libraries lately is information literacy.

If universities aren't spending all this insanely high tuition on the actual educators, where exactly is it all going?

Duquesne, which is mentioned in the article, has a $40K per year tuition for undergrads (higher for nursing, etc). They have 9,344 students and their operating budget of $300M, so $32K per student.

Their employee budget is $186M and 2,632 employees, which is average ~$71K per employee.

So why was this adjunct professor teaching 8 classes and only earning $25K per year?

BTW, the president of the university makes $1.4M.


[1] - https://www.duq.edu/about/departments-and-offices/finance-an...

[2] - https://www.mcall.com/news/pennsylvania/mc-nws-pa-university...

Don't make the mistake of believing the sticker price of college/university tuition! It's quite routine for many colleges (private ones, at least) to offer "scholarships" covering a substantial fraction of tuition to literally every accepted student.

Evidently, where marketing is concerned, families are way happier to say "My kid is going to a $40K college, and got a $15K scholarship!" than to say "My kid is going to a $25K college". Colleges that have tried to present themselves as less expensive by listing the actual tuition cost have quite often lost enrollment as a result.

(Meanwhile, last I heard, Harvard tuition was free for the vast majority of families in the US, unless they're very wealthy. But their official listed tuition is nearly $50K.)

To Trimbo's point though, college is the most expensive it's ever been (by several fold factor). The math more that checks out to pay all university professors over 200k, if you could reduce the administration figures.

I think the real question is why college expenses have grown so much

As the article states: advertising, admissions, administration, non-academic student programming, athletics, etc.

Much of this seems like cosmetic fluff, probably intended to attract students (also, wealthy parents). Go to almost any competitive university in the U.S. and look at the groundskeeping, the promotional materials put out by the administration, the proportion of campus infrastructure dedicated to whichever sport is most popular. The modern American university is as much a brand as any other large consumer-facing corporation.

> groundskeeping

This is something that doesn't get mentioned much, but sucks up more of the budget then you'd think. I've attended multiple schools and I swear that a day didn't pass on my walk to class / my lab that I didn't see scaffolding somewhere to redo some part of some building / sculpture / landscaping feature.

Administrators. Just like with most charities.

I just looked at open jobs at Harvard. Here are some: Donor relations. Portfolio managers. Property operations. Director of student activities. Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Officer

Judging from local construction, cushier dorms and other residential facilities. It seems to be a bit of an arms race amongst the higher-end private institutions now.

Building renovations, new buildings, and of course the ever-expanding fleet of services -- 100 counselors for every field of study, vast marketing departments, expensive architectural designs, a different department for every sub-niche of humanities...

My university (public with ~30k total students) got $382 million from tuition and fees last year. They spent $339 million just on student instruction. They spent $197 million on operations/maintenance. $115 million went to academic support and student services.


80+-year-old woman teaching eight courses as an adjunct for $25,000/year? No health insurance, no benefits?

Wiki says: 9000+ students, $300M + in the endowment fund. Insights into the number of administrators and their pay are not so easy to find. NCAA Division I – A-10, NEC

Clearly this school lost sight of its mission. Absolutely it's not alone.

In many cases the roles of teaching and research should be split. More tenured faculty - particularly in the humanities and social sciences - should focus 95%+ of their time and resources on teaching. There is so much overproduction of scholarly work that even specialists in niche fields barely read each others' papers.

World population is going to 9 billion by 2050.

There are plenty of people in the world who need an education.

The delta of people that can afford an education looks like it will be negative, though.

So unless some government (or group of wealthy individuals) sets up a philanthropic fund to educate the world, the outlook is bleak.

Education used to be cheap. For some reason, it has outpaced inflation for the past 40 years and created the current problem.

We could simply try to return the product we had in the 1960’s.

Historically, dating back to the origins of Oxford, one year's worth of tuition cost 50% of median wage, but one year's worth of books cost 2 years worth of wages, and one year of board cost 5 times median wage [1].

Anyone can take MIT and Harvard classes for free online. A quality education is basically free. Community colleges cost less than 1/2 of minimum wage per year.

Just because people are spending more on education doesn't mean education is more expensive.

[1] http://medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Money.html

The 3-4 years you do a PhD are also years out of the workforce for making a good salary. If you do a PhD then you really want to consider its impact to your working life.

A big part of the problem is "infinite growth" assumption.

I'd be a big fan of giving anyone with a PhD a small social stipend and means-tested health insurance.

It's much cheaper than other universal basic income proposals.

My friend read your comment and became enraged. He is a chef. He asks, "why PhDs?" "Haven't they already used a lot of taxpayer and non-profit dollars?"

Why should PhDs get a social stipend, but not a chef? This would ultimately be a net transfer of wealth from the chefs to the PhDs, by force of law.

Right. Because chefs have immediate market value whereas the extremely educated do not -- but are more likely to produce disproportionate intellectual value given time .

If we are really going to automate everything (in the really long run) IDEALLY there are going to be unemployed people. Work costs finite resources. We cant continue to work just for the sake of working.

Disasters are going to happen. Having an unskilled population could mean the end of humanity.

A tiny increase in allowance for learning and maintaining(!) useful skills could be an interesting approach. Cooks seem pretty nice to have. In a worse case scenario they could be even more valuable if they could cook on open fire, do a bit of gardening, know more about nutrition.

It will be somewhat of a hard puzzle slapping value on training that is theoretically useful, we might have to do crude generalizations like phd = 200$ extra per month but it wouldn't be perfect or even elegant.

What makes this a good idea?

I don't know that I would advocate this necessarily, but I can see the logic. If you have a PhD you've at least demonstrated that you have a passion for a particular field and you've been trained to conduct research in that field.

Many PhDs would just want to do research in their field and would continue doing so as long as they can feed and house themselves. Societally, maybe many of these wouldn't produce anything "useful", but some percentage might develop some breakthrough in their field that would more than make up for paying for all the rest.

Would it be better to have some PhD educated math prodigy working an unrelated job paying a median salary because there's nothing available in academia or if we just let that person work on their research all day, might they develop something that would be more useful?

You could make the same argument for providing a universal basic income for everyone, but in the general population you're going to have a higher percentage of people who will just watch Netflix all day or whatever you consider to be a useless activity.

> Would it be better to have some PhD educated math prodigy working an unrelated job paying a median salary because there's nothing available in academia or if we just let that person work on their research all day, might they develop something that would be more useful?

I think if we want the government to pay PhDs to promote research and the advance of knowledge, the PhDBI proposal has some limitations as a means to that end. Many PhDs are gainfully employed, and often have much higher incomes than those without PhDs; they are hardly in need of this stipend. Aside from these cases, it is not clear that the PhDs thus supported are in fact productive, or that the stipend will actually effect the advancement of knowledge, and it seems that it would be very hard to assess the success of this initiative given its structure, or impose any sort of accountability.

You identify "some PhD math prodigy," but there are twice as many doctorates in philosophy as there are in math, and while I am in favor of some PhDs in philosophy, it is not clear the extent to which this specific achievement is something the government needs to be subsidizing. It may be the case that this PhDBI structure would incentivize the pursuit of low-quality PhDs, in the hopes of obtaining the stipend and then ceasing productive work.

(Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/185353/number-of-doctora... )

The government has a variety of avenues to promote research in specific fields: by employing those researchers directly, by funding research universities, by issuing grants to researchers engaged in research. I feel these might be better at obtaining public policy goals, while being much less susceptible to rent-seeking.

Not sure where statistia gets its sources, but there are roughly 500 philosophy phds awarded a year http://dailynous.com/2017/08/28/slight-increase-philosophy-p...

And roughly 2000 in math. http://www.ams.org/profession/data/annual-survey/phds-awarde...

>The government has a variety of avenues to promote research in specific fields: by employing those researchers directly, by funding research universities, by issuing grants to researchers engaged in research. I feel these might be better at obtaining public policy goals, while being much less susceptible to rent-seeking.

It's surprisingly difficult to engage in pure research with government grants, believe it or not. In certain fields, like philosophy and math, just covering health insurance and providing lunch money might be much more effective.

> Would it be better to have some PhD educated math prodigy working an unrelated job paying a median salary because there's nothing available in academia or if we just let that person work on their research all day, might they develop something that would be more useful?

Yes, thank you, nailed it.

I’m curious if the “dr” in their username is a hint. It could that this is only a good idea to those who have a doctorate and would directly benefit from it.

It is totally possible that this only appeals to those with a PhD. And, perhaps there'd be an influx of students who just want to get a PhD so they can get 20k per year to survive. But somehow I doubt it.

Let me guess: they have a PhD and would like to live hassle free.

For me, it's fine. I'm tenured and have a business.

Most phds have and would continue to have meaningful employment.

I have very mixed opinions about American college at this time.

I find the system antiquated and full of butt-kissery, especially post-grad. Book sales are plainly a racket.

I'm not sure how real the political hyperbole is, but it's concerning too. I'm all in favor of college campuses being a place of political passion and ideology, but it seems like it's completely one-sided, and that's bad if it's true.

I hope MOOCs take firm footing and start to bring reform. I think it's overdue.

In the age of free and quick information via search, the value of PhDs with extreme amounts of knowledge in niche academic fields has been nullified. If 99.999% of people will never need your dissertation, and your domain-specific knowledge facts are gained for free via 2 minutes of google-fu, why on Earth would you spend 7 years of your most productive years of life getting a PhD?

PhD's may make sense in STEM fields, where you can parlay them into lucrative coding/analysis/strategic thinking jobs. But the vast majority of PhDs are text-based, humanities-adjacent...they are people "following their passion" and it's a colossal mistake.

I'd 100 times over rather be a pianist or painter than an expert in medieval lore or obscure literature, at least my family and friends can appreciate a great painting or a wonderful piano piece. That's the kind of passion we should be following, not chasing obscure tomes in an ivory tower.

There are ~7,000,000,000 humans but only ~100,000,000 are performing actually necessary work (farming, mining, teaching, mathematics, maintenance.)

That leaves ~6,900,000,000 people with nothing crucial to do.

Given that premise, I think it fine, just fine, if they want to e.g. study "medieval lore or obscure literature".

Your family and friends can listen to a recording on youtube. So much faster than studying the piano.

Hey, that's still 70,000 people, which is a pretty good number for a dissertation.

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