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SCIENCE, CULTURED

Where Are the Grad Students?

In An Economic Downturn, We Expect Their Numbers to Rise—But So Far, They Haven’t

empty classroom SOURCE: flickr.com/limonada Science and engineering will continue to play a key role in growing our economy and developing clean energy technologies. The government needs to enable more students to pursue schooling that contributes to our green growth.

It’s a charming nugget of pop wisdom: At times of recession, young people say to hell with the job market and go back to school to improve their long-term career prospects. And sure enough, reports have been flying in lately from schools like UCLA, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Texas suggesting that business, law, and graduate school applications are on the rise. Conventional wisdom appears to be convening—or is it?

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture from Los Angeles, California. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)

The truth is that during the current recession, some indicators don’t quite fit this predictable narrative. For instance, the Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), is actually estimating that fewer students (rather than more) will take the test by the close of this year. Similarly, the Council of Graduate Schools informed me this week that based upon an informal survey of its member institutions, there’s no apparent trend in the number of student applications. Some schools were up some were down, some were flat. “We have not actually seen the pattern we would have predicted,” explained council president Debra Stewart, “either in applications, acceptances, or enrollments.”

It’s worth pausing to think about the implications of this puzzle, because today’s economic downturn comes as the United States is scrambling to remake its energy system and deploy the clean technologies necessary avert the worst effects of climate change—a project for which we’ll need plenty of well-educated scientists, engineers, and other technical workers. Whether we’ll have them, though, remains to be seen. Certainly we can’t assume that the recession, like a bolt from the blue, will be the source of their delivery.

It’s enough to trouble anyone who thinks this country needs to be producing more scientists: The free market may well have other plans.

Typically, the growth of graduate students is a “lagging indicator,” following upon a recession rather than spiking right at its beginning. In 2002, for instance, graduate student enrollments went up sharply just after the last recession ended. However, the signs this time around suggest we’re not following that trend, and the possible reasons for that departure aren’t particularly pleasing to contemplate.

Stewart, of the Council of Graduate Schools, can think of three possibilities. Perhaps, she says, the credit crunch has hit the ability of students to obtain educational loans. Perhaps public universities, struggling due to the state budget implosions occurring across the country, are cutting back on teaching assistantships (which typically hold a graduate student’s body and soul together). Or perhaps young people fear this recession is so bad that they’d better cling to whatever job they currently have, lest there not be another. It’s all speculation, Stewart cautions—her organization plans to keep monitoring the numbers as more data emerges next year. But certainly it’s enough to trouble anyone who thinks this country needs to be producing more scientists: The free market may well have other plans.

Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking about the latest graduate student numbers in the context of another finding: In 2007, the last year for which figures are currently available, the total number of science and engineering PhDs produced in this country rose for the fifth year in a row. Since 2002, it has grown from 24,608 to 31,801, nearly a 30 percent increase. This might seem a hopeful development, but it’s important to note that it’s another “free market” result: According to Stewart, it largely reflects the fact that in the late 1990s, international student enrollment in U.S. universities boomed, and now many of those people are getting their degrees. And what the market gives, the market taketh away. If people are afraid to leap to grad school during the current severe recession, maybe a decade from now we’ll see a noticeable decline in PhDs.

The point is, if we really want to improve our scientific competitiveness and ensure that we can develop low-emissions energy technologies we can then share with less-developed nations, we need a concerted government effort. We need to fully fund the America Competes Act. We need the modern equivalent of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which greatly spurred higher ed enrollments in science and engineering. We can’t just wait for it to magically happen on its own, or assume that it will emerge as a kind of silver lining from the current downturn.

My coblogger and scientific lifeline to pop culture, Sheril Kirshenbaum, likes to use a Simpsons clip to explain the meaning of higher education. Bart has just cut the ponytail off of the person seated in front of him in a movie theater, and is waving it around behind his head. “Look at me, I’m a grad student,” he says. “I’m thirty years old and I made 600 dollars last year.”

“Bart,” Marge scolds him. “Don’t make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice.”

Or have they? It may well be that individual graduate students out there, or potential graduate students, are making very rational life choices in the context of the broader economic environment that they perceive. If we want that to change, or for them to move in a particular direction, we have to take steps as a society to make it happen.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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