- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Faced with sluggish graduation rates, budget restraints and more federal restrictions, the University of Iowa's Graduate College is wondering if there is a better way to budget its money and prepare students for a more diverse job market.

“How can we utilize our resources to complete the mission set before us?” said John Keller, associate provost for Graduate Education and dean of the Graduate College. “Maybe we need to prepare fewer, better supported doctorates with skills to pursue a multitude of employment opportunities.

“It used to be heresy to say that we need fewer graduate students,” he told the Iowa City Press-Citizen (http://icp-c.com/1dXtLct). “But maybe it’s what we will have to do to prepare for the employment market.”

Keller broached the subject in December during a UI Faculty Senate meeting. His presentation was prompted by a study of the graduate college conducted over the summer that revealed some disconcerting information.

- Students who were awarded the less prestigious competitive fellowships - Ballard-Seashore Dissertations and Summer fellowships - graduated at a rate of more than 90 percent, while the top recruits who receive the Presidential and Dean’s Under Represented Minority fellowships graduated at a rate of 68 percent.

- In fiscal year 2013, the Graduate College allocated $6.2 million, of which $3.7 million went to the Presidential and Dean’s URM fellowships, $900,000 to the Ballard-Seashore and Summer fellowships and $1.6 to miscellaneous fellowships.

- One-third of UI’s doctoral programs have a completion rate of 50 percent while another one-third have a completion rate of 67 percent.

The study also found that of UI’s 76 doctoral programs, seven take more than seven years to complete. Most doctoral programs have an expectation of five to seven years to completion.

“What is really concerning for the graduate college - and this is not unique to the University of Iowa - is that one-third of our programs have a completion rate of less than 50 percent,” Keller said. “That means that a little less than half the students who come in aren’t completing their degree.”

There is also the cost of supporting top recruits through teaching and research assistantships, which Keller said can cost $150,000 or more over five years.

In addition, the study showed a growing number of graduate students want jobs outside academia but don’t receive the support they need.

“There are students who are interested in other types of careers but are afraid to admit it because they fear being ostracized if they admit they want to do something else besides research or be a faculty member,” Keller said. “We don’t have the services in place to help doctoral students who want to seek non-academic positions.”

Keller said an email would be sent to some faculty addressing the issues facing UI’s graduate college.

“The memo basically states that the grad college will be using some of the individual program data that I discussed to factor into our decisions about where the recruitment fellowships and future resource allocations will be made,” he said.

Erika Lawrence, associate professor of psychology and president of UI’s faculty senate, said an unstable economy has resulted in fewer tenure-track jobs for graduate students entering the job market. Accepting fewer students into programs might be a solution, but it also could affect the quality of education.

“Graduate programs need a certain number of students admitted each year in order to remain strong, to remain competitive compared to peer institutions,” she said, “and in some cases, to maintain accreditation from professional organizations.”

John Solow, a professor of economics at UI and department executive officer, said using graduation rates to measure the success of a graduate program could result in granting degrees to academically weak students to make the grade.

“If you tell me, ‘We’re going to reduce your funding if your graduate rate fails,’ maybe that person who is going to fail, well, maybe I keep them around,” Solow said. “How is the dean going to know if that person is a good economics student? I doubt he would.”

Solow said he believes job placement is the true measure of a program’s success.

“When we can place someone at Princeton, that is where we want our incentives to come from,” he said. “We want our students to do well. That means some of them will fail and not make it.”

Solow said most doctoral students in economics in the College of Business graduate in five years with mostly academic jobs waiting for them.

“We don’t have perpetual graduate students,” he said.

Ben Gillig, president of the Executive Council of Graduate and Professional Students and a Presidential Fellow in Education, said time to degree, or TTD, should be one factor in measuring the success of a program, but not the only one. He believes each program should decide its own “timeliness” and develop internal goals to meet the standard.

“Anecdotally, I do hear some doctoral students delay graduation in hopes of a better job prospect,” Gillig said. “I think there is a feeling to explore ways that individual programs can provide resources to help find work inside and outside academia.”

Lawrence said the recession has created similar problems for graduate colleges across the country.

“Hopefully this will change as the economy improves,” she said. “In the meantime, all universities across the country need to rethink how we are training our graduate students. Perhaps we need to discuss multiple post-Ph.D. job options throughout their graduation training.”

Ultimately, Keller believes completion rate is the most important measure of student success.

“That is the one objective that students have when entering a program: that is to receive the degree they had sought,” he said. “The more students complete, the better the program and the more the program maintains strong efforts to provide mentoring, funding and the series of opportunities students need to be successful.”

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Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, http://www.press-citizen.com/

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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