And while we're admitting you to college, let's throw in the Ph.D. program too!

Another article from Inside Higher Ed that caught my eye:

The chancellor of the City University of New York [Matthew Goldstein] floated a unique approach this week to dealing with the long lamented problem of low enrollments in the sciences: Offer promising students conditional acceptances to top Ph.D. programs in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) as they start college. ...

In a speech Monday, Goldstein envisioned a national effort in which students identified for their aptitude in middle school would subsequently benefit from academic enrichment programs that their own local high schools might not be able to provide (The chancellor described the proposed program as one that could have a particularly strong impact on increasing woefully low minority enrollments in the STEM fields).

Upon entering college, students would be offered a spot in a top Ph.D. science or math program, provided they meet certain performance requirements throughout their undergraduate years.

"It sends a very strong statement to students who have not necessarily had the encouragement ... that very elite places genuinely believe in them and, at an early age, they are prepared to make an investment to serve as an incentive for those students to continue to do very good work," Goldstein said.

Some of my initial reactions to this proposal:

  • I very much like the idea of actively encouraging kids who show interest and aptitude in science, technology, engineering, and math to keep pursuing it, and to at least imagine themselves in a STEM career. Cultivating interest is a good thing. Widening a kids horizons for his or her future is a good thing. Paying attention to what's happening with science education in the stretches of our educational system where kids are most likely to get turned off to STEM is a good thing.
  • However, how exactly are we going to measure "aptitude" here? (Is the proposed instrument something that makes reliable predictions?) Also, would an approach like this have any kind of negative impact on the kids who, for whatever reason, come to science later in the game? (There is a practical question here, to which I do not know the answer: How late in your secondary education can you get your math and science on? Is there a point beyond which the chances of your ever being comfortable with and good at STEM are vanishingly small?)
  • Starting college with a conditional acceptance to a Ph.D. program seems like a set of circumstances that might really keep a college student thinking about her post-college path -- and how that's connected to her college experience -- from the start. Possibly this would help motivate more careful choices about what courses to take, what kinds of research experience to seek, what sorts of study habits to cultivate, and so on. Having some sort of plan in place to guide the student's choices could be a very good thing.
  • However, plans change, and often for very good reasons. The Inside Higher Ed article
  • quotes senior scholar in residence at the Council of Graduate Schools Carol Lynch:

    "A Ph.D. is not like the professional schools. It's not like medical school. We're increasingly becoming aware of an array of non-cognitive abilities that you can't really test for that tend to be predictive of success in Ph.D. programs," Lynch said -- citing, for instance, the skills needed to handle the stress of independent work.

    Plus, there's the problem of individual fit, as Ph.D. programs are obviously much more specialized, and a student admitted to a certain institution may not ultimately fit there for a number of reasons, including what specialties a program does and does not offer, Lynch said. "A high school biology student says 'Oh, I love biology.' But they don't know if they want to do molecular biology, cancer research, ecology, evolutionary biology."

    It looks like there may not be easy ways to tell which 13-year-olds will end up, years down the road, making the best graduate students in a particular STEM field, let alone whether they'll still want to pursue further studies and independent research in one of those fields. Beyond that, even if you could predict that Becky would have the interest and aptitude to become an excellent high energy physicist, there would be absolutely no guarantee that the department to whose Ph.D. program she had provisional would, at the time of her college graduation, still be the best place to study high energy physics. It doesn't take very many faculty moves to radically shift the focus of a department, after all.

    In short, you wouldn't want the provisional acceptance to be at all like a contract signed in blood.

  • Mentoring students in a more programmatic way -- at all levels -- strikes me as a very good thing. (The mentors will be given some training, as part of their professional development, to help them learn how to mentor effectively, yes?)
  • Finally, a big reservation I have about Goldstein's proposal is the "problem" it's supposed to solve. It's very much aimed at reducing the "brain drain" from talented international students earning Ph.D.s in U.S. graduate programs and then taking those degrees home with them, and at addressing the "problem of low enrollment in the sciences".

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't we currently have scads of people with Ph.D.s in STEM fields looking for permanent jobs and coming up empty?

    Is the problem, as Goldstein sees it, that STEM enrollments are too low to justify (on the basis of TA assignments) the number of STEM graduate students necessary to carry out research projects at U.S. universities? Is it ethical to boost the demand for TAs in STEM by telling kids there's a critical shortage of Ph.D.s in STEM fields? Won't finding out they've been lied to make them, I dunno, bitter once they become graduate students and start getting a better picture of what the job market for STEM Ph.D.s is really like?

    Here's an approach I'd like a lot better: Why don't we think about science, technology, engineering, and math coursework at the college level as essential in the training of an educated person, even if that person is not going into a STEM career? That would certainly boost science enrollments (and the need for TAs), but it would do so without flooding the market with even more Ph.D.s competing for what seems to be a dwindling pool of jobs.

Of course, Goldstein's idea seems to be at an early stage of development, so maybe he'll take some of these issues into account as he develops it further.


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Is the problem, as Goldstein sees it, that STEM enrollments are too low to justify (on the basis of TA assignments) the number of STEM graduate students necessary to carry out research projects at U.S. universities?

I don't understand this sentence. Where'd the TAs come from alla sudden? How do STEM enrollments justify grad student numbers anyway?

I guess I'm assuming there's some reason that's connected to a judgment that enrollments are "too low" or "just right". Since bundling Ph.D. program acceptance and college acceptance is Goldstein's strategy for addressing "too low" enrollments, I'm reaching for a theory that connects the two.

Other options that occur to me:

  • In academic settings where "resources follow enrollments", the STEM enrollments are too low to justify (in terms of institutional resources) the number of STEM faculty billets, plus all the facilities dedicated to them. (Seems to me a less likely explanation at schools where research grants cover a larger proportion of the costs, as is the case at most Ph.D. granting institutions.)
  • The STEM enrollments are too low for a properly informed society. (Plausibly true, but seems to me you could address this without the lure of the Ph.D. program.)
  • The STEM enrollments (and subsequent Ph.D. program enrollments) are too low to really crash the going rate for a Ph.D. researcher, which would totally improve the situation for PIs who'd like to complete lots of research projects on the cheap. (This one seems almost too cynical.)

The TA theory in the post rests on the assumption that most graduate programs make at least a perfunctory gesture toward giving their students "college level teaching experience" (i.e., TAing) as part of their "professional development".

Honestly, though, I'm still trying to figure out the basis on which the enrollments are "too low".

At our university, we already offer a BS/PhD program (designed to take about 7 years), and I'm sure there are many others that offer one - this was my first thought when I saw the story, and I find it really puzzling actually. After all, half the blog posts here and elsewhere are about the funding crunch, people leaving science because they can't find tenure-track positions, forever postdocs, etc. THAT'S the problem with STEM enrollment at the graduate level, at least in terms of enrollment of US citizens and permanent residents (which presumably is the target of this idea). We just can't compete with the private sector and especially professional schools.

Also, this story is that it's regrettably typical of higher ed admins who've lost touch with the realities of the lives of postdocs and junior faculty. Yes, it's a fun job, and yes all jobs are stressful and insecure, but if you're a bright, motivated US citizen or permanent resident, you weigh your options with a lot of other things upon graduation. (Also, isn't it better to use undergraduate research experience to encourage people to do BS/PhD's? Besides, the accelerated courseload and requirement of doing both at the same institution cause most of our students to drop out, accept for the rare ones who would have loved their undergraduate research experiences and stayed anyway... and probably finished in 7-8 years regardless.) On the other hand, for a place like CUNY and other mid-tier institutions (like mine) it is a good recruitment tool for quality domestic grad students - but that's good in a selfish institutional sense - no need to sell it as some kind of altruistic good for the nation.

Unless you're a university chancellor fishing for state and/or philanthropic funds...

I don't get it.

In order to be accepted into our Ph.D. program you need all of the following ....

1. Decent grades in upper level university courses (>75%).

2. You need to have taken the right courses, especially advanced undergraduate courses.

3. Research experience from working in a lab in the summer and research projects in the winter.

4. Three letters of reference from Professors who will attest to your desire and suitability for graduate school.

5. Pass a personal interview showing that you have the desire to be a scientist and the ability to work with others.

Students just entering university don't have a single one of these requirements. How can we offer them a spot in graduate school? Besides, we encourage our undergraduates to go elsewhere for graduate school so all we could do would be to offer them a place at the same university and that's not necessarily the best thing for them.

Am I missing something here?

I actually forgot to point out, which should make more sense... it's a good recruitment tool for superstar _undergraduate_ students - of the sort who boost your USNews ratings... this is why my university (a private) has it. Unlike our other programs the BS/MD, BS/MS, now apparently a BS/JD, etc, which are to get more tuition revenue (since BS/PhD would probably get tons of merit aid anyway). It's a way to get the students who might otherwise go one tier up, and it actually does kind of work, thanks to stupid things like # of Merit scholars counting towards the decisions that parents make (like 0.1% of the undergrad class having an honor really makes a difference to the educational experience - but I know from one on one conversations at recruitment events that they do, sadly).

This is actually exactly the same as car companies giving away luxury models to celebrities for marketing to the people who'll actually pay for them...

Now, this fellow at CUNY might not be thinking this way, but this is why BS/PhD programs already exist at ambitious privates (and possibly publics - I haven't actually researched these programs, and personally I think they're bad academically, even if they're good for business). So the whole grad admissions convention, with all its standards, letters of reference, etc. - which is faculty-driven, as opposed to undergraduate admission, which is done by the administration - doesn't apply here, to what's fundamentally a marketing strategy disguised as "recruiting high-achievement students into STEM".

Will they pay the parents more for a boy or for a girl?

By hip hip array (not verified) on 22 Jun 2007 #permalink

I read the reason a little different. He seems to think having foreigners get science training is a bad thing in itself; the argument about competitiveness seems to point at a simplistic zero-sum model of science results. So he's not out to increase the total number of PhD's - the job market doesn't seem to be a factor at all - but replace foreigner-earned PhD's with US-citizen ones, by means of early recruitment and preferential placement.

More and better students to schools elsewhere, I guess.

"Also, would an approach like this have any kind of negative impact on the kids who, for whatever reason, come to science later in the game?"

That was my first concern. I would hate to see the situation where, "There isn't funding/room for you because you didn't know that in the future you would enjoy science when you were in middle school." As I was finishing my Ph.D., my parents made the honest statement that when I was in middle/high school, they didn't expect me to go to college, let alone grad school. I wasn't horrible in school, but I had little desire. That changed.

As an undergrad student, I have mixed feelings about this. I love my current university, but am really looking forward to branching out and experiencing different institutions for grad work. I wonder if some places will develop an exchange system, you're guaranteed a graduate position within a certain network of cooperating universities.

A bigger concern, though, how does this affect admissions decisions for outside applicants to the graduate school? To me it seems like more qualified students being turned away because some home students are defaulted in with the contracts they made when they began undergrad work.

I have two ideas that have not been offered in the previous comments.

1. As an MD/PhD student, I made a choice 6 years ago to sign on for an 8-10 year program. My ideas of what to do with this training have fluctuated tremendously, have not yet settled, and I still have 2 more years to go. I was 23 when I started. It is hard to imagine an 18 year old making a 7-9 year commitment. (Are PhD's from a 7 year BS/PhD discounted? It takes some students 7 years to get a PhD!!!) The extreme variability of graduate education between different universities, colleges, departments and even mentors should discourage a commitment of this sort.

2. It seems to me like the most likely kids ready to make such a commitment would come from intellectually and economically privileged environments. Is there any data on who goes into BS/MD programs? If my guess is correct, the motivation and the outcome of this proposal would be at odds.