Matthew Williams from the New Faculty Majority describes the prevalence of welfare recipients in higher education as “the dirty little secret of higher education”. Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education released an article with data generated from Current Population Surveys of 2008 and 2011 reporting an increase in aid recipients with advanced degrees.
The federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefit that many of these scholars are receiving is food assistance. The number of folks with PhDs receiving food stamps nearly tripled from 9,776 in 2007 to 33,655 in 2010. That only includes people who self-report to the U.S. Census Bureau that they receive food stamps or some other form of government assistance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include data on aid recipients who may have declined to respond for any reason (out of embarrassment, for instance). After all, being a PhD on welfare isn’t exactly ideal.
If this is really as problematic as the data show, should we be encouraging students to go into PhD programs when post-grad employment opportunities may not be there for them? Should we continue to train students for the academy when their career paths may actually veer off in another direction? The American Sociological Association reports that the academic job market recently shrank considerably compared to previous years. Such reports make you wonder, what is the future of the academy? University positions are being eliminated and the criteria for filling them is certainly changing.
In conversations with my peers, I’ve learned that many students interested in doctoral programs are hoping that a tenure-track position at a reputable institution will be the end result of years spent learning and training in their specialized fields. However, it’s very discouraging when preparing for a doctoral program to learn that 70 percent of faculty nationwide are off tenure-track. What does this mean for the next generation of scholars?
Over the past several years, I’ve been groomed to enter a PhD program because it just made sense to keep going. I have a passion for research and teaching, so the aim of much of my academic preparation as an undergraduate and graduate student has been to earn a PhD and join my colleagues on the treacherous track to tenure. I consulted with faculty members in various programs across the nation who told me I could do anything with a PhD.
But after considerable thought, I don’t think that will be the case for many of us who’d like to pursue a professional degree. Many of us will probably end up doing anything off tenure-track to simply make a living. It seems that ultimately I may become an academic with mounting student loan debt pursuing other options in a competitive labor market that presumably values the prestige of my advanced degree. The potential of a future on public aid following the acquisition of a PhD seems more probable than job security in the academy.
One thing is certain: the economy is impacting everyone. Perhaps more informative conversations should be had about the direction both the academy and the economy are heading and the job opportunities realistically available in a competitive market to better prepare students for the paths they so willingly take upon the recommendations of faculty members across the nation.
What are your thoughts on this topic? What recommendations would you offer young scholars embarking on the journey to the academy?