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College Can Help You Do Anything—Even Apply for Foodstamps

A statistic that unfortunately is sad but not surprising: the Urban Institute has found that just over 33,000 people holding doctorate degrees receive welfare in the form of food stamps or other aid. Many of those PhDs are adjunct professors making salaries so low that they qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and a number of other forms of public assistance.

Via Meadia has deep respect and affection for subjects like medieval history; we took courses in this and many other arcane subjects in the humanities and continue to read books in these fields with great pleasure and benefit. And we have nothing but admiration for the love of knowledge that leads young people to want to study these fields in greater depth.

But that respect and affection shouldn’t blind us to the sad reality that much of the American academy today works as a Ponzi scheme. PhD programs in many fields are churning out grads for whom no jobs will ever be found. They have to produce excess grads because if they cut back enrollment, the programs would be too small to justify the continued employment of their current staff.

From an economic standpoint, the US today has a top heavy structure in our academic life: there are far too many PhD programs at far too many institutions. The unemployment and underemployment of graduates is cooked into the system.

Worse, if we decided to cut the number of programs so that the number of job openings matched the number of PhD graduates each year, the number of job openings would crash. Currently, suppose that 200 professors of medieval history retire or otherwise leave the field each year; that would mean we need 200 new PhDs each year to replace them.

But if we reduce enrollment to that number, perhaps half the PhD programs in the country would have to close. That means that perhaps only 100 professors would retire each year — meaning even fewer new graduates would be needed, meaning that even more programs would need to shut down.

The jobs of the current practitioners depend on recruiting a steady stream of new hopefuls into the profession, even though many of those new hopefuls won’t get jobs themselves. This is pretty much how Ponzi schemes work, and besides being unfair to the young, it undercuts the integrity of the teacher-student relationship and it puts the whole scholarly enterprise under a dark ethical cloud.

Until fairly recently, the problem was more or less covered up by the higher ed bubble. Colleges and universities could keep jacking up tuition, while the government pumped more money into both scholarship funds and the student loan market so that students and their parents could continue to pay.

This is beginning to break down. Governments — federal, state and local — have less money for higher ed, and the student loan burden is becoming insupportable.

The current system will change. It imposes unsustainable costs of society at large even as it leads tens of thousands of aspiring professors down the primrose path to the food stamp line. We have two motives for following this story at Via Meadia. One is that we think the restructuring of education is one of the key tasks that must be solved to make the United States as prosperous and progressive as it can and should be in the 21st century.

The other is that we are concerned for the future of the humanities. We think that a rich scholarly and intellectual life is necessary for the health and well being of society as a whole. We don’t think that the coming educational restructuring is necessarily fatal to the world of liberal scholarship, but we do think that those who care about the humanities need to start thinking creatively about how these disciplines and the scholars who pursue them can flourish in the brave new world now struggling to appear.

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  • thibaud

    Ponzi scheme? Wrong metaphor. This is simply exploitation of cheap labor, with the unique twist that the laborers in question are extremely idealistic people motivated by deep love of the same profession that treats them so wretchedly.

    It’s the gypsy profs and grad students ie gypsies-in-the-making who do nearly all the teaching at colleges – especially at big universities, including the very best.

  • Richard S

    Have we produced better statesmen and citizens since the creation of the humanities PhD? Are we creating better history and literature? Speaking as an historian, I can say that I am not so sure. We know more facts, but I am not sure we have better insight into the past, into today’s world or into the human condition.

  • Seth

    Why not just shut down PhD programs without shutting down entire departments?

    This is a pride issue, not an economic issue. No one wants to dial down from PhD granting professor to only teaching undergrads. Even if it doesn’t necessitate any immediate job loss.

  • BillH

    Whether or not it’s really a Ponzi, it’s just as revulsive. The question is whether the perps planned it this way, or just watched it happen.

  • Kenny

    ” 33,000 people holding doctorate degrees receive welfare in the form of food stamps or other aid. Many of those PhDs are adjunct professors making salaries so low that they qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and a number of other forms of public assistance.”

    Among other things, this shows these Ph.D.s have little, if any, self respect to be on the government dole so as to allow themselves to pursue their useless hobbies and pretend to be ‘intellectuals.’

  • Anthony

    WRM, money and job tenure to university scholarship objective as derivatives to marketing securitization. And scholarly enterprise under a dark ethical cloud is a well time phrase – I am witnessing aspiring graduate student (at a highly regarded institution) quizzically perplexed and not sure why.

  • David

    The idea that humanities Ph.D. candidates are being exploited is exactly what humanities Ph.D. candidates seem to think.

    Except, they enroll in Ph.D. programs knowing full well that the job market is terrible and it will be a miracle if they can procure tenure-stream positions.

    I think it’s more useful thinking of these programs as a consumption item for intellectuals.

  • dissilusioned

    The main problem is that PhDs in the humanities do not prepare you for a non academic career. Once professors start accepting that not everyone who wants a PhD wants to be a college professor, and start preparing people for the real job market (i.e., by teaching marketable skills in addition to academic skills) the system will become balanced again. But hey, professors don’t really care about their PhDs, and besides, they’re completely unable to prepare anyone for “the real life”, so why would they bother?

  • Chase

    A very depressing article indeed professor. Unfortunately, I think many people are going to have to study something practical and then pursue their passion as a hobby. This is much easier to do than it was in the past because Phd reading lists are now available online.

    This is a bitter pill for many swallow, and I really sympathize with them, but I don’t think there is any other choice.

  • Jim.

    Seth touches on the solution.

    Assume the number of undergraduates taking humanities courses is not expanding, so that the number of teaching professorships is constant.

    That could mean each professor only ever needs to graduate ONE PhD that will go on to graduate a PhD of his/her own. Most professors will never take on PhD students at all.

    If we assume that professors generally will replicate themselves, the number of other PhDs that that professor will need to graduate depends on how many other jobs requiring PhDs in that subject (analysis jobs at the CIA for historians, perhaps, museum curation jobs, research jobs with non-university funding) divided by the number of PhD-granting professors there are out there.

    That could be less than two or three to one. And this is not per years, this is within that professor’s professional life.

    Professors need to get used to grading their own papers, looks like.

  • Richard S

    A solution: our high schools are full of people who are trained in ed schools and don’t know their subjects, and we have too many PhDs. Send the surplus PhDs to high school, and fire the ed school people. That should help improve teaching in high school. But we’re now left with the question of what to do with the ed schools who now get fewer students and with the now unemployed former high school teachers . . .

  • Charles

    In the early 70’s I was dismissed from a prestigious west coast univesity’s Ph.D. program. It was the best thing that ever happened to me!

    I went on to a productive career in medicine.

    I’m sure that was what I wanted to do all along.

  • chris

    The job market’s tough for all areas requiring a PhD. For example, a friend of mine about to graduate with a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology is entering the market for a university teaching job — only to find that no one’s retiring and there are fewer and fewer jobs to be had. He’s begun to consider high school teaching jobs — a phenomenon that’s actually pretty common. So, over-subscription in PhD programs is not unique to the liberal arts.

    As for this article, 33,000 PhD’s on food stamps is an interesting statistic (and combined with a journalistic tear-jerking story), but its just that — a statistic. Given the large number of people in liberal arts PhD programs around the country, that’s probably not too bad a number, especially when there’s a recession on.

    All that said, there are indeed way too many people in PhD programs. While the need for cheap labor is certainly one factor, I think the main driver is the “arms race” among all the programs. One way to both justify your program to university administrators, and to compete with other schools nation-wide, is to recruit a larger number of grad students. The problem, then, goes hand-in-hand with the larger bubble, wherein schools build facilities in order to attract students. But the bubble doesn’t just effect liberal arts; even the sciences are effected.

  • WigWag

    “Many of those PhDs are adjunct professors making salaries so low that they qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and a number of other forms of public assistance.” (Via Meadia)

    What I want to know is why colleges and universities are hiring adjunct professors in the first place. After all, they are chock full of junior faculty and tenured faculty who don’t work very hard. Maybe if faculty members taught three or four different courses every semester instead of one, or at most two, adjunct faculty members wouldn’t be required and tuition might be lowered, at least marginally.

    Considering how well they are paid for doing very little work, it is remarkable how much belly aching emerges from the typical college faculty member.

    Their comeuppance can’t come soon enough.

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