In 1991, as this book notes, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation launched what would become the largest effort ever made to improve graduate education in the humanities in the US. The Graduate Education Initiative (GEI) involved an investment of nearly $85 million and spanned 10 years. Educating Scholars considers its story and outcomes.
This is a book that does not shy away from statistics, or graphs and charts, but that should not deter keen story lovers. There is also a broader narrative, and it focuses in a lively fashion on how to improve doctoral education in the humanities. The GEI's targets for improvement were reasonably obvious: ensuring that doctoral programme design was effective, reducing attrition and "time-to-degree", managing financial support, and generating graduate career prospects. The authors explore the findings and their implications in relation to each target.
"The GEI was a prototype," they write. "It was intended to demonstrate that, with judicious planning and expenditure of considerable amounts of money, it would be possible to educate a larger number of scholars in briefer periods of time while not jeopardizing the quality of the education they received."
You can already detect that the size of investment in the GEI quite rightly hovers over the authors' findings. For example, those findings reveal that although the "average time students spent earning their PhDs fell", "observed changes were small" and "reductions in early attrition were not matched by comparable increases in completion". Instead, attrition rates increased among those remaining in graduate school five years or more. This occurred despite the GEI being explicitly aimed at "front-loading" attrition. Its impact could thus be said to have been modest, but overall, conclude the authors, "the GEI's efforts to improve graduate education proved immensely encouraging".
Their findings reveal much of what some of us have confidently argued and many in UK higher education believe. That is, Ronald Ehrenberg and his co-authors record, that "faculty advising, including the specific advice given and students' views about its usefulness, was a significant factor in influencing the probabilities of whether students stayed and finished or left without degrees". They also note that "faculty and departments are central in graduate education and thus central in making improvements in the education of scholars".
For those inclined to believe deeply in the human-centred aspects of higher education, and of graduate education specifically, this book says much about the importance of personal relationships and individual exchanges, the work of lecturers in targeting specific areas of student support and the work of graduate students in focusing on particular areas of development. "When it comes to the cumulative probabilities of completion of the degree," the authors argue, "improved advising once again proves to be the most important element of the GEI interventions."
In addition, the book explores the relationship between publishing during graduate study and improved job prospects - in the case of the US, a "tenure-track job". This is not something we had not imagined, but it is useful here to see statistical support for that general conclusion. In addition, they note, "all increases in funding do not have the same impact". Again, this is not unexpected, but we may wish to consider it more closely when calling for a general increase in financial support for graduate education, which is a far too simplistic (or partially informed) request. Far more worrying, however, is the report that "there is little disagreement that attrition rates are high in doctoral programs in the humanities". This is something we cannot ignore.
Educating Scholars makes for interesting if not always easy reading. And that is not a prejudice against the statistical evidence presented graphically here. Rather, the unease stems from the feeling the book gives that graduate education in the humanities should have been looked at more closely a lot earlier than 1991. In fact, it should be looked at far more closely now, based on the GEI results and on the findings presented here. Too little is addressed in a specific way in our investigation of the nature of graduate education, and too much is assumed. But that is not the case here. That's a good thing.
Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities
By Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Harriet Zuckerman, Jeffrey A. Groen and Sharon M. Brucker. Princeton University Press 368pp, £20.95. ISBN 9780691142661. Published 17 December 2009