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American Graduate Education: Are We Losing Our Competitive Edge in the Global Economy?

Apr 30, 2010

A report from the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education found that many American students do not go on to pursue graduate education. The study's authors argue that this could have a detrimental effect on our ability to compete in the global economy, which is becoming increasingly tied to the knowledge and skills acquired in advanced education.

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Human Capital: Our Best Asset in the 21st Century Economy

The Commission on the Future of Graduate Education, which is a collaborative research effort by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and Educational Testing Service (ETS), is tasked with exploring the 'political, demographic, socioeconomic, educational and financial trends' affecting participation in graduation education in the United States. Members of the Commission include higher education scholars, graduate deans, university presidents, provosts and industry leaders.

They make the claim that, in the 21st century, the world is moving into a 'knowledge economy' dependent more on highly skilled labor than manufacturing or industry. To compete and thrive, a country must produce researchers, scientists, scholars, engineers and other educated professionals who can contribute both to technological innovation and an overall increase in human knowledge.

By this argument, significant participation in graduate education is essential to the long term survival of the American economy. But a 2010 report from the Commission suggests that students may not be keeping up.

Census data does show that the overall enrollment in U.S. colleges and graduate schools did grow by over two million students between 2000 and 2006, which is consistent with a steady increase since the 1980s. But only 60% of students who enter 4-year colleges actually graduate. This high attrition rate dramatically shrinks the pool of potential graduate students.

And even among those who do graduate from college, the number of students who continue on to graduate study is relatively low. Although there has been an average annual increase in graduate enrollment of 2% over the past decade, the majority of bachelor's recipients do not pursue advanced education. Graduate enrollment has risen 50% since the 1980s, yet only 26% of students who graduated from college in the 1992-1993 school year had earned a graduate degree by 2003.

There is some good news for the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math). Enrollment in science and engineering programs in U.S. universities started rising in the 21st century and was at an all-time high in 2010. However, much of this growth comes from international students. Some of these students will stay in the U.S. and contribute to the local economy, but many will not, which effectively creates a talent drain from American institutions into other economies. If the U.S. wants to boost the number of domestic STEM graduate students, we need to strengthen our STEM education at the secondary and postsecondary levels.

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How Can Universities Attract Graduate Students?

Hoping to help graduate institutions improve their efforts to increase enrollment, the Commission also explored the reasons that students choose to pursue advanced education. They found that educational aspirations as early as high school are likely to affect whether students end up enrolling in graduate school - those who expect to attend graduate school when they're young are more likely to follow through later.

The report also found that balancing out racial and gender inequalities could further improve enrollments in graduate schools. Expectations tend to be lower for female students, who also often suffer from a 'confidence gap,' consistently underrating themselves on self-reported measures of academic ability. Furthermore, men typically aspire to higher-paying careers, which justifies the expense of graduate education.

Black, Hispanic and Native American students of both genders suffer from many of the same lowered expectations as female students of all races. They also tend to face other constraints when they reach college, such as social bias, lack of peer support groups and inadequate outreach efforts from institutions.

Collectively, these findings underscore the need for cultural change at the K-12 level. First, a lot of work must be done to overcome racial and gender biases that are disenfranchising a large portion of the population. And second, expectations must be raised for all students.

Over the years, the expectation that successful students will finish high school has evolved into the expectation that they will attend college. We may need to shift again, guiding all students - and not just the 'most promising' - toward the goal of graduate education.

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