Free Graduate Degrees: Is This Fair?

Some students are lucky enough to earn a free graduate degree. Others will pay tens of thousands of dollars or more for a master’s degree or PhD.

The tab – if any – often depends on what a student is studying.

If you’re bright enough to major in chemistry (an unfathomable subject for this little ole journalism major), you can get a free ride. It’s the same with many science and engineering majors. But if you want an advanced degree in business, the humanities, law or medicine, be prepared to pay dearly.

I first got a whiff of this inequity during a visit last fall with the physics chairman at Drew University in New Jersey. The chairman at this liberal arts college was telling my son Ben, a possible physics major, that he should be able to get a free graduate education just like so many of the bright kids who had gone through his department.

I mention this reality because of a commentary written by Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Prize winner and Cornell chemist, which was published this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Hoffmann  lamented the priorities of research universities in this era of shrinking education dollars. When budgets are being cut at these institutions, the dollars are being taken out of the hide of undergrad instruction, but money to pay for teaching assistants and faculty research isn’t being touched. It’s the science grad students who serve as teaching assistants for undergrad labs and who help with faculty research.

Here’s an excerpt of what Hoffmann had to say:

 Even though we are part of a major research university, we agonize, in meeting after meeting, over the 5- to 10-percent yearly cuts we need to make in our chemistry department’s budget. By and large, those end up coming from education, not research, especially in faculty replacements and teaching assistants. The same decisions are being made at most other universities.

…No rules dictate, however, how many teaching positions we can cut. So we do. The consequences are that the education of undergraduates will suffer — by our own standards, in the experience of our students, and in the perception of their bill-paying parents. It is only a matter of time before they will simply conclude that our actions are selfish.

Something’s got to give, and I think that change should be in the organization of graduate education and research.

In America, Ph.D.’s in science and engineering probably haven’t paid a cent for their graduate educations. Neither have their future employers. In chemistry, on the way to a typical five-year Ph.D., a graduate student is initially supported as a teaching assistant, working about 15 hours a week for the first two years. There follows a three-year period as a research assistant, paid by the professor’s research grants. In addition the student typically gets an annual stipend of $25,000 to $30,000 — not luxurious, but enough to live on. That pattern holds for both American doctoral students, who make up about 53 percent (in chemistry, although fewer in engineering fields) of the group, and for foreign doctoral students, who make up about 47 percent.

But it’s not as though there were a national referendum in which Americans agreed that a Ph.D. student in physics or chemistry should pay nothing for his or her education, while future physicians and doctorates in Spanish literature should pay.

With fewer education dollars to go around, universities cannot continue to conduct business as usual. The only place for holy cows is on the BBQ grill.

Learn more about college strategies by reading Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s book, The College Solution.

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