From the end of Matthew Pratt Guterl’s essay “Debt“:
There are many major issues with higher education, but the solutions to most of them are well beyond the reach of tenure-stream faculty. Chairs and department members can’t generally compel deans to do much of anything, because decisions about financial reallocation aren’t usually made by deans – they get made by Provosts and Presidents, by big donors, by trustees, and by students, who can always take their precious credit hours elsewhere.
There is, though, a metaphorical debt to be paid here. We owe graduate students a clear shot at a degree without an interest rate on the back end (so, a reasonable stipend, workshop space, and research support, but also financial counseling and informal support mechanisms). We owe them some very straight talk early in their coursework about an exit strategy if they aren’t going to make it. We owe them a direct path to the degree, and structures and cultures that make it possible for them to complete their work in decent time. We owe them degrees with somewhat flexible career outcomes. And we owe it to them to match the size of our incoming cohorts – as best as we possibly can – to the job market success of recent graduates, and not chiefly to the sometimes self-indulgent abstractions of graduate teaching.
These things are within reach. These things can be done.
Matt’s essay is part of a larger ongoing conversation happening with extra vigor, and also extra despair, right now. (I am not going to provide a pile of links here. If you are involved in training graduate students, are a graduate student, or think you want to be a graduate student, you should be plugged into this conversation. If you have not found it on your own, you should be reading Inside Higher Education and those parts of the Chronicle of Higher Education that you can access (it is not all freely accessible and not everyone has access to an institutional subscription). You should also be following the discussion on Twitter (@sarahkendzior and those whom she is in dialogue with would be a good start) and elsewhere on the open web.)
The timing of the debt discussion is particularly appropriate because right now, in research universities around the United States, academic departments with graduate programs are reviewing applications from would-be masters and doctoral students. Such departments face many hard to answer questions. Who to admit and why? How many students to admit? Of those admitted, how many will come? Will we provide financial support for some or all of those we admit? How long will it take for an admitted applicant to accomplish the learning and career goals that they are describing in their application? Can we adequately mentor and train the person we are learning about in a large but partial PDF file? What will the career prospects be for these applicants two or six or eight years from now? How is my university changing and how is the world changing and how will these changes shape the experiences of, and prospects for, these applicants?
In my own department, I am deeply involved in this process right now. No one can know exactly how to answer such questions or to perfectly do this work–and it is really work. When it is done and some of those applicants join us next fall, I will try my best to fulfill those obligations that Matt outlines in his essay. At least those things seem clear.