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Report an Extreme Disappointment

1 July 2010 1,643 views One Comment

Keith Crank has a BS in mathematics education and an MS in mathematics from Michigan State University and a PhD in statistics from Purdue University. Prior to joining the ASA as research and graduate education manager, he was a program officer at the National Science Foundation, primarily in the probability program.

The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States is a recent report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). Released in April 2010, the report attempts to provide an argument for increased attention to graduate education and recommendations for academia, industry, and government.

Since both ETS and CGS have a vested interest in graduate education, this report cannot be considered to be objective, but it could be a useful document. In statistics and biostatistics, it is certainly the case that graduate education is of utmost importance and we need to produce more graduates with both master’s and PhD degrees.

The report makes recommendations for universities, business and industry, and government. For universities, it suggests more attention be paid to recruiting the most talented undergraduates, more effort be made to reduce attrition, and more time be devoted to preparing students for careers outside of academia.

The report recommends that business and industry do more for employees (e.g., tuition reimbursement programs and lifelong learning accounts) and nonemployee students (e.g., internships, graduate fellowship programs, and endowed ‘chairs’ for graduate students).

For the federal government, the report asks for additional funds for graduate students in the form of fellowship programs, loan forgiveness, and amended tax policies to make graduate fellowships tax exempt. It also recommends funding at the master’s level, in addition to the doctoral level.

It’s not clear whether these are appropriate recommendations, since the use of data in this report is poor and often inconsistent. The author(s) don’t seem to know the difference between counts and percentages. And, much of the time, they perform what I would call a “mixed metaphor of data use.” By that, I mean they present a piece of information in the form of a data point, and then try to use it to make an argument that is unrelated to the piece of data.

As an example of inconsistency, I refer to Page 14. At the top of the page, the report mentions a 7% increase in the age cohort for graduate students (probably ages 25–35 based on other information in the report) over a 10-year period (either 2000–2010 or 1997–2007; it’s impossible to tell). At the bottom of the same page, the age cohort changes to include those who would be undergraduates and the time frame is 1995–2005. For this age cohort, they get a 13% increase in the 10-year period. It’s not clear why they couldn’t use the same time period and age cohort, and they give no explanation for the difference.

On Page 26, they discuss “stay rates,” the percentage of international students receiving a PhD in the United States who are still in the United States five years later. The report says, “… [I]f the mix of international graduate students is increasing, a proportional increase in the stay rate is needed to keep the total number of doctoral graduates living in the [United States] constant.” Since there has been an increase in PhD degrees awarded by U.S. institutions to both U.S. and foreign students, the stay rates would need to decrease to keep the total number of doctoral graduates living in the United States constant. (I don’t believe we want to keep the total number of doctoral graduates living in the United States constant. In statistics and biostatistics, demand is increasing, so we need to produce more PhDs.)

My final example from the report is at the bottom of Page 7. The report says, “For example, only slightly more than one quarter of students receiving an undergraduate degree in 1992–1993 had earned a graduate degree, either master’s or doctorate, or a first professional degree 10 years later, despite the fact that graduate enrollments have risen by about 50% since the early 1980s (from 1.4 million to 2.3 million).” The report seems to imply that the fraction (one quarter) in the first part of the sentence should be comparable to the percentage (50%) used in the second part of the sentence, even though they are fractions/percentages of totally different objects. (And an increase from 1.4 million to 2.3 million is an increase of almost 65%.)

I was excited to hear about this report, as someone who believes graduate education is important. I had hoped it would provide additional reasons to increase support for graduate students. Unfortunately, it did not. Although it is likely to be cited extensively by advocates of graduate education, this report is a mishmash of inconsistent and sometimes contradictory information. I was extremely disappointed. That it comes from the ETS, which is supposedly testing our students on their ability to reason, and the CGS, which is expected to train our graduate students, is even more disappointing.

To contact me, send an email to keith@amstat.org. Questions or comments about this article, as well as suggestions for future articles, are always welcome.

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