Doctorate Manpower: Forecasts and Policy

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Manpower Analysis and Social Values

In a recent article entitled, "Manpower Management and Higher Education," Howard R. Bowen poses one of the central value issues of public philosophy regarding higher education:

A nation's system of higher education can be managed according to two basic principles: the manpower principle, where the objective is to produce the right number of persons for various vocations and professions, and the free-choice principle, where the objective is to supply education in response to the choices of students. The nations of the world differ in their relative emphasis on these two principles. In general, the socialist and developing nations stress the manpower principle. The United States throughout its history has stressed the free-choice principle. The preferences of the nations of western Europe lie somewhere between the extremes.

In the United States, the free-choice principle is under attack and increasing attention is given to the manpower principle. American higher education is widely criticized for allegedly producing too many of certain kinds of manpower, especially engineers and Ph.D.'s, or for simply producing too many persons with higher education. It is often asserted that the labor market cannot absorb the numbers being educated in specific fields or all fields, that the nation should move away from the free-choice principle toward the manpower principle, and that higher education should be rationed according to manpower requirements.1

We believe that the manpower planning approach to graduate education is entirely too limited to be accepted as the basis for public policy toward graduate education. Graduate education is more than investment in human capital and more than a means to train people for specific jobs, although it includes both of these. Graduate education—like all education worthy of the name—is a process of human development for those who are capable and are motivated. We support the principle of free choice for students and believe that it would be a serious error in public policy to close off opportunities to potential graduate students on the basis of a centralized manpower plan, or because the "investment" may not return the market rate of interest. Economic analysis is an important input to public policy, but efficiency is only one of the values among many that should determine public policy.

While asserting the importance of other values in supporting the free-choice principle, we also recognize that most students are deeply interested in the economic significance of a decision to enroll in graduate school. For this reason, we believe that the best possible information about future labor market conditions should be available not only to students, but also to faculty advisors, university administrators, legislators, and others whose decisions are affected by projected economic conditions. Potential graduate students will act in their own best interests—and in the interests of society—only to the degree that their decisions are based on sound information. We believe that the efficient outcomes stressed by economists can be approximated by the informed operation of the free-choice principle, although in our imperfect world, reliance on the free-choice principle will inevitably result in some inefficiency in the sense that labor markets for the highly educated will periodically experience excess supplies of, or excess demands for, particular occupational skills. Improved information and better understanding of the dynamics of such labor markets can reduce this inefficiency, but will never eliminate it entirely. We believe, however, that this is a reasonable price to pay in order to maintain the right of each citizen to choose the amount of education and type of occupation that he or she desires and is capable of attaining.

Limitations of Current Labor Market Forecasts for Doctorates

If any single issue has dominated recent discussion about graduate education, it is the abrupt reversal of the buoyant labor market for doctorates that characterized the late 1950s and much of the 1960s. In retrospect, it is clear that many of the current problems of graduate education are a result of inadequate planning during this period of growth, during which federal, state, and institutional policies were based on short-run needs only. Insufficient attention and inadequate resources were devoted to long-range planning and analysis, which are essential if major dislocations within the labor market and within universities are to be avoided.

During this period of rapidly rising demand for Ph.D.'s, policies were developed for support of graduate students and for the expansion of doctoral granting programs on the apparent assumption that the "boom" would never end. Inevitably, the "boom" ended, taking many by surprise and causing severe dislocations in the career plans of some students as well as in the developmental plans of many universities.

The obvious lesson of this recent experience is the need for improved information and analysis of the factors that affect the labor market for doctorates and a need for governmental policies which are more than short-run responses to immediate conditions, but which are based on a sophisticated understanding of the multiple-year dynamics of the doctorate labor market. However, the recent abrupt shifts in federal policy toward graduate education—for example, the rapid reduction in the number of predoctoral students supported on federal fellowships and traineeships from 51,446 in Fiscal Year 1968 to an estimated 6,600 in Fiscal Year 1974—indicate that federal policy is dominated by immediate labor market concerns with little cognizance of long-run policy considerations.

Enrollment in higher education is still increasing at about 5% per year. The rate of increase is going down steadily, however. Demographic factors will reduce increases to less than 1 percent by 1980, with the possibility of an absolute decline in enrollment in the early 1980's. Since approximately 50 percent of new doctorates have traditionally entered college and university employment, and since academic demand for faculty is largely a function of higher education enrollments, this points to dramatic reductions in demand for new faculty by the early 1980's. When this is compared with projections of total new doctorate supply, the percentage of new Ph.D.'s who must find employment in nonacademic occupations in the next decade is seen to be growing.

Since the projected reduction in academic demand and the employment (or underemployment) difficulties experienced by some Ph.D.'s in recent years have become central to federal, state, university, and student reactions, it is essential to note the limitations of the analysis and of the "science" of manpower forecasting in general:

1. Only academic demand for doctorates is examined in these figures; projected nonacademic demands of industry, governments, and nonprofit institutions, and foreign demand for doctorates are not treated systematically.

2. The figure compares academic demand for doctorates with supply of doctorates, without regard to discipline.

3. Supply projections are often simple extrapolations of past behavior, ignoring the responses of students, universities, and governments to changing market conditions. We know, however, that the publicity that surrounds projections of a declining academic labor market influences some potential doctoral students to consider alternative careers. Reductions in fellowship support increase the private cost of graduate education and thereby reduce effective demand for it. Some university faculties react by reducing the size of doctoral programs, and some programs are abandoned altogether.

The principal conclusions of our survey of the state of labor market forecasting for doctorates can be summarized:

1. Of the three market phenomena we have examined—academic demand, nonacademic demand, and supply—we have substantial confidence in the forecasts of only one, the constantly diminishing academic demand through the 1980's, since demographic factors dominate this analysis. We consider the size and disciplinary composition of future graduating doctoral classes to be very uncertain, and the nature and magnitude of future nonacademic demand to be poorly understood. These gaps in knowledge cannot be filled by consulting the existing literature but will require a major research effort.

2. Although this nation has made an enormous investment in graduate education, too few resources have been devoted to monitoring the system. Monitoring is needed in order to provide continuous and comparable information on trends in graduate enrollment; job placements and salaries of recent graduates; distribution of students, graduate student support funds, and research funds among fields and institutions; information on career patterns of doctorates; and information on graduate enrollment trends for women and minority students. Moreover, existing information must be pieced together from disparate sources that often use different definitions, rendering comparison over time or among institutions extremely difficult. This haphazard process of data collection makes it virtually impossible to describe accurately the current state of graduate education, much less to measure the impacts of such federal policies as the recent reduction of fellowship support. If the free-choice principle that we support is to function effectively, good information is essential for students, faculty, administrators, state-wide planners, and government policy makers.

3. In determining policy with respect to support of graduate education, the federal government places too much stress on the immediate state of the labor market, resulting in stop-and-go policies that are inefficient in the long run. Abrupt changes in federal policy place a heavy burden on those students whose educational career plans are suddenly altered, and on faculty, administrators, state government officials, and others concerned with the continued effectiveness of universities in performing their responsibilities for graduate education and research.

These conclusions about the state of Ph.D. labor market forecasting explain our unease with simplistic references to a "Ph.D. glut" and associated policies that would "solve the problem" by rapid reduction in financial support for graduate education and graduate students. We believe that graduate education was worth the large investment of federal, state, philanthropic, and private funds during the past two decades, and we believe it is false economy to threaten that investment with short-run policies based upon minimal and inadequate analysis. The recommendations that follow suggest several actions that will improve the environment for decision and policy making with respect to graduate education.

Recommendation No. 1

Short-run, stop-and-go policies toward graduate education and research are highly destabilizing and very inefficient, whatever their origin or motivation. Abrupt shifts in federal policy can be particularly damaging, given the federal government's significant role in supporting research and graduate students.

The federal government must recognize that rapid changes in policy create serious problems for students, universities, states, and other agencies that must ameliorate insofar as possible the results of unpredictable fluctuations in federal support. Major changes in federal policy should be based upon careful evaluation of their impact and should be implemented over several years through a phased process that is coordinated with the affected states and universities.

Recommendation No. 2

Graduate education is the primary process through which research skills are developed and knowledge increased, activities that are essential to the nation's economic and cultural development. Although market demands for research and for highly educated manpower will fluctuate with the nation's priorities, it is essential that the most academically talented young people in each college graduating class are assured access to high-quality graduate education. Labor market analysis stresses quantity supplied and demanded, but the quality of that supply is of primary importance. Any public policy resulting in reduction of the growth in numbers of new doctorates must include features that ensure the continuous high quality of doctorate supply. The nation cannot afford the talent loss that would result if our most intellectually gifted citizens were denied access to graduate education.

We urge the federal government to accept responsibility for ensuring that the most academically talented young people in each college graduating class have the opportunity to attend high-quality graduate institutions. Competitive federal fellowship programs, such as the NSF predoctoral science fellowship program, should be maintained and broadened through the appropriate federal agencies to cover all academic disciplines—humanities, social sciences, life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering.

Recommendation No. 3

The federal government and the universities should accept joint responsibility for ensuring access to, and successful completion of, graduate degree programs for minority group members. Similar responsibility should be exercised to ensure opportunities for women to enroll in graduate degree programs in fields where they have historically been underrepresented.

Recommendation No. 4

Only the federal government has the capability and authority to collect consistent and comprehensive data on trends pertinent to the labor market for highly educated manpower, and we urge it to exercise this responsibility. At a minimum, these data should include enrollment trends by field and institution; trends in financial support for graduate students by field and institution; job placements and salaries of graduates, as well as analysis of unemployment and underemployment; trends in research and development expenditures, and the distribution of these expenditures by type of institution and source of funds. Continuously revised projections of the future market for the various types of highly trained manpower are also needed. In addition to collecting and providing such information, the federal government should encourage and support research and analytical efforts using these data, including attempts to develop systematic models that incorporate the labor market analysis for highly trained manpower within existing economic models of the national economy, and one agency must be assigned responsibility for coordinating the total effort, which will necessarily involve seeking information and assistance from a variety of public and private organizations.

In addition to collecting pertinent data and disseminating analyses and information to interested users, the coordinating agency should help to identify and to support research efforts on policy issues affecting government relations with respect to graduate education. The National Board on Graduate Education is concerned about the dearth of solid research findings that can be drawn upon in developing policy for graduate education. The following represent just a few of the topics in need of study if sound policy is to be developed:

1. the functioning of the labor market for highly trained manpower;

2. the effects of various forms of fellowship and other financial support mechanisms on graduate student enrollments, attrition rates, and time to degree;

3. the behavior of nonprofit institutions, such as universities, to determine likely institutional responses to various policy changes;

4. the impact of different pricing policies for graduate education;

5. the regional impact of graduate universities; and

6. improved methods for assessing financial need in providing financial support for graduate students.

Recommendation No. 5

While the federal government plays a central role in supporting research and graduate students, state governments bear primary responsibility for basic institutional support of public universities. This plurality of funding sources is one of the great strengths of American graduate education, but it also creates complicated interaction effects among the funding agencies. During the 1960s, much of the expansion of graduate education was fueled by federal grants, and the reduction of federal support in the 1970s has placed a heavy burden on many states. Understandably, state legislatures and statewide planning agencies are reviewing graduate programs with an eye toward eliminating "inefficient" programs, curtailing proliferation of graduate programs, encouraging interinstitutional and regional cooperation in the sharing of resources, and seeking cost savings wherever they can be found. This activity can contribute to the health of graduate education if it is conducted with an understanding of the complexities of graduate education and with regard for justifiable claims of institutional autonomy.

In the performance of their planning duties, state governments should examine carefully the need for additional degree programs. Existing programs should be reviewed in terms of need, quality, and output. On the other hand, if graduate education is to remain viable and diverse with respect to the types of students enrolled, if it is to be available in major urban areas, and is to serve varied markets for highly educated manpower, opportunities for new programs and new combinations of talent should remain open. New doctoral programs that simply duplicate existing programs insofar as access and objectives are concerned should not be approved in the next several years.

Two trends seem to be emerging in statewide analysis of doctoral programs. One approach, recommended by the New York State Board of Regents Commission on Doctoral Education, would establish high standards of quality for graduate education and insist that universities not meeting these standards abandon their doctoral degree programs. The other approach, recommended by several states, including California, Washington, and Kansas, would establish certain minimal measures of productivity, such as number of degrees awarded, and eliminate programs that do not meet these standards.

Whatever the approach, we believe the following guidelines should be followed:

1. A single measure of quality should not be applied to very diverse programs—programs that may be serving the needs of nontraditional students for nontraditional forms of graduate education. Multiple indicators of quality, sensibly related to different program missions, should be developed.

2. Statewide planners should resist the temptation to apply simplistic formulas to doctoral programs, such as "eliminate any program that has not produced more than two doctorates in the last two years." Such statistical measures may flag programs in need of review, but no program should be eliminated on the basis of simple statistics alone.

3. When evaluating graduate programs, planners should not attempt state-by-state labor market analyses, since the mobility of the highly educated is certain to confound such analyses. A more appropriate criterion, we believe, is assured access to graduate education for residents within the state (or within the region, through reciprocal programs).

Just as we urged the federal government not to overreact to current labor market imbalances, so we also urge state governments to take a long-run view in supporting graduate universities. The lengthy process of building excellent graduate programs can be undone very rapidly, and when these programs need to be built again, as some of them surely will, the costs will be enormous.

Recommendation No. 6

Our final recommendation focuses on a topic of intense concern to all who worry about the intellectual vitality of the nation's universities and the continued development of the academic disciplines—the impact of a prolonged period of slow (or no) growth on the age and composition of university faculties. The vitality of most academic disciplines requires the continuous renewal that new Ph.D.'s bring to the university, and yet many universities are now staffed by a high proportion of tenured faculty, with relatively few retirements expected in the next decade. The nation can ill afford to lose the intellectual excitement and vigor that the brightest young professors provide on every campus.

University administrators and faculty should explore every avenue possible to ensure a continuing flow of young faculty members into academic departments. Several alternative means toward this end have been proposed, including earlier retirements, changes in tenure concepts, and reducing the proportion of undergraduate teaching that is done by graduate students. There is at present insufficient evidence and too much institutional variation to permit specific recommendations, except to call attention to the gravity of the problem in a new era of slow (or no) growth.


1Howard R. Bowen, "Manpower Management and Higher Education," Educational Record, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Winter, 1973), p. 5.

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Last modified on Monday, 12/11/2018

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