As the crisis in graduate education comes to light, cultural attitudes about grad school are taking a decidedly negative turn. Media outlets (most notably U.S. News & World Report) have benefited enormously from the graduate-school mania of the last few decades, which may help explain why systemic problems in higher education have not received more attention from the media. Job insecurity is at least partially to blame for the extreme reluctance of academics and administrators to criticize the system upon which their livelihoods depend.
However, in 2003, Professor William Pannapacker (writing under the pseudonym Thomas H. Benton) bravely published a piece entitled “So You Want to Go to Grad School?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the major trade journal of American academe. The Chronicle deserves credit for publishing that essay, and the series of Thomas H. Benton columns on the problems of graduate school that followed it. A recent installment was entitled “The Big Lie about the ‘Life of the Mind.’” The comments posted by readers of those columns reveal the heartbreak and disappointment of so many who are products of the graduate-school machine, as does this open letter to Thomas H. Benton. Over the past two years, attention has also turned to the stability of the higher education establishment itself, with academic insiders like Joseph Marr Cronin and Howard Horton and law professor Glenn Reynolds comparing the “bubble” in higher education to the hyper-inflated housing market before the real-estate bust (see Reason 27). Meanwhile, economist Richard Vedder has pointed out statistics that suggest that college has proven of little practical use to millions of college graduates, and has more recently considered graduate degrees.