UW News

February 19, 2004

Slow economy sends top students to graduate school

The economy’s recent slump prompted growing numbers of top U.S. college graduates to hunker down in graduate school, new data show, sharply reversing course from the late 1990s when more of the brightest young Americans evidently headed for quicker-payoff careers in business and health.

By 2001, with fewer high-tech jobs beckoning, the share of top U.S. citizen scorers (above 750) on the Graduate Record Exam quantitative scale heading to graduate school in the natural sciences and engineering increased by about 31 percent compared to 1998, after having declined by 21 percent in the previous six years, according to the UW’s William Zumeta.

This recent increase is comparable to the 29 percent gain in the number of all score levels of examinees who intended to enroll in graduate school in the sciences or engineering. And the total number of GRE examinees increased by 9 percent between 1998 and 2001, suggesting that more students in a variety of fields were preparing for graduate school.

But without long-term steps to make science careers more rewarding, academia’s allure could dim again as the economy revives, said Zumeta, who, along with colleague Joyce Raveling, a UW doctoral candidate, presented the latest statistics and interpretations at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

A long-term exodus from advanced research careers could threaten America’s technological prominence, said Zumeta, a professor at the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs and College of Education.

“The high-tech economy siphoned people away from graduate school, and when the bubble burst that temporarily turned things around,” Zumeta said. “But recessions don’t last forever. The problems with our scientific institutions and their career paths remain.”

Zumeta’s concerns about the nation’s scientific future have grown over years of watching America’s highest-achieving college students — the top 5-to-7 percent of scorers on the Graduate Record Exam (those who score 750 or higher) — drift away from careers in advanced research.

He and Raveling also examined the plans of senior science majors from a group of elite private colleges — members of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education — and found that the proportion who planned to enroll in graduate school the following fall had plummeted from 47 percent of the 1984 graduates to 28 percent in 1998. The decline among students with A averages was even steeper. The proportion of all the graduates who said they had no plans for graduate school at any time in the future more than doubled.

Foreign students continued to pump intellectual energy into U.S. graduate science and engineering programs during the early 1990s. But America’s own homegrown college graduates — the highest-achieving ones — increasingly turned to relatively short postgraduate programs in business and health fields such as physical therapy, speech pathology and public health, according to results published last year by Zumeta and Raveling.

And in the late ’90s, Zumeta and Raveling found that even foreign students were coming to American graduate programs in smaller numbers — an unprecedented reversal that could further diminish the quality of U.S. graduate study. This downtrend turned around for a few years around the turn of the century but threatens to reappear with the current barriers facing would-be immigrants to the United States.

Shunning science were elite science majors — both American and foreign — who might relish advanced study but were turned off by the decade-plus apprenticeships in low-paid doctoral and postdoctoral programs, followed by bitter struggles for the few faculty posts in a logjammed academic market. The result was that from 1992 to 2000, the number of top-scoring U.S. GRE-takers headed for graduate study in mathematics fell by 19 percent and engineering by 25 percent.

“The evidence shows,” Zumeta said then, “that graduate studies in engineering and many of the natural sciences are losing ground to professional fields in attracting the top U.S. students with science backgrounds.”

The latest count, however, shows an upward bump in the share of graduate-school-bound top U.S. college students during the recent economic downturn . This was part of an overall surge in interest in graduate and professional study as private sector opportunities shriveled during the slump.

But to keep the momentum going when the economy revives, Zumeta said the federal government — which funds and guides most scientific research — must take steps to prop up the crucial demand side of the equation: career-oriented academic research jobs, not just more postdoctoral apprentice positions.

“The federal government should consider creating a new program of highly selective research assistant professor positions available to the very best of the science Ph.D. crop who have proven themselves highly productive as postdocs,” he said. “Because this would take advantage of the most productive period in the careers of many scientists by giving them the resources and autonomy to define and work on their own research projects, the benefits would surely outweigh the costs. And it would send a positive signal to the next generation of very able young people choosing between graduate studies in science and other, less lengthy paths to reasonable career security. In fact, I can’t think of a better investment.”