16 February 2012

Why not get a doctorate from Sandia, MITRE or Google instead of Michigan State, CMU or UMass?

The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | Envisioning a Post-Campus America

I can see all sorts of factors that might combine to preserve the status quo, from signaling and status and networking, to the desire of college students for a four-year debt-financed semi-vacation. On the other hand, disruption never looks inevitable until it suddenly is--if you'd told someone in 1955 that GM was going to have its lunch eaten by some Japanese upstart, they would have laughed until the tears came. So it's interesting and maybe even useful to contemplate what the college system would look like if this sort of distance learning [like MITx] becomes the norm.

1. Education will end up being dominated by a few huge incumbents.
2. Online education will kill the liberal arts degree.
3. Professors (course developers) will be selected for teaching instead of research brilliance. 4. 95% of tenure-track professors will lose their jobs.
5. The corollary of #4 is the end of universities as research centers.
6. Young job-seekers will need new ways to signal diligence.
7. The economics of graduate school will change substantially.
8. Civil society will have to substitute for the intense friend networks that are built at college.
9. The role of schooling in upward mobility will change.
10. The young will have a much lower financial burden in their 20s.
11. The tutoring industry will boom.
12. If the credentials become valuable, cheating will be a problem.
This is an interesting and provocative list. McArdle expands on and defends each of these, but I want to discuss just #7:
7. The economics of graduate school will change substantially. I'm not sure what would happen to the master's and professional degrees--would there be a market for intense, focused instruction in small class groups? Medical school yes, law school probably, social work . . . um, as long as the government requires it, I guess.

But the PhD would be radically upended. Right now, graduate students get miserly stipends in exchange for considerably easing the teaching and research loads of their professors. But in an online model, we won't need so many teachers. And the online schools will not necessarily be research centers any more.

The implication is that most students, especially outside of STEM, will have to pay for their PhDs. Which should, at the very least, take care of the oversupply problem.
I don't think wiping out traditional universities would actually matter much in my field (Comp.Sci.) because the university is so much more tangential to the process of getting a PhD than most people think.

A bit of background. A CS PhD at Maryland, which is a fairly typical large research university program, goes like this. You spend two years taking classes. Even during this time you're encouraged not to make coursework your top priority. (UMD got rid of qualifying exams years ago, but many programs still require them at this point.) Then you spend a couple of years doing preliminary work and proposing your dissertation topic. Then you spend three or so more years writing your dissertation. Then you defend it to a small panel of faculty members.

Everything centers around satisfying those five people on your dissertation committee. Everything else you do is explicitly a preliminary building up to that or a sideshow.

It's important that there's no central authority for determining what does and doesn't constitute PhD-level work. There's no CPA or Bar exam or any other standardized assay of your capability. The only thing separating a PhD from a non-PhD is the approval of less than half a dozen people who have already gotten their PhDs.

The sin qua non of having a PhD program is simply other people with PhDs. You don't need the campus and the grades and the offices and the undergrads and the rest. We could transition pretty easily into a world where independent organizations like The Santa Fe Institute or government labs like Lawrence Livermore or even industry groups like Microsoft Research granted doctorates.

You take an extra couple of semesters of courses, maybe wherever you did undergrad or maybe you go get an MS, or you pass a Qual Exam. Then you spend some years as a journeyman for someone who already has a doctorate. Then whenever a small cluster of PhDs think you're worthy, you're "graduated." It's not that different than the way we do things now, except it would decouple your coursework from your dissertation work, which would probably be a lot more efficient.

PS See also "The economics of higher non-profit and for-profit education" at Marginal Revolution.

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