When Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Thomas Pollard issued a lengthy list of recommendations for improving doctoral programs last week, he intended to give students and professors food for thought.
In addition to his 20 pages of suggestions for bolstering mentorship and other aspects of the Graduate School, Pollard also released a wealth of little-known data, including admissions statistics and information on student outcomes, as well as the estimated financial burden students in each department represent for the Graduate School. Five of six chairs and directors of graduate studies interviewed said that the statistics might inspire some departments to change, but some questioned whether the data should be trusted, given its age and the metrics Pollard used to compare departments.
Pollard’s study used degree completion rates and time-to-degree statistics for cohorts entering Graduate School programs between 1996 and 2003.
“For my department, some of [the data] dated back to a time of a different faculty and graduate students,” said Music Department chairman Daniel Harrison GRD ’86. “So much has changed between now and then. [But] I think Pollard gets that.”
In his report, Pollard acknowledges that he faced limitations in collecting statistics, and at one point writes that the median time-to-degree measure fails to account for students who left Yale without finishing their doctoral degrees. This measure is “hard to interpret and may even be misleading,” he writes, and the report calls for better data collection measures in the future.
Still, Pollard found trends in graduate education using the data that he was able to gather: The study states that programs in which a high percentage of students finish their degrees also tend to graduate students in less time.
Eckart Frahm, DGS of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, said the data Pollard released is misleading given natural discrepancies among academic disciplines and programs.
“Comparing completely different departments and programs at Yale by providing information, among other things, on median years to degree and net cost per student establishes a hierarchy that is very problematic,” Frahm said. “It is meaningless to know that students in NELC need more time to finish their dissertations than, for example, students in mathematics.”
Instead, he said, programs should be compared to peer departments across the nation instead of within the University.
In comparing the cost of educating students in various academic programs, Pollard calculated costs in individual programs and in three general disciplines — humanities, natural sciences and social sciences.
The Graduate School guarantees full funding for five years to all graduate students, and it meets this obligation to provide tuition, student stipends and other benefits through several different sources. University endowment income accounts for $38 million annually, and outside sources such as research grants, training grants, fellowships and departmental endowments combine to contribute $54 million per year.
In general, science and engineering students receive a larger portion of their funding from outside sources, such as research grants, so they pose smaller financial burdens to the Graduate School. The net six-year cost to the Graduate School for a student in a natural science program is $17,421 on average. That statistic rises to $126,339 for a social sciences student and $143,170 for a humanities student.
The report offers no recommendations based on Pollard’s financial findings in the financial data. Pollard said he simply wanted to give faculty members more information about how the Graduate School works.
Pollard said few administrators were familiar with the data before he presented it to them, and no faculty members had ever seen the financial statistics.
“I wanted people to understand how much effort some programs put into funding their graduate programs and how much the graduate school puts into it,” Pollard said.
Anthropology Department chairman Richard Bribiescas said he thinks the data may encourage “greater awareness” of best practices and highlight areas where there is room for improvement within academic departments. But Frahm said he thinks that comparing programs in this way might do more harm than good.
“Transparency is fine, but making these statistics public looks a little like a ‘divide et impera’ [‘divide and rule’] approach vis-à-vis departments,” Frahm said.
Provost Peter Salovey, who served as dean of the Graduate School from January 2003 to July 2004, said he believes Pollard’s motivation for releasing the statistics with his report was pure.
“His sharing of these data, I suspect, is meant to stimulate conversation about graduate education,” Salovey said. “I know it is not meant to embarrass anyone or any program.”
When the report was released on Thursday, Pollard said he had already met with faculty leaders from 20 of the graduate programs individually to discuss his report. He said he plans to meet with representatives from the rest of the programs soon.