Blogs > Cliopatria > Tracking Humanities Students, Obama-Style

Mar 12, 2009 6:05 pm

Tracking Humanities Students, Obama-Style

In a major education address earlier this week, President Obama made the following observation:

Far too few states have data systems like the one in Florida that keep track of a student’s education from childhood through college. And far too few districts are emulating the example of Houston and Long Beach, and using data to track how much progress a student is making and where that student is struggling.

We need the same thing in humanities graduate programs. Within history doctoral programs, for instance, the dropout rate is about 50 percent. The recently-passed stimulus legislation has made $250 million available for educational data systems. I believe the time to act is now.

This concern was raised five years ago by the American Historical Association's Committee on Graduate Education:

The Committee found surprisingly little departmental concern about attrition. Very few departments conduct exit interviews to learn why students are leaving. Instead, anecdote and opinion reign—especially the opinion that most attrition can be accounted for by the students' own needs or (in)capacities. In fact, attrition is more complicated and important than that. On an individual level, attrition has obvious costs for the students involved, while on a programmatic level patterns of attrition may say something important about the admissions process, the intellectual content and quality of the program, and the departmental culture. We therefore strongly recommend better data collection and exit interviews.

Too many history departments show too little concern for their doctoral students. If the dropout rate is 10 to 15 percent in business, law, and medicine professional programs, there is no excuse for why it can't be similar in the humanities. I would like to see student tracking used to improve retention in history doctoral programs and to hold those programs more accountable. I sincerely hope the AHA and like-minded associations will coordinate efforts to tap into newly-available federal dollars and improve our tracking of students in humanities doctoral programs.

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Sterling Fluharty - 3/13/2009

They count for something, but they are only part of the picture, and probably only a fraction of the overall measure we should be taking. I think chapters 2 and 3 in _The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century_ cover most of the important metrics by which we should measure the success of our history graduate programs.

What you say about colleges and universities with endowments was probably true as of last semester. Now I am not so sure. There are a lot of hiring freezes and reduction of staff taking place. Funding and benefits for graduate students may also be cut.

I also think there should be Pell Grants for masters students. This could solve many of the problems you describe.

Sage Ross - 3/13/2009

Are attrition rate and graduation rate really the proper metrics to evaluate the success of graduate programs?

The institutions in the best financial shape are the ones that can bring their grad students all the way through. Rewarding those places with even more funding might simply amplify the distinction between rich and poor graduate programs.

Of course, there are many more humanities PhDs being earned than there are faculty positions for them. So a financial feedback loop like that might push small programs with little funding over the brink so that they stop taking students (which in turn puts more pressure on faculty for teaching, which possibly results in the creation of new faculty positions to relieve some of that load).

Unfortunately there is plenty of incentive (both financial and disciplinary) for taking on graduate students even when little funding is available. (Or maybe fortunately, if one views having more humanities PhDs as a social good, regardless of the number of humanities-specific jobs available. I guess it comes down to the balance between scholarship as a job and scholarship as a vocation.)

Sterling Fluharty - 3/13/2009

Great point. I think we will see with Obama's education budget that data systems for student tracking will comprise a very small fraction of the overall money allocated. The same thing will need to be true for the humanities and graduate programs in general. Now let's link to the other part of Obama's educational goals. Part of holding schools accountable is rewarding the best teachers with the most pay. The same thing should apply to history doctoral programs. We should be awarding more money to the programs that reduce attrition and improve graduation rates and reducing funding for programs that have poor retention and graduation rates.

Tim Lacy - 3/13/2009


Although I like what you're saying and what you've proposed, if this tracking system involves a significant sum of money, it should be spent on directly funding humanities students. I mean, why do we need to spend money tracking when we know that an important part of the problem is money? State another way, I'd hate to spend too much money to find out that 75 percent of the reasons that humanities students don't finish is a lack of sufficient funding.

- Tim