The Master's Trap

What makes a graduate program predatory?

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Looking back, Chris realizes he was in a pretty vulnerable state when he showed up at the admitted students day for the Master’s of Arts Program in Humanities (MAPH) program at the University of Chicago. 

For undergrad, he’d attended a “public Ivy,” where he’d excelled. But after moving to New York to try and make it in publishing, he’d found himself in one mind-numbing temp job after another. So he did what so many other high-achieving students struggling to transfer the legible success of their academic careers to spaces outside the classroom do. He applied to grad school. 

Amidst the sea of rejection letters that followed, there was a small, consolatory note from the University of Chicago. He hadn’t been admitted to the English PhD program, but there was an offer for the one-year MAPH — a program to which he hadn’t even applied. When he showed up in Chicago to make his decision, he recalls his hosts “pulling out all the stops.” There was a fancy dinner, and a screening of Jacques Tati’s Playtime. Prospective students were invited to sit in on classes, including those with famous faculty like Martha Nussbaum. 

“I remember coming back from Chicago feeling like I’d finally found an elevated place where I belonged,” he told me. “I barreled over my parents’ warnings about the debt I was taking on.” 

Today, tuition for one year of Master's Study at the University of Chicago is $62,640. The cost of living, supplies, and additional quarterly fees during that year force most students to borrow an additional $30,000, if not more. For this story, I spoke to more than two dozen students who’d either attended or declined offers from MAPH or its “sister” program for social science grad prospects, MAPSS. A handful of scholarships (covering no more than half of tuition) are available, but significant loans are the norm. According to the most current data available, the median debt taken out by an MAPH graduate, not including undergraduate debt, is $65,471. The median graduate salary of those who took out loans, two years after graduation: $37,928. 

On paper — or in admitted students events like the one Chris attended — the MAPH program can be incredibly attractive. It brings together high-achieving, ambitious students from across the humanities, and invites them to design their own course of study. There are weekly cocktail hours, and pizza parties and special mentors, just for them. The spoken and unspoken message: you didn’t get grad school this time. But you’re grad school material!

Students told me that in practice, MAPH and MAPSS attendees are often treated as second-class students, and must convince professors to allow them into courses and perform elaborate courting rituals to find one willing to serve as a thesis advisor. Students from PhD programs in other departments told me that it was an “open secret” that the MAPH was a “cash cow” for the university. One MAPH graduate told me of a professor who only allowed students into his seminar if they agreed not to speak during the first half of class. 

Back in 2011, a University of Chicago faculty committee charged with studying the programs found that “in terms of both size and the quality of students, these programs had become a source of considerable and unacceptable strain”; the chair of the committee conveyed “faculty dissatisfaction with the admissions process” which “led some to adopt a skeptical view of [the program’s intellectual legitimacy.” The committee recommended shrinking both programs. And yet, since 2015, MAPSS enrollment has grown by 146 percent — and MAPH has grown by 165 percent.  

Charles — who, like many people in this story, asked that his name be changed to protect his current employment situation — arrived at the MAPH through a similar route. When he was a high-achieving senior at a state school, he applied to a bunch of PhD programs, was rejected from all of them, and his application was “forwarded” to the MAPH program, who then extended him an offer. 

“I was, I think, a little overawed by the jump from a rather anonymous school to a big prestigious campus in the big city and decided I was in,” he told me. It was the peak of the financial crisis; the only other immediate option was to stick around his college town and wait for his girlfriend to graduate. He ended up taking out over $60,000 in student loans to cover his year in the program. More than a decade later, his payments still haven’t dented the principal. 

The same thing happened to Sarah Welch-Larson, who graduated from the MAPH program in 2016. During her senior year at a small Christian college, she had applied to a PhD program in Linguistics at the University of Chicago. She was rejected, but subsequently accepted by MAPH. Since graduating, she’s been able to pay off the debt she accumulated through the program, but only because her father passed down his post 9/11 GI-funding to her.

Alice, who went to a midwestern state school, doubled majored in French and Film Studies and thought that if she could just continue in academia, she’d get to study those things forever. She applied to three programs her professors had repeatedly mentioned, including Chicago. Two of the programs rejected her with a form letter. But Chicago told her the MAPH could make her a more attractive PhD candidate, and she was sold. Her parents hadn’t gone to grad school and weren’t, in her words, “particularly career-minded.” This was back in 2004, and she took out between $35-40,000 to cover tuition, plus tens of thousands of additional loans to cover living expenses. 

There was no one in her life who advised her otherwise. “I was so young and naive,” she said.

All of the alumni of the University of Chicago MAPH and MAPSS I spoke to recognize the benefits of the programs. They made great friends. Their academic writing skills improved. One told me she became “the thinker I am today” in part because of the program; another used it as a springboard to find work as a community college adjunct. Some regret it fully; others hesitate to go that far, because it ultimately made them who they are today, but struggle to talk about it. As Chris put it to me, “admitting in any way how it’s predatory would also expose the vulnerabilities that made me want to do it in the first place.”

The question isn’t whether or not these programs have redeeming value. It’s whether or not that value is equal the very real long-term costs. 

MAPH and MAPSS are not unique. A host of graduate programs implicitly or explicitly exploit student naïveté about what a graduate degree can or will provide. Their prospective students are diverse: a mix of first generation college students without mentors to guide them, high achievers enthralled by their perception of the academic lifestyle, international students desperate for a Green Card, students lacking the prestigious undergraduate degree or network needed to gain entry into exclusive creative industries, and students who believe that the degree they earn will be the career collateral they need to be successful. 

As cash flow centers for the institution and, on a smaller scale, for the department, these programs accept far more students than can be accommodated by PhD programs (in the humanities) or find gainful, long-term employment in their field of choice. There is often little meaningful or readily accessible data on the trajectories or salary levels or recent graduates; try Googling most grad programs and “average debt load” or “average salary” and you’ll scroll for pages without an answer. But there are anecdotes of students who’ve made it work, which then become proof that prospective students can make it work, too. 

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal published a piece detailing the staggering amounts of loans undertaken by Master’s students at Columbia. The stats from the piece are stunning: at least 43% of those with student loans for elite master’s degrees hadn’t paid down their original debt or were behind on payments; Columbia MFA graduates borrowed a median $135,000 a year; the School of Social Work trumpeted an increase in their number of full-tuition awards from 2 to 12…..out of 560 students.

But the quote that stuck with me was from Julie Kornfeld, Columbia’s vice provost for academic programs. In her words: master’s degrees “can and should be a revenue source.” 

Which is how you get six figure student debt figures for MFA students, for graduates of one-year “accelerated” journalism programs and even, depending on the location, two year out-of-state Master’s programs. It’s why graduate students make up just 15% of the total number of post-secondary students — and are responsible for 40% of the total loan balance.

The WSJ piece is excellent. But its tight focus on Columbia elides how similar dynamics play out at hundreds of institutions across the country. 

So how did we get here? The simplest explanation is that graduate programs became incredibly lucrative. Undergraduates have strict limits on the amount of federal loans they can take out in a single year so as to prevent over-borrowing. But since the early 2000s, graduate students have had access to effectively uncapped amounts of Graduate PLUS federal loans. (The reasons for this are complicated but the results are straightforward: from 2011 to 2018, undergraduate borrowing declined by $15 billion. Graduate borrowing increased by $2.3 billion. From 1999 to 2016, the average accumulative loans, adjusted for inflation, have steadily increased for MAs and nearly doubled for PhDs). 

Back in 2015, the Department of Education began enforcing “gainful employment” rules to regulate this phenomenon in for-profit institutions. If the ratio between average debt and salary two years after graduation is too high for too many years in a row, students can no longer apply for federal student loans to attend it. In essence: the money spigot gets turned off, and the program loses its value to the for-profit school. There’s no similar rule for non-profit colleges and universities.

If you’re a university administrator, you can see the draw of the masters-as-revenue-source. The demand is there. All you have to do is accept enough people, offer very little financial aid, and harvest tuition money. Of course, not all master’s programs function in this manner — and as Brendan Cantwell pointed out earlier this week, there was no significant bump in master’s enrollments after the creation of Graduate PLUS Loans. The problem isn’t really the number of Master’s students so much as the amount of debt students are taking on to cover unfunded and escalating tuition — particularly in fields where they will likely struggle to find sustainable employment.

People who write and talk about student debt know that for-profit colleges are the worst offenders when it comes to predatory recruitment practices. They target veterans, single mothers, students of color, and first generation students. They have horrible graduation rates. If you don’t want to listen to me on this, listen to Tressie McMillan Cottom, who wrote the book on for-profit colleges. You can see how non-profit institutions — whether big, in-state public universities or small, private liberal arts colleges — want their brands as distanced from for-profits as possible, even when they literally purchase one. Those institutions are in it for the money, the messaging goes — our institution is in it for the learning.

But let’s be real: many (not all!) of these master’s programs are employing for-profit practices with prestige lighting. And it’s not just the profit-making component of these grad programs that bear resemblance to “Lower Ed.” Both are propagators and beneficiaries of the spread of what McMillan Cottom calls credentialism, e.g., the process through which students take ever-increasing financial risks and burdens in order to craft themselves into the sort of candidate who will succeed in a job market where employers 1) offload the cost of job “training” onto students themselves and 2) use the credentials as an easy way to winnow their applicant pools. In other words, the process through which the MA is becoming the new BA. 

But there are also differences worth parsing. Many of these master’s programs have refined a mode of recruitment that caters to a deeply American sensibility. They’re meritocracy traps, engineered to attract students who’ve been inculcated with the idea that they’re smart enough, good enough, and most importantly, hard-working enough to beat the exceptional odds against their success, or even just earning a living wage, in their chosen field of study. If you try to shut down programs with poor debt-to-income ratios, it might de-escalate the crisis. But it won’t fix all of the problems that animate it. 

At this point, it’s useful to divide these programs into larger categories to talk more about their mechanisms and magnetism, both also their quality and utility. Some are, indeed, “the second-biggest scams in higher education.” But most aren’t anywhere near as clear-cut. 

And so, as a publishing experiment — and an attempt to engage people who might shy from a a 7000 word piece — I’m going to divide the rest of this discussion into two parts, published over the course of the week to come.

The next installment, which outlines the differences between “Prestige Grabs,” “Only Visible Routes,” and “Career Collateral,” is available here. The final section will go up next week. (You can sign up here to make sure you see it). In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts, reading suggestions, institutions and programs and policy suggestions to explore. You can comment below, or send me an email, or find me on Sidechannel. I’ve already drafted the forthcoming sections, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be better.

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