What makes a graduate program predatory?
The credentialism is real! I'm a librarian, which is a field that already requires its own masters degree (don't get me started on that), but since I work in higher ed, unless you have a second masters, you probably won't get interviewed or hired anywhere. When the search was open for my boss's position, the position description only required the single masters degree in library science; but my credential-loving library director only interviewed people with PhDs.
After I had been at my current job for a while, I took a minute to read through my actual job description (which wasn't available to me when I actually applied to the job, because it's "proprietary"), and found that because my job was described more as an instructional designer-type job, which has very little to do with my day-to-day work, I was actually graded in a lower salary band because my job didn't actually even require the library science masters! I had been told that a large part of the reason I was hired is because I have two masters.
tl;dr You need a masters (or more) to get the job, but then you're not actually paid as if you have the masters.
Another aspect of this credentialism is how these programs are staffed by academics who can't get tenure-track positions but are desperate to work in "academia." A number of my fellow PhDs have taken roles as directors and coordinators of these "cash cow" programs and it's a nightmare job. The students are pissed about the quality of the programs and demand more than they're getting (rightfully so, for $50k/year!) -- and they have to be regarded more as customers than students. These programs are just an extension of the academic pyramid scheme and it's really awful.
This is super interesting as someone who flirted with the idea of doing grad school in the humanities / social sciences but ended up deciding to get a MBA instead. I will say that while MBAs are wildly expensive (over 70K in tuition alone), especially at my M7 program, it was fascinating how much detailed salary / job numbers were provided as a prospective student (down to sector breakdowns, % of students receiving nonprofit fellowships the school provided vs. those that applied, etc.), versus the "soft sell" focused on the life of the mind of more academic programs. I kind of preferred the transactional nature of the MBA admissions process - "we are charging you a lot because this credential will make you lots of money afterwards, and tuition/COA is basically mapped onto your willingness to pay given this projected return" despite the fact that I would've 100% been an academic if it were just up to me - I guess if I'm going to be a commodity, I at least appreciated the institution being honest about it.
I'm the parent of a rising senior in high school and I see some of the same themes in the college application "game." The marketing to my daughter by schools that are way out of her reach is sickening to watch. These schools, like University of Chicago!, are eager for her application fee and her presence in the increasing denominator of applicants (while keeping the numerator quite fixed.) Worst of all, it's emotionally manipulative of these schools to make her think she has a chance when she has essentially none of being admitted. It's quite disgusting.
The meritocracy aspect is so key. I graduated from undergrad in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in English from a small liberal arts college and it was the recession so I had no plan post-graduation. My professors encouraged me to continue another two years at the college for an MA in English because I was a passionate student and could use the degree to leverage myself when the economy got better. I would be one of the students to beat the odds, I thought! I enrolled in the program on a whim and was immediately accepted. Three days before the semester started (and the tuition bill was due) I got cold feet and withdrew. I just couldn't justify the cost (I wish I remember what it was - it wasn't outrageous but still would have put me tens of thousands in debt).
Later, with my husband's emotional and financial support, I went into urban planning for grad school at a different university (an HBCU, actually) and also worked and paid my way as I went (which meant it took me five years to do a two year program). I was able to take on a minimal amount of debt as a result ($10,000). Again, I was encouraged to go the Higher Ed route because I was a great student and would beat the odds! I seriously looked into PhD programs in Winter 2019/2020 with the plan to apply in Fall 2020...and then the pandemic happened.
What's so hard is that I sincerely believe that my professors were steering me in that direction for good reasons. They saw my capabilities (even as I felt impostor syndrome) and believed in me. However, as college and university administrations grew and student populations grew, tenured positions didn't. I saw it happen in both schools where tenured faculty retired/died/left and their positions were replaced with adjuncts. Every university program's best student could apply but there just isn't enough spots in graduate programs or tenure-track positions for them.
This is so teeth-grindingly enraging. I ended up doing my master’s (in medieval art history, that most lucrative of fields!!) at the University of St Andrews largely because the cost of tuition for the whole degree (for an international student no less) + living expenses in the most expensive town in Scotland + flights back and forth + the occasional tourist jaunt was still SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than just one year of tuition alone for a master’s at Columbia/equivalent.
I can attest to credentialism. I'm a Columbia J-School grad. The amount of money paid for the degree plus the living expenses (NYC) is staggering.
First of all, the quality of the education leaves a lot to be desired. Often you got (or get) professors who are retired journalists and are using the school as a pension substitute or complement (I don't mean this disrespectfully, journalism is woefully underpaid as you very well know) and often you went to classes where the first thing the towering figure said was "you can't teach journalism."
In my particular case, I got an internship at what once was a very prestigious paper and is currently bare-bones (thank you, predatory hedge funds). I have to say that the main reason I got in was that the school did have an exclusive internship program with the paper. Otherwise I wouldn't have stood a chance.
But the problem is that I was nowhere near making a keep-my-head-above-the-water salary. Living expenses (plus I was in a city with crappy public transport, a car was mandatory), repaying tuition costs and paying rent meant that I was actually losing money by working at what I wanted to do.
In the end I had to quit journalism, and although I did enjoy my time at Columbia and NYC, I have to say that a decade later the degree is nothing more than a nice scroll hanging in one of my walls; a conversation starter when people come over: "Yes, I'm a graduate of the most prestigious journalism program in the world... No, I no longer work in journalism...".
The undergrads at UChicago also look down on MAPH/MAPSS students, so they really just get no respect all around.
As an additional note about UChicago and its relationship to graduate school, when I was an undergrad there, they would boast about having the largest percentage of their alumni go on to complete graduate school. Five years, two masters, and $40,000 later (only because I happened to get funding and in-state tuition), I am not convinced this is something to brag about! As an institution, they really feed into the overall predatory nature of higher ed right now.
Oof this ended up being a surprisingly emotional read for me. I graduated from a master's program at Columbia in 2020 that had a striking amount of similarities to the program at the University of Chicago described here. I also fit the bill for the high-achieving student who applied for lots of PhD programs but didn't get into any. I accepted the offer of a spot in my MA program as it came with a partial scholarship but in hindsight the program really shut down any meaningful efforts to do due diligence before I accepted.
About a semester into the program I realized I no longer wanted a PhD and just wanted to be back in financial crimes, where I'd been prior to grad school. For quite a while after graduation I was deeply angry about the decision I'd made to go to grad school and the debt I'd taken on. It just didn't feel worth it. Once I landed a job in my desired field making nearly double what I'd been making as a contractor pre-grad school, I felt a bit less mad about the whole thing as it seemed like I'd actually have a shot at paying off the debt I'd accrued. If I could do things differently, I wish I had been more open to considering another gap year to really think about my options. There was just such an acute sense of urgency to get back to school that baffles me a bit looking back on it.
What continues to frustrate me about the situation is how poorly my academic mentors in undergrad prepared me for the current state of academia. They warned me about the shrinking number of tenure track positions but never discussed the fact that the pathways they took in their careers just don't exist anymore. I loved what I studied in undergrad and my MA but given the state of the field, there just isn't a feasible option to get a PhD without me footing most, or all, of the bill.
This line: "The spoken and unspoken message: you didn’t get grad school this time. But you’re grad school material!" just stood out to me. Grad school is hard financially, emotionally, physically. Everything about it is hard. I would rather do another Ph.D. than do another MA degree. The stress levels in that one year were so off the charts. I know that grad school is a tangled web around one issue, capitalism, but I think there is something too about what happens when we do have people who should not be in grad school attending grad school. Not because they're not ~good enough or smart~ enough, but because it can be such a difficult time and since they're seen as cash cows and no human beings, what that type of experience will do to them.
The lack of mentorship, the lack of accountability for tenured profs who know they are shilling, that the idea 'never go to a program unless you're fully funded' isn't common anymore, that there aren't enrollment caps on programs...jfc and we wonder how we've gotten into this state
I am in a Clinical Pastoral Education unit this summer that is a requirement for most Master of Divinity programs. In addition to paying for the Master of Divinity, there is an additional cost for the CPE program. We spend 2/3 of our time doing the work of the chaplains at the hospital, but we have to pay the cost of tuition (and our own meals). Because the unit is full time, most of us cannot work additional jobs to help cover the cost of tuition. I know this all isn't as bad as what you describe in the article, but it does seem unfair not to get a stipend or some compensation because we are actually doing the work of the chaplain, and paying to do it.
Love this topic! Last year during the pandemic my younger sister “got into” DU for a Master’s in Elementary Education. She was elated, thinking the program was elite. I had some experience working with the DU Morgridge College of Education through an education nonprofit and found any faculty I had interacted with to be ridiculously out of touch with the realities on the ground in education. I begged my sister not to take on $50K in debt for a year-long program from a College of Education that ranked 113th (Boise State University and LCSC rank significantly higher for about half the cost). Also, she did the program during the pandemic year, which meant she was unable to set foot in a classroom and did student teaching via Zoom — hardly a real practicum, but DU had no qualms charging full tuition for the experience. I recruited my brother to help talk her out of it, too. He got his MA paid for through an assistantship working for a football team. I got my MA through Teach for America. We assured her had we not had full scholarships we just wouldn’t have gotten the degrees because they often aren’t worth the money.
She ignored us, unfortunately, went through with it (her best friend told me she just needed that paper to feel better). She also hated the program and has decided not to become a teacher. She just got a job working for an education software company making less than the amount of her student loan debt. Starting salaries for teachers in Denver Public Schools are so low I am incredulous the DU degree is attractive to anyone anyway. What a scam!
I’m beginning to wonder if all graduate programs are inherently predatory under our current economic conditions. I say this as someone who went to a small liberal arts college in New England, then to a completely unprestigious master’s program, and later a prestigious (but not Ivy) PhD program — and then left ABD. As foolish and impractical as I was in my early 20s, I managed to accept as gospel (thankfully!) the advice from my undergrad professors that I should only go to grad school if I don’t have to pay for it and to not, under any circumstances, pay for a terminal MA degree. I so desperately wanted to do my MA at UVA, it it would have costed at least $80k (this was 2007), but despite my obsession with prestige and desperation to ascend my socioeconomic class via education, I blanched at the thought of more loans and declined the offer. I’m grateful every day for the decision my 23 year old self made. I now work on a college campus, and feel simply terrible for the grad students and adjuncts I encounter.
I'm a librarian. I got my library degree in 1987 from a state university after spending a year at a prestigious private university working towards a MA in history. That prestigious private university was charging about 3K per class in 1984/1985. Why was I surprised - my "little ivy" undergrad university increased total fees from $6500 to $14000 in the four years I was there (1980-1984).
My profession is mostly white, middle-aged, and female (although the majority of "important" positions in the field are still held by men). I have had many conversations with folks about diversifying the field, and I always return to money. Why would anyone get into debt upwards of 75 - 100K to work in a field where the median salary in a major metropolitan area is about 50K? And if you want to be an academic librarian, you are pressured to obtain a second masters degree to be a "subject specialist," which is a joke.
Until recently, you could obtain a BA in librarianship. But those degrees are not certified by the American Library Association, which means you can't get a job with just a BA. But a person can learn everything they need to learn to start out in the field with just a BA - so why do we continue to burden people with the expense of one or two graduate degrees when the necessary skill set can be obtained with just a BA?
I wish I remembered the details better, but when I was applying to grad school, one of my undergrad advisers warned me away from even applying to a specific PhD program because, IIRC, it funneled people into an expensive masters program and created a "snake pit" environment by pitting people against each other for funding post-masters. It may even have been Columbia. And that was the 1990s. I know things have gotten so much worse.
Hi I’m a MAPSS graduate so this was hard to read. I actually went to an Ivy for my undergraduate, but decided to switch into the social sciences for grad school and was mystified when I didn’t get into PhD programs for two years straight. In hindsight, I just didn’t know what I was doing and had 0 mentorship. This is one of the risks with going to a prestigious undergraduate program. My professors didn’t really have time for me. And I was afraid to ask for help. Having been accustomed to always being The Best Student, I was vulnerable to the siren song of the MAPSS program, which told me “we are the best anthropology department in the world and you will be lucky to work with us. Our graduates get into all the best PhD programs.”
I did make lovely friends there. I did get into a Phd program after that and am now a professor. But it was one of the worst mental health times in my life. My program advisor “preceptor” (an advanced student in the PhD program) was a monster. It essentially cost me my marriage too.
And the extra kicker- I still have only paid those student loans down to $65k. I’ve given up hope of paying them off, even as I save for my own kids’ college.
My dad has a PhD. I’m neither first gen in college nor did I go to a less prestigious school for my BA. But I was vulnerable nonetheless.