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Chicago Does Not Understand Incentives

Summary:
The University of Chicago, that is. The University of Chicago on Tuesday announced a series of reforms aimed at getting students through their graduate programs faster and with better training for whatever careers they pursue. In so doing, Chicago is the latest institution to address excessive timelines, completion problems and poor faculty job markets for many Ph.D. students. These are the opening two paragraphs of Colleen Flaherty, “Bold Move in Graduate Education,” Inside HigherEd,” October 9, 2019. And how does the University of Chicago plan to get students through their graduate programs faster? By paying them to stay longer. You read that right. Here’s the very next paragraph of the news item: Chicago’s biggest change, which applies to doctoral students in

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The University of Chicago, that is.

The University of Chicago on Tuesday announced a series of reforms aimed at getting students through their graduate programs faster and with better training for whatever careers they pursue.

In so doing, Chicago is the latest institution to address excessive timelines, completion problems and poor faculty job markets for many Ph.D. students.

These are the opening two paragraphs of Colleen Flaherty, “Bold Move in Graduate Education,” Inside HigherEd,” October 9, 2019.

And how does the University of Chicago plan to get students through their graduate programs faster? By paying them to stay longer. You read that right. Here’s the very next paragraph of the news item:

Chicago’s biggest change, which applies to doctoral students in the humanities, social sciences, divinity studies and social service administration, is financial. Whereas doctoral students are currently funded for up to six years, depending on their programs, the new framework promises all students in good academic standing who enrolled in summer 2016 or later full funding until they graduate, with no limits.

So funding them forever will, according to Provost Daniel Diermeier, cause them to shorten their time in graduate school.

Maybe, though, what they have in mind is pushing people out at a certain time rather than letting them hang around. If so, the article doesn’t mention it. The article mentions only one stick along with the carrot and it’s this:

If full funding is the carrot to finish one’s degree in a timely manner, minimizing financial distractions, there is a stick — at least for departments. Currently, program cohort sizes aren’t strictly linked to completion. But they will be going forward. Now, the total number of Ph.D. students in the four divisions affected will be a fixed, yet-to-be-determined number — and new students will not be admitted until current students graduate or leave.

So if graduate students hang around longer, that reduces the slots available for potential incoming graduate students. Ms. Flaherty was right to call it a stick for departments. It’s not a stick for graduate students.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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