April 21, 2014

Skorton Talks Student Unemployment, Debt

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President David Skorton outlined ways to address graduate and professional student unemployment and debt — including the adoption of alternative models of education — at a Graduate and Professional Student Assembly meeting Monday.

According to Skorton, the likelihood that universities will hire those with Ph.D.s degrees depends on a balance between supply and demand, which has raised questions of whether universities are conferring too many doctoral degrees.

“For those Ph.D.s whose fields depend on government funding at a time where government funding is basically stuck, in a national scheme I think [American universities] are [giving out too many doctoral degrees],” Skorton said.

“Could you imagine a day where you could enter a field of employment or professional or graduate school based on passing some test of competence and not on credentials?” —President David Skorton

However, he also said the University has been educating graduate and professional students for “a long time” and that with a Cornell degree, “placement rates in academia are better than they would be elsewhere.”

“We have more doctoral fields than anybody,” he said. “The track record for Cornell faculty, postdocs and … graduate students as they are part of a process or project applying for funding is much better than other [universities]. The National Science Foundation grant [awarded to the Synchrotron] is an example of that.”

Skorton also said graduate student debt remains an important issue to him.

“It took me 21 years to pay my loans off when I was in your step of the game,” he said. “I did the calculations, and if I was repaying them now with current interest rates, it would have taken five or six more years.”

As a possible way to alleviate this financial burden, Skorton proposed a different model of education, where students could enter career fields or graduate schools without earning an undergraduate degree.

“Could you imagine a day where you could enter a field of employment or professional or graduate school based on passing some test of competence and not on credentials?” Skorton said. “People who are pushing massive open online courses as a potential disruptor of higher education believe in this.”

Though such a system has been discussed about for a while, it has not yet “materialized,” according to Skorton.

In the meantime, Skorton said he has attempted to stop the rising costs of attending graduate and professional school through various methods, including decreasing the University staff workforce by over 8 percent in recent years.

However, Skorton said such attempts would only slow the rise of tuition and not cause any reductions.

“Keep thinking about smarter ways to fundraise,” he said, encouraging the graduate students to address education costs. “Come up with ways to find other revenue sources. Over a third of my time is spent on fundraising.”

Skorton also encouraged the GPSA to campaign and advocate directly for increased government funding for programs that impact graduate students.

“When students go [to] lobby Washington, it’s unbelievably more effective than when I go … you’re the future, you’re a constituent, you’re a future employer directly or indirectly,” he said. “Only 30 percent of Americans have a college degree… [graduate and professional students] are a special voice to the political conversation.”