The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States

bridges vol. 26, July 2010 / Feature Articles

By Patty McAllister, Nathan Bell, and Belle Woods       

The United States' system of graduate education has served as a national asset, attracting talented students from our own nation as well as drawing the best and brightest from other countries around the globe.  It has been argued that, in the knowledge economy, a graduate degree will become the new bachelor's degree, the minimal education credential that high-skills employers require. If that is true, then the United States needs to redouble its efforts to sustain a strong competitive position, essential for ensuring a prosperous economy and quality of life for its people.

In order to explore the role of graduate education in developing highly skilled talent and to examine areas of vulnerability facing the system, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and Educational Testing Service (ETS) jointly established the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education in the United States last year.  The 18-member Commission on the Future of Graduate Education includes university presidents and chancellors, graduate deans, provosts, industry leaders, and higher education scholars.  The Commission studied how graduate education can meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Together with research staff from ETS and CGS, the Commission produced a landmark report, The Path Forward: the Future of Graduate Education in the United States, which confirms the necessity of a graduate-level workforce to maintain US competitiveness and innovation. However, the report warns that the country must adopt a national strategy to increase degree completion and broaden participation in graduate education, or risk losing its position as the world leader in cutting-edge research and innovation.

Current Trends in Graduate Education

There is increasing demand for people with graduate degrees.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, between 2008 and 2018, about 2.5 million additional jobs will require an advanced degree.  While many master's degree programs are geared toward the needs of the workplace and prepare students for careers in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors, this is not necessarily true at the doctoral level. The expected career path for doctoral recipients is less straightforward than for master's graduates.

International migration will account for more than half the US population growth by the year 2015, according to US Census bureau estimates.  More first-generation college students will emerge from this pool, and many are likely to require additional educational preparation.

Universities will need to adapt to the "nontraditional" student. These students, who tend to be older and have more professional experience, are often returning to graduate school after spending time in the workforce.  The current economy contributes to this trend:  A growing number of "career changers" are looking to graduate education in hope that an advanced degree will ensure continued employability and/or career advancement.  These changes point to the need to reconsider how graduate students are financially supported, as well as what kinds of additional resources they may need to succeed in graduate study. The changing demographics may also require reconsideration of traditional time-to-degree expectations and career pathway opportunities.

Areas of vulnerability

Many undergraduate degree holders who have the ability to obtain a graduate degree never enroll in a graduate program, and many who do enroll leave without a degree. The demographics of tomorrow's domestic population eligible for graduate study will look very different from today's, with potential implications for how graduate study is structured, supported, and evaluated. Other nations are moving decisively to build strong graduate programs to attract the world's best students, whose interest the US has long taken for granted.

Current degree completion rates are one area of vulnerability.  Despite the rigorous selection processes used for admissions into US graduate schools and the high achievement level of those pursuing a graduate degree, some studies indicate that the attrition rate in doctoral education is as high as 40 to 50 percent.  At the doctoral level, factors affecting completion include a change in family status, full- or part-time enrollment status, job/military commitments, needing to work, or dissatisfaction with the particular program.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Another obstacle is the lengthy time to degree completion, especially for those in doctoral programs. No fixed time is appropriate for every degree, and there will always be a range of average times-to-degree based on the requirements in different fields. Still, the public and private costs of a longer-than-necessary time to degree completion, and the benefits to the public and to the individual degree recipient, mean that students should complete their degrees as efficiently as possible. The Council of Graduate Schools' Ph.D. Completion Project shows that fewer than 25 percent of students completed degrees within five years, and only about 45 percent completed within seven years.

Many changes have occurred in the global higher education sector.  For many years the United States led the world in attracting international students to graduate programs.  However, many countries have increased access to higher education, and systemic changes in Europe have resulted in more unified and consistent standards.  Additionally, political and economic changes have placed a focus on the economic benefits of a highly trained workforce, leading to greater competition among countries for available students.  Many international graduate programs have seen their reputations grow in recent years.  Thus, while US graduate schools continue to provide high quality graduate education, the quality of graduate programs outside the United States is growing as well.

As a country, the US must address the vulnerabilities in its graduate education system, to strengthen not only the enterprise itself but also the national capacity for innovation and ability to compete in the global economy.  Universities, industry, and government, separately and in partnership, have a role in enhancing and supporting graduate education.  Selected recommendations from the report follow.



Continuing efforts to identify and attract talented students to graduate education are critical.
Improving student completion rates is important. Institutions must review and analyze their own completion and attrition patterns at both the master’s and doctoral levels and create interventions to increase completion.
Clarifying and expanding on nonacademic career pathways for graduate students. Graduate schools must provide appropriate training, mentoring, and information about career opportunities outside academia (e.g., business, government, and the nonprofit sector) in addition to those in academia.
Preparing future faculty also is essential. Technology and demographics are changing, our understanding of how students learn is improving, and the aging of the professoriate has implications for how US graduate schools prepare future faculty.
Supporting a professional development component is one of the strengths of graduate education. However, it is primarily master’s level programs, not doctoral, that have included this component. Universities should support the acquisition of such transferable skills to prepare doctoral recipients for a wider array of employment opportunities.


Developing business/university partnerships by establishing a “Graduate School Chair” or other type of fellowship that provides financial support to graduate students; increasing internships and work/study opportunities for graduate students; creating employer-matched, portable, individual accounts that finance employee education and training; and providing tuition reimbursement programs for current employees to pursue graduate degrees.
Developing business/university partnerships to promote participation of students from underrepresented groups in graduate programs.
Communicating the educational skills needed for 21st-century jobs to students in high school through graduate school to inform their decisions about educational choices in light of career opportunities.

Policy makers

Increasing federal government support for graduate education through the authorization and implementation of two new initiatives to support doctoral and master’s education:
    ∼ A COMPETES doctoral traineeship program would support doctoral education in areas of national need by providing direct student support through a stipend, tuition and fees, ancillary fringe costs, and other costs of education.
    ∼ A new competitive grant program would provide partial funding to create new, innovative master’s programs or reinvigorate existing programs. Universities receiving the grants would need to secure at least two-thirds of program funding from sources other than the federal government.
Continuing federal government support for existing programs and initiatives is also vital. This includes updating federal training and fellowship programs to keep pace with the increasing cost of graduate education, expanding loan forgiveness programs to other critical fields, amending current tax policies for graduate fellowships and scholarships, and aligning federal and state grant programs.
Improving and changing the visa process is also needed to encourage international students to enroll in US graduate schools and to remain in the United States following their degree completion.

Moving from ideas into action

The fruits of graduate education touch our lives in countless ways every day. We ride in automobiles with systems designed by engineers who earned graduate degrees; send our children to schools where a growing number of teachers have graduate degrees and were themselves trained by people with advanced degrees; pick up prescriptions for drugs designed and tested by scientists with graduate degrees; visit museums and view displays arranged by curators with graduate degrees; and go to movies enhanced by  sophisticated computer-generated special effects designed by men and  women with graduate degrees.  Our economy and society would not thrive without these talented, highly skilled, and creative thinkers. 

The Commission’s report was intended to form the basis of a national conversation.  It explores the central role played by graduate education in developing human talent and highlights the issues that will need attention if the system is to continue and flourish, meeting the needs of the 21st century.  The report and its recommendations are intended as a blueprint from which the US can work, developing collaborations between universities, industry, and government. 

This article is based on the Executive Summary of The Path Forward report. Please visit to download the full report and view other materials including a video.


About the authors:
Patty McAllister serves as vice president of government relations and external affairs at the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, DC.  McAllister represents the interests of graduate education with federal policy makers, opinion leaders, and other stakeholders.  

Nathan Bell is the director of research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). He serves as the principal researcher for the annual CGS/GRE Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees, directs CGS’s three-part annual international graduate admissions survey, and works on the Ph.D. Completion Project, a national project to increase completion and reduce attrition in doctoral programs.

Belle Woods serves as government relations and external affairs associate at the Council of Graduate Schools.  As such, she tracks legislation and activities of interest on Capitol Hill, monitors regulatory action, and manages content and dissemination of the CGS weekly government-relations newsletter. {/access}