Universities study Ph.D. dropout rates

By Mary Beth Versaci

Ph.D. completion rates vary greatly when demographics such as gender, race/ethnicity and citizenship are taken into account, according to a study released by the Council of Graduate Schools.

The data showed that males, whites and international students are more likely to complete their Ph.D. in 10 years than females, racial/ethnic minorities and domestic students.

The council, made up of 500 universities, including 14 outside of North America, focuses on the advancement of graduate education and research. It funds the Ph.D. Completion Project, a series of policies and practices designed to increase Ph.D. completion rates. Institutions such as the University of Illinois use the data to create interventions for Ph.D. students as a part of the Ph.D. Completion Project.

Stuart Heiser, manager of Government Relations and External Affairs from the council, said they are not directly responsible for the completion projects at the participating universities.

“We study and analyze the data,” Heiser said. “We use it to identify which interventions work best at the universities. We’re not trying to answer the questions of why. We’re just presenting the data.”

The universities have not been charged with this responsibility either. Richard Wheeler, dean of the Graduate College at the University, said that at this point they have data without interpretation; however, the goal of the Ph.D. Completion Project is to eventually understand why students are dropping out of Ph.D. programs.

While the University does not have programs designed specifically to target the troubled demographics, it does have interventions targeting the problem as a whole.

The results of these interventions will not be revealed until 2010 because the Ph.D. Completion Project itself only began in 2003 and it typically takes students seven to ten years to complete their Ph.D. Once these students do, the University will be able to see if the interventions had a major effect.

In the meantime, many graduate students aren’t aware of the existence of the Ph.D. Completion Project.

Riaz Uddin, a third-year Ph.D. student in Regional Planning, said that while he had not heard of the project specifically, he has participated in interventions.

“I have participated in workshops that are deemed helpful to Ph.D. completion,” Uddin said.

Matthew Yancey, a first semester graduate student on his way to a Ph.D. in Combinatorics, said he typically gets e-mails about interventions that the University offers, but he has never heard of anyone in his department taking advantage of any of them.

However, Wheeler said he knows the problem of students dropping out cannot go away completely.

“We hope to understand better why completion and attrition rates are what they are,” Wheeler said. “We can’t make the problem of attrition go away completely, but we can shave a little time off the completion rates of these degrees.”

The council’s study includes data gathered from 24 institutions in the United States and Canada, including the University. It consists of 19,000 students who began Ph.D. programs from 1992 to 2003