Top Places to Attend Graduate School Sorted by Congressional Districts

Several factors are weighed into deciding where to attend graduate school. The two biggest are academic specialty and place.

With an election on the horizon I thought it would be interesting to come up with the top places to attend graduate school as indexed by US Congressional districts.

Most Congressional districts have several institutions of higher education. Here, I’m working only with a list of institutions that award degrees beyond the baccalaureate. Given the right mix of institutions and locale, these Congressional districts can act as microclusters of learning, research and living. In short, they can be very attractive places.

Here is a list of the top 25 Congressional districts as measured by the total annual spending by the universities within their districts. I’ve also added the number of graduate students enrolled at all of the universities within each district.

As a general rule, universities with the highest spending do so because of their research activity and/or because of affiliated hospitals. As a result, they tend to have higher numbers of graduate students compared to other institutions.

Philadelphia’s PA02 is ranked first by a substantial margin with over $10B in annual spending. Although PA02 has 17 universities offering graduate degrees within its boundaries, just three –the University of Pennsylvania ($5.9B), Temple University ($2.6B), and Drexel University ($0.89B)– account for over 90% of the university spending in the district.

There are 417 US Congressional districts with universities that have graduate programs. Total university spending within each ranges from just under $1 million (AZ06) to over $10 billion (PA02). University spending exceeds $1B in 115 of the 417 district.

These top 25 also account for just under 29% of all university spending in the US, and about 19% of all graduate student enrollment.

Why are spending and enrollment important metrics? These districts are the real hotbeds of knowledge creation and innovation. They serve as magnets attracting thousands of highly intelligent and motivated people each year into their graduate programs. They are important economic engines.

The data are for the year 2014 and derived from the US Department of Education (IPEDS).

Top 25 Congressional Districts by University Spending
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The Privatization of Public Universities

Maureen Downey, a reporter and editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution with expertise in education policy, was kind enough to invite me to write an opinion piece for her blog. You can read it here.

In essence, the argument is that as states fund less and less of the overall operation of their public universities, these institutions look –and act– more and more like private universities.

The index I used to make this argument is the ratio of state subsidies to net tuition. Net tuition is tuition minus allowances (ie, various scholarships, etc). To measure privatization of public universities, this index is a nice first level, across-the-board way to quickly check how much and how rapidly things are changing.

I had been thinking about this issue for a while mostly in the context of graduate schools. The national trend is a steady reduction in enrollment in public universities that has been offset by private university enrollment. Beyond the politics, why is this enrollment trend happening?

Given that graduate enrollment is mostly demand-driven, my sense is that public universities have simply lost the low tuition advantage they once enjoyed over the private schools. The playing field has been leveled, and to compete effectively the public institutions are going to have to operate more and more as if they are private.

But this is a pretty complex issue. Universities are dynamic places. There are a lot of moving parts over time in how they adapt to a variety of different forces. The erosion of state support is just one such force.

The Georgia Institute of Technology, which is the focus of my article on Maureen’s blog, is adapting by leveraging its superlative reputation as an engineering school to construct a highly selective admissions process. Georgia Tech is laying the ground work now for when the day arrives that it is fully private, for all intents and purposes.

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Choosing a Graduate Program After Multiple Offers

opportunityWith March upon us graduate program admissions committees have made their decisions and have sent out their first waves of acceptance letters. If you’ve been accepted by a program, congratulations! Chances are you have more than 1 offer. Now it’s your turn to make some decisions. Most programs with winter application deadlines will want your choice by the middle of April, so time is of the essence.

Now what? How do you choose between your various graduate program offers? You may not sense this is the biggest career decision you’ve ever made. But it probably is.

One thing is certain. Your graduate program experience is going to launch your career on a trajectory that it would take any other way. That trajectory will differ remarkably for each of your offers…this is the classic Road Not Taken problem Robert Frost penned so elegantly, “I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Your guiding principle during this decision process is think of each option as an opportunity. All of the opportunities differ to some degree. Which option offers the best opportunity for you and your future?

Your Programs Can Answer Your Questions

Now is the time to lay out the programs side-by-side in microscopic detail. The internet is not going to be very helpful in answering many of the questions that arise. Only the faculty, staff and students of the programs you’re considering can answer them. Be certain to circle back with them to ensure you have all of the information you need to make your best decision. This is NOT a time to play cat and mouse. If you are uncertain about anything, reach out to them directly.

Put yourself in their shoes. The fact that they accepted you means they want you to be there. A lot. They really would hate to lose you because of a misunderstanding. Don’t be shy to ask.

Are You Sure They Offer The Opportunities You Want?

This is the biggest question for you to settle. The primary reason you’re going to graduate school is to satisfy your academic curiosity. If the specialist material you crave is simply not there, you’re at high risk of growing unhappy with your choice. For example, many graduate courses can be offered infrequently, sometimes only once every 3 years or so. Find out if the coursework that interests you the most will actually be offered during your residence.

You have even more prep work to do if you’ll be on a research degree track. Your choice of mentor will define your experience. Reach out directly to specific professors whose research interests you. For now, just check to see they are accepting new students in the next year or so. Be on the alert for any red flags. Pick a few professors associated with each program, to ensure you have a backup that you can be happy with in case something goes wrong with your first choice after you enroll.

There are many factors to consider in assessing these options. Beth Bowman at Vanderbilt University’s Biomedical and Biological Science graduate program has assembled some fantastic advice on what is involved in choosing a mentor and how to go about doing it. Her blog is definitely worth reading.

If you are unsure about what research you specifically want to do that’s perfectly ok and very common. But you should still inquire to get a sense of what proportion of the program faculty professors have the resources and time to take on new students. Would you be happy with those options?

Compare Costs, Not Just Sticker Prices

While it is important to ask yourself whether you can afford to attend a specific school, don’t forget to ask whether you can afford NOT to attend one program or another. You don’t need me to tell you how to compare stipends and tuition and housing costs. But I can point you to some things that you might not be aware of that should weigh strongly in your decision. For example, you are probably going to earn a good living after graduate school. What impact will your choice have on your earnings down the road? What kind of track record do program graduates enjoy afterwards?

Ask yourself whether some front-end sacrifice now can lead to higher dividends later. Don’t get blinded by a higher tuition or a crappy stipend offer that is, in the big picture, only marginally worse than some other crappy stipend offer or barely lower tuition.

Remember, your income is very unlikely to be grad school crappy forever. Your lifetime earnings should be better. It won’t be easy because things seem to have gone out of control lately, but you will probably will be able to manage your student debt. With a graduate degree, you probably will be OK. With the right degree, you may be even better.

Making these judgments means you’ll have to peek around corners. You’ll need to identify and then weigh risks and opportunities that are difficult to be certain about. You’ll need to honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. And there are no guarantees. Might as well start learning how to do these “risk assessment” and  “vision” things now because that’s a skill set that tends to make people with advanced degrees valuable.

But my main bit of advice here is to try to think strategically about how your program options might influence your career launch.

Hidden Costs

Having said that, let me say another word about the smaller costs that add up. Again, stipends and tuition and rents are easy. Graduate students tend to become unhappy when blindsided by unexpected costs. What about software fees? Does the university offer grad students free productivity software–such as MS Office, EndNote, statistical packages–or are these costs on your shoulders? Universities have wildly varying policies in this regard.

Health benefits? Childcare? Use of the athletics center? Parking? Free bus shuttles or other low cost commute options? Movies and shows and other good but low cost entertainment?

I’m not kidding here either: I’d even go so far to recommend asking how many times per week the program serves pizza to the graduate students. Being a graduate student is about learning how to stretch an impossible budget in 1 month increments. Always has been, always will be. These hidden costs can add up to the point where it can make all the difference between soup with or without noodles at the end of the month.

Place and Lifestyle

Most graduate students pack up and move someplace to attend school. Think about moving as an opportunity with a couple of important facets. Graduate school is a good excuse to experience a change in place. For example, you might move across the country to an entirely new region that has always struck your fancy. Or, you might wish to attend a program in a college town knowing that your career afterwards will almost certainly put you in a major metropolitan area. Or vice versa.

Graduate school is a way to test drive a new town or city or region to see if its the kind of place where you’d like to plant roots after you graduate. Is that place a good employment center for the career you imagine after school? Employers in metro areas tend to have better opinions of people who emerge with graduate degrees from their local universities, compared to those from outside the region. If that is a place you might want to live, you could have a leg up.

Yes, your program will allow you outside of the classroom or lab or library for a few hours each week. Are there things nearby that you enjoy doing? Are you passionate about an activity that you’d be able to continue or have to give up to attend grad school? A big part of happiness in graduate school is how you spend your (limited) time outside of school.

Most importantly, there is a high probability that your personal life will change profoundly while you’re in graduate school. Most graduate students are young adults. Pair bonding is one of those biological imperatives of young adulthood. What is the meetup scene like?

If you come as a single, there is a good chance you’ll finish graduate school with a partner. If you begin graduate school with a partner, you might end up finishing with a baby in your arms. Don’t forget to look around that corner, too.

Program Culture

How does the graduate program treat its students? Are students on the program steering committees and do they have any voice in shaping the program? Is the program student-centric or is it more aloof? Does any of this matter to you either way?

There are two minds on these questions from a faculty perspective. What I’ll label as the old school way is to believe the job of the program and its faculty is to educate students in this specialized subject matter, because its an education not a career placement service. Besides, all the faculty know from a career perspective is the academic track. For many students, particularly those with a clear vision of their trajectory, that can be all they need.

Others believe that in addition to educating the students, programs should put effort into making students more aware of the various career opportunities that their education will prepare them for outside of the academy. Some students (and faculty) prefer to be in this kind of environment instead.

For the purposes of making your individual decision on where to matriculate, neither environment is necessarily all right or all wrong. It depends upon what seems like a better fit for you. However, in the aggregated space of graduate school, we’re long past the time of going about our business the old school way.

Finally, do the people in the program get along? Are you comfortable with the faculty and staff and current graduate students? If you interviewed, hopefully you did so in a group and was able to meet several of your future classmates. How well do you think you’ll get along with them?

Big decisions like these are never perfect, they are never simple. When your only options are good opportunities, by the very nature of the problem, you’ll probably have to turn down something very good. When you put it into perspective, that’s just not a bad place to be.

As I said before, congratulations. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t earned the privilege.

Unfortunately, I feel compelled to have this discussion because some effort on the front end can go along way towards ensuring that you’re satisfied with your decision. Unfortunately, 25% of current graduate students wish they chose a different program. That’s a sobering statistic that indicates too many mistakes are being made. Too many misapplications. Too many mis-acceptances. Too many mis-matriculations.

Whether you become one of those statistics is something you can potentially control now with some upfront effort.

Probably. There are no guarantees.

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Has Winter Arrived for Rising College Tuition Rates?

I read in the morning newspaper that the University System of Georgia is freezing college tuition rates to current levels at its public universities statewide for the 2016-2017 academic year. The legislative session is not over, but it looks to be a done deal.

I asked the internet for some quick data points to see if college tuition rates are being frozen elsewhere.

Sure enough, several state legislatures are weighing bills to freeze college tuition.

IllinoisTennessee, Idaho, and Kentucky. On the basis of a quick look at the first page of google results, I’m sure there are many more.

This is a big election year, so maybe what is happening is the type of nationwide, coordinated legislative campaign by Republican led legislatures we’ve seen for other issues. The reason can be as simple as what seems to be going on in Wisconsin, which is also entertaining a tuition freeze bill.

Of course, the flip side to freezing college tuition rates, which lessens the cost burden on students, is flat revenue for universities. Which still have rising costs.  Adjusting to frozen tuition revenue landscapes is not exactly something universities are able to do very well for the simple reason that they are huge, ungainly operations. Giant ships turn very slowly. Unfortunately, their first impulse in handling fiscal challenges is to reduce what they offer to students.

 

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Income and Employment After Graduate School

US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data

I just ran across yet another blog post on the internets wrongly decrying graduate school as a poor value proposition. I won’t link to it because it is mostly an uninformed polemic. Since one of the other things I do is teach statistics, I’m well aware of the concept of deviation from the central tendency of data, or in other words, that not all boats rise equally with the tide. There are no guarantees.

Nevertheless, if you earn an advanced degree, you are less likely to be unemployed and more likely to earn a higher income compared to if you hadn’t. Your prospects for both income and employment after graduate school are quite good. And in an age of flat earnings year-on-year, about the only proven way to jump up an earnings level is with a degree.

Then there is the whole thing about interesting, challenging work and the fulfillment that can bring….

US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data

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Hey, Non-Profit Graduate School Enrollment is Declining Too

I’ve been munging around a bit with graduate school enrollment and award data for US universities to get a sense of the overall trends and, at least in my mind, the picture is coming into focus. We’re in an unstable period right now and I think most of the people in graduate admissions and recruitment offices that we speak with on a daily basis are sensing that things are different than before. Our sense is that those at the front lines, the program directors we speak with, seem to feel things more sharply. If I had to summarize those conversations simply, we’re hearing stories of excess seat capacity and that fewer good applicants are applying.

The data visualization that seems to tell the full story for the non-profit universities only is right here in this graph, showing declines in both total and population-adjusted enrollment trends. What this shows is graduate school enrollment has declined sharply from a peak in 2011. The decline is a lot worse when the data are adjusted for US population levels. That’s almost 4% below the peak year of 2011 in a system used to growing about 0.6% year-on-year.

Separately, since starting the Gradschoolmatch project I’ve pretty much arrived at the conclusion that graduate enrollment is demand-driven. We look at our acceptance rates and like to think we’re highly selective, but that’s not exactly true. For example, as one data point to illustrate this conclusion, decent applicants (the ones who actually get into graduate school–the ones programs all want) don’t apply to many programs and are accepted by most to which they apply. They just hold the cards.

Another reason to conclude this is a demand-driven market is that for the most part, as a group, graduate schools are really poor at creating more demand. We either don’t adequately support a marketing effort or consider the marketing of our programs as an unnecessary expense. We therefore leave it to chance whether prospects find us. We don’t calculate very well the return on what a modest marketing investment can bring. We fail to see in our cost/benefit metrics how strongly even a single matriculate can drive tuition revenue or perhaps even research dollars from their discoveries.

When we recruit prospects we do so reactively, rather than proactively. For example, for the programs that do recruit, for most it only happens after an application comes in over that transom, not before it. This process of waiting and hoping is not one that creates demand.

Let’s face it, we academics are so crappy at communicating the value proposition of our universities and degree programs to prospects that we’d also probably struggle to sell a life jacket on the deck of the Titanic. When we have tried to be more proactive, we’ve bought into disappointing high cost/low precision/low yield services, when the very nature of our product, the single highly specialized graduate program, requires low cost/high precision/high yield marketing services.

Taken in this light, these enrollment numbers are just another data point I see suggesting quite strongly that the overall demand for graduate degrees is falling. Although this may just be regression to the mean, I also can’t help but wonder if we’re in a period where this is, in fact, a new normal. What concerns me is that the toxic combination of changing economic demographics, the continued spiraling costs of attending universities and excessive undergraduate student loan burden has fundamentally disrupted the appetites of people for advanced degrees. Despite the fact that the economy pays them so well and can’t seen to employ enough of them.

Declining demand is almost certainly exacerbated by the inability of specific degree programs to effectively communicate their value proposition to prospective students.

For example, if you read the twitter and blog internets of the many unhappy students out there regularly sharing their feelings, you’d be surprised to know that the vast majority of current graduate students are actually quite satisfied with their enrollment decisions. They should be, since they put a ton of effort into making their decisions and often without a lot of help from those of us in programs guiding them to us.

The graph above has enrollment numbers at for-profit universities stripped out of the data. The enrollment at for-profits is low relative to that at non-profit institutions, but it is not insignificant. For-profits are actually experiencing a more dramatic bust cycle than are the non-profits. I’ve excluded those data even though that cycle probably shares some of the drive affecting non-profit enrollment, because for-profits are also complicated by a very different dynamic than what problems might be afflicting the traditional universities.

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The MD-PhD Degree is a Million Dollar Award

Money-Mortar-BoardI’m still obsessing a bit over the cost of graduate education. Not the tuition price charged to students that most everybody else is obsessing over, but rather the cost to the university of producing a graduate with an advanced degree. My general hypothesis is that we’d be surprised to know just how much it costs to produce graduates with advanced degrees, and that this cost will often bear little relationship to the level of tuition and fees charged to students.

To know this cost is not trivial. Imagine a typical non-profit university as a bucket that is filled up through a variety of revenue streams from tuition, to research grants, to donations and endowment income, auxiliary enterprises (ie, hospitals, clinics & athletics programs), and federal and sometimes state support. All of this revenue then pays for all that a university achieves throughout the year, which includes but is not limited to educating graduate students. Instructional spending is also reported, but that actually allocated to graduate students is far less clear.

A while back, using a simple aggregate method and some unusual but reasonable assumptions arguing that, in fact, research dollars pay for all the master’s and doctoral graduates, I calculated that the typical graduate degree costs a university $80,000 to award. Another way to estimate this cost is to fractionate university expenses reported to the federal government that are related to education, accounting for the weight of graduate enrollment and award rates. More on that project in a later post.

As one gets into this mindset it is easy to begin thinking that not all advanced degrees are equivalent, that some must be much more expensive to produce than others. You can imagine a much lower cost to award a 1 year master’s degree to a tuition-paying student than that for a stipend-munching multi-year doctorate.

Here are some (back of the envelope) calculations I’ve derived for what it costs a university to produce what is likely to be one of the more expensive degrees to produce, the dual MD-PhD degree, which is a signature for a clinical scientist.

The typical MD-PhD dual degree recipient spends 8 years in university residence, 4 spent in medical training and 4 more in research training. In exchange for that time, the institution agrees to waive all costs of training and research, while providing the student a living stipend.

The cost of education differs for each period mostly because the academic physicians who train students during their medical education are paid more than PhD faculty who train students during their research period. For the cost of medical education, I took the average of the cost of instruction + cost of student services + cost of academic support per enrolled student at about 18 institutions that are solely medical schools–throwing out the three highs ($178,000 per student per year!!) and three lows ($10,000 per student per year!!). For the cost of PhD education, I took a value near the median cost of graduate education per enrolled student, just as above, but used spending at high research universities as a benchmarks.

All MD-PhD students receive a stipend each year of the full 8 year period, and all have their tuition waived (which is a lost opportunity cost for the university…those seats could be filled otherwise by paying customers). The research actually conducted by any doctoral student also costs money (a bit more than $2000/month for a good round average, born of personal experience and a few chats in the hallway). Finally, I’m using private university tuition costs in order to inflate the numbers, thereby justifying a very catchy blog article title. But don’t be confused, the cost of public university MD-PhD’s are not likely to vary too far from the overall number for a private school…they are no great bargain either.

  • 8 years stipend @ $30,000/yr = $240,000
  • 4 years of waived medical school tuition @$50,000/yr = $200,000
  • 4 years of waived graduate school tuition @$35,000/yr = $140,000
  • 4 years of cost of medical education @$50,000/yr = $200,000
  • 4 years of cost of PhD education @$30,000/yr = $120,000
  • 4 years of cost of PhD research effort @$27,000/yr = $108,000

That all sums up to about $1,008,000 for one degree holder, or let’s just round it to a million dollars for a simple-to-remember number. And the US is currently producing just under 600 MD-PhD graduates each year, or over half a billion dollars for less than 10% of all biomedical doctoral degrees awarded. That’s a healthy slice of pie.

This is an extraordinary level of investment borne by the government and the institutions for a fairly unique type of researcher. This cost implies that universities should invest an extraordinary level of care in finding and selecting the individuals who receive these expensive studentships. They should be exceedingly cautious to prevent filling these seats with individuals unlikely to have successful careers…which can be a very difficult judgment to make.

My strong advice to the MD-PhD applicants hitting the interview circuit this fall is be prepared to justify for the admissions committee why the university and society should invest at such a high level in your clinical research career. In what ways have you excelled to a level  high enough to claim one of these seats? What assurances can you give that your future career will provide a return on this investment?

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