Alton Thompson has an interesting blog post about dropout rates in Ph.D. programs. It seems that while most faculty (and, I would add, many students) assume that people drop out because they aren’t up to snuff, it may in fact be that the best students are finding that it is graduate school which isn’t up to snuff. Especially women. Thompson quotes a report by Barbara Lovitts and Cary Nelson:
Everything about the way students depart reinforces this conviction. Most leave silently; they simply disappear, without communicating any reservations about the program to faculty or administrators. Exit interviews or follow-up contacts with departing students are rare. Moreover, students are effectively discouraged from voicing complaints while they are still actively enrolled. The ‘successful’ student is ‘happy’ and compliant; such a student is more likely to receive financial support, good teaching assignments, and strong letters of recommendation. A student who criticizes the program is a problem. Of course this reasoning is circular and self-fulfilling, since complaining students may well be turned into problem students by neglect or discrimination. Meanwhile, the accumulated silence of previous ‘dropouts’ reinforces the view faculty prefer to hold: the problem is with the student, not the program.
Many faculty thus conclude that the way to improve student success is to admit better students. Yet our evidence and that from other studies suggest that students who persist and students who leave are equally well qualified. The Lovitts survey found no meaningful difference between the undergraduate grade point averages of the students who did complete the Ph.D. and those who did not. The only notable difference in grade point averages surfaces when the students are separated by gender: female-completer, 3.57; noncompleter, 3.62; male-completer, 3.52; noncompleter, 3.49. In other words, women who abandoned graduate study had a somewhat higher undergraduate grade point average than those who stayed. What’s more, women leave in higher numbers, thus suggesting once again that attrition is due to something other than ability.
This is certainly true of what I observed among my cohort at Temple, where a large number of very talented women never finished. Its true that if the 50% of people who seem to drop out of Ph.D. programs all decided to stay, the already glutted job market would be twice as bad as it is, but if there is something about graduate student culture which is driving women out at a higher rate then men it needs to be investigated. Thompson also links to this piece in Inside Higher Education about the Council of Graduate Schools’ Ph.D. Completion Project, which emphases the importance of funding for allowing students to complete their degrees. Unfortunately, this data isn’t yet broken down by gender, so we can’t see if financial support is disproportionately affecting female students.
(via Michael Turton)