You’re in the PhD program — guaranteed!

Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York, has come up with a unique idea for boosting enrollments in science, technology, engineering, or math: Students who have an identified talent in these areas in in middle school would not only be given a track for admission into the City University of New York but also an automatic “conditional” acceptance into top PhD programs in SMET as soon as they are accepted into college.

Upon entering college, students would be offered a spot in a top Ph.D. science or math program, provided they meet certain performance requirements throughout their undergraduate years.

“It sends a very strong statement to students who have not necessarily had the encouragement … that very elite places genuinely believe in them and, at an early age, they are prepared to make an investment to serve as an incentive for those students to continue to do very good work,” Goldstein said.

Whole thing here.

This is certainly a unique approach, but sometimes there’s a reason why such ideas are unique — it’s because they show such a fundamentally flawed understanding of the problem that they’d not usually occur to people such as Chancellor Goldstein.

First, this idea gets student psychology all wrong. Students change as a result of their high school and college education, and the same student who shows promise in SMET as a middle school or high school student may do terribly at these fields in college. More importantly, the opposite is just as often true — there are students whose performance in SMET courses in high school is unremarkable because the ways in which those courses are taught at that level don’t show their true talents. And those criteria shift tremendously in college and especially in PhD programs. What will happen to the students who did well-but-not-great in high school, but whose creativity, connective powers, and capacity for independent work makes them prime PhD candidates? I’m not seeing any guaranteed acceptance policies for them.

Second, the acceptance into PhD studies is “conditional”, but what are the conditions? If the conditions are that the student has to maintain the grades and show the kinds of initiative and quality work that would get them into a top PhD program, then what’s the need for a guaranteed slot? The student would be able to do just fine on his/her own. If the conditions are anything less than this, then the program is guaranteed slots into top PhD programs for which, by definition, the students are not prepared. The whole thing then becomes merely a good-old-boy network for products of the CUNY system, and most likely the students will find themselves chewed up and spat out by the PhD programs into which they were promised entry.

Third, the promise of a spot in a top PhD program serves as a great incentive — for the students who would be able to get into those programs anyway. But for the students whom this program really seems to target, namely kids who are marginal in SMET and need encouragement to stay in the pipeline, the incentive power of this promised acceptance is questionable. Maybe they think that a PhD in a top program is beyond their reach, and maybe they are right. Maybe they just aren’t interested in a PhD. Why should we expect the marginal students to respond to such an “incentive”? And if we’re not sure they will, do you really want to risk watering down “top” programs with students who don’t want to be there or can’t handle the rigors of the program?

Fourth, why a PhD in a top program? There are plenty of kids who go on to get (undergraduate) degrees in SMET who go on to productive and satisfying careers in SMET without PhD’s or even Masters degrees. And of those who do choose the PhD route, many of them get PhD’s from second- or third-tier institutions and still go on to do great things. It seems as though the program’s primary incentive isn’t so much promising students future success in SMET as much as it is promising them entry into an elitist subculture from which they would otherwise be excluded. Which means it has very little to do with solving the problem of perilously low engagement in SMET by high school students today.

A PhD program is predicated on individual skill and persistence and does not exist to make students feel good about themselves. (Quite the opposite.) This program seems nothing more than a system of social promotion taken to the extreme end of the educational timeline. It would be better to invest the resources into greater involvement at the middle- and high-school level to raise the level of engagement with, and skill in, SMET areas among those students.

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