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Indicator II-17 Attrition in Graduate Programs
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Updated (4/2/2010)

Attrition in graduate programs is a topic of considerable interest to higher education researchers and administrators, but data that could be used to systematically assess the extent of attrition have been scarce. Information compiled by individual universities and programs suggests that attrition rates are substantial, but just how many people begin work toward a humanities Ph.D. and then drop out—and, even more important, why they drop out—are significant questions that have remained unanswered.

Fortunately, three new sources of data should greatly improve understanding of graduate attrition. The first of these, the Council of Graduate Schools’ Ph.D. Completion Project, was published in the autumn of 2007 (too late for inclusion in the first edition of the Humanities Indicators). Supported by funding from the Ford Foundation and Pfizer, Inc., the project has involved 29 U.S. and Canadian research universities in collecting data on doctoral completion rates, as well as on interventions designed to raise these rates.

The second data collection effort, a comprehensive assessment program of U.S. research doctorate programs administered by the National Research Council and funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and participating universities, will soon produce data on rates of graduate attrition for approximately 200 institutions of higher learning. This assessment program involves the collection of a variety of data that will be used to develop multidimensional ratings of U.S. graduate programs (see for more information about the project). One criterion employed to rank programs is the proportion of graduate program entrants who successfully complete doctoral degrees. The data yielded by this ambitious effort should be available in mid-2010.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded Graduate Education Initiative, the third new source of data on attrition, involved both the implementation of a set of interventions designed to improve graduate education in 54 humanities departments in ten major universities and an evaluation of the ten-year project’s outcomes. The findings of the evaluation are described in Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2009). Future editions of the Humanities Indicators will include highlights from all three of these important studies.

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