Are More Options Always a Good Thing? The Backfiring Effects of Academic Proliferation

The past decade has ushered in dramatic growth in the number of postsecondary degree options available to US students.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the US increased by 22 percent from 2010 (1.6 million) to 2019 (2.0 million). Likewise, master’s degrees increased by 20 percent, while doctoral degrees increased by 18 percent. Moreover, many of these degrees are in new areas of study: there’s been a 21 percent increase in the number of different degree or certificate programs available since 2012.

Concurrently, non-traditional degree or certificate options have also become more popular. Google’s Career Certificates take less than six months and prepare students for lucrative careers in big tech, while the recent startup Outlier offers for-credit transferable online college classes at a fraction of the cost. The pandemic in particular has spurred growth in interest and employer recognition of these non-traditional programs.

So for the average high school graduate in the US today, there are plenty of choices that are opening previously closed doors. In that sense, the increasing opportunities for education, especially for those from underserved backgrounds, is something to celebrate.

But at the same time, the existence of more options does not necessarily mean better outcomes. Especially in situations where the increasing number of program choices dilutes the effectiveness of each program, the proliferation of options within academia could be backfiring to negatively impact the very students we seek to serve.

This is perhaps most obvious in graduate-level education. Especially in the humanities, there is an increasing number of PhDs but a decreasing number of tenure-track faculty positions available. The trend is even apparent in STEM, where there are likewise “too many PhDs, too few research positions.” It does no good to have a plethora of options for a student interested in graduate school if there’s little to no chance of that program landing them a job after graduation. The result of this imbalance in supply and demand is the recent trend of PhD graduates finding jobs outside of academia — which, to be clear, is a commendable and smart move given the lack of academic jobs. However, the reality is that one does not need a PhD for most jobs outside of academia (other than some research-intensive positions), and thus students often find themselves in situations where their formal education of four to six years did not prepare them for a non-academic job.

The fact that many big tech companies no longer require a bachelor’s degree is perhaps a testament to the declining value of a college degree.

Moreover, the influx of new options does not guarantee that all these new programs will adequately prepare students for their chosen careers. Success in academia is determined primarily by the number of research publications in top-tier journals and number of citations, but such metrics are extremely difficult to hit when the rejection rate at these journals can exceed 90 percent. The path to academic success is somewhat of a “hidden curriculum” where students have to learn which editors to network with to gain favor in publication, which faculty to work with who might be willing to add you to authorship on a project, which conferences to attend in order to meet the right people who can help you get a job, which programs will not charge you tuition and will instead give you the necessary teaching experiences, and more. 

Too many graduate programs advertise themselves as “preparing students for their careers” when in fact they do not prepare students with these behind-the-scenes experiences required to succeed, leaving many graduates with overwhelming loans and few career options. These “predatory programs” exist even at elite non-profit schools, and for the average student without access to insider knowledge on the actual quality of different degree programs, they can quickly and easily take advantage of students instead of helping them. Personally, I’ve had many conversations with prospective graduate students who eagerly apply to a variety of different graduate programs in our field of study, not realizing that many of those programs lack the renown, research output, teaching requirements, and funding necessary for success.

Similar issues can be found in the proliferation of undergraduate degrees as well. While many programs offer comparable quality education at reduced cost or time, others do not. The fact that many big tech companies no longer require a bachelor’s degree is perhaps a testament to the declining value of a college degree. To be clear, more programs, especially at the undergraduate level, can have an immense positive impact on creating a more equitable playing field, but only if these programs maintain equal levels of education quality so as to generate actual career results.

The problems of proliferation persist beyond simply the number of programs. For those who continue in academia at the graduate level, they will quickly find an overwhelming number of “academic journals” in which research is published. The number of scientific journals has increased from 1.1 million in 2000 to 2.6 million in 2018, largely driven by technological advancements that enable Online-Only journals. The result is a large number of low-quality journals with few quality control checks (even “peer review” can be suspect depending on the quality of the reviewers who are selected). Once again, students who are unaware of the hidden curriculum behind which journals are “top tier” and which aren’t will end up sinking time and money into publishing in a lower quality journal, only to find out later that the journal isn’t considered “top tier” enough to count towards their future academic career evaluations.

The same problems of predatory options also persist with journals. Some journals capitalize on the pressure to publish, charging outrageous publication fees while ignoring traditional quality control checks and thus guaranteeing publication. One report found that 5 percent of researchers in Italy have published in these predatory journals, sometimes without even realizing the unethical practices of such journals. Not only does this eventually negatively impact the student (many of these articles are later retracted, which can destroy a person’s career), it also leads to widespread confusion among the public. I’ve written previously about how the abundance of poor-quality journals that purport to publish “scientific research” can easily mislead public audiences who do not realize the problems of academic proliferation.

Quality control is a difficult endeavor. Accrediting agencies exist, but again the vast number of different accrediting agencies threatens the trustworthiness of a “We are accredited!” advertising statement. Moreover, quality control must be pursued in tandem with increasing opportunity and equity, rather than perpetuating socioeconomic gaps separating those who have access to quality education from those who do not.

As a PhD student, I am far from being in a position where I can influence the creation and quality control of academic programs and journals. But I implore those who are to consider the potential negative impacts of creating endless new choices. For program directors and accreditors, ensure that students are not taken advantage of and are equipped with the necessary skills and experiences to succeed in their chosen career fields. For current and prospective students, be wary when selecting from your options in academia, and be sure to avoid any predatory programs or journals that might lead you astray.

Steven Zhou (@szzhou4) is a PhD student in organizational psychology at George Mason University, where he studies leadership, teams, and statistics. He also serves as the President of the Graduate Student Association in the university student life department.