A new book suggests reforming the nation’s graduate schools. (Brian Davies/The Register Guard via AP, file)

The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein recently took on the thankless task of explaining why the price tag of a college degree continues to outpace inflation, and in doing so, he offered four “tough things” that universities should do to contain costs. Some of his suggestions were roundly criticized as outdated or playing into stereotypes about American higher education. You could read those critiques here and here.

Pearlstein’s column focused on undergraduate education — what most of us think of when we talk about college in the United States. But it ignored a very large slice of legacy costs that are embedded in the fabric of many campuses and contribute to escalating tuition bills all around: graduate school.

“Graduate school in the United States is inseparable from undergraduate education,” Len Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University, writes in his new book The Graduate School Mess. “Indeed, each makes the other possible. The problems of one are, in that way, the problems of both — and those problems proliferate.”

After reading Cassuto’s book and interviewing him recently, I realized that any discussion of reforming higher education must include rethinking graduate education, mostly for PhD’s. And there are four tough tasks that university leaders must tackle in order to reshape graduate education. They include:

1. Reframe the purpose of graduate school. Right now, beyond professional master’s degrees, the sole purpose of graduate school for many faculty members seems to be to perpetuate their own profession. They want to build their replacements, that is if today’s professors — who were hired during the Golden Age of higher education — ever decide to retire to make room for a new generation of academics struggling to find jobs.

[Baby boomers and the end of higher education]

Cassuto largely focuses his book on doctorates in the humanities, and he calls the job market for newly-minted PhDs in those fields “downright abysmal.” Graduate students enter the job market, on average, after nine years toiling away on minuscule pay to teach undergraduates and assist with research while largely giving up some of their prime earning years. Nearly half of graduate students never even make it to the finish line.

The purpose of graduate schools needs to be reframed so that they are not only training future professors, but also workers for employers beyond colleges and universities.

Many industries find PhDs enormously valuable, especially in an era when the economy demands workers who have breadth of knowledge across several fields as well as specialized skills in one discipline. But as Cassuto writes, faculty members teach their students “to not want such work and that to accept it amounts to a poor second choice at best.” And most graduate schools offer little guidance on how to pursue such jobs.

2. Encourage public engagement with research. The biggest criticism of the Pearlstein column centered on disputed figures about the amount of published academic research that is never cited. While the exact percentages are subject to debate, there is no doubt that some amount of academic research is never read nor contributes to breakthrough ideas down the road.

This perpetuates the idea among the public and policymakers that university research is a waste of time and money. In my nearly two decades of reporting on higher education, I met plenty of academics who were pursuing interesting work of public importance, but they couldn’t explain what they were doing without resorting to “academic speak” or in a compelling manner that would make it interesting beyond their small circle of colleagues.

Academics need to better communicate their findings in public. We’re certainly in need of smart thinking on intractable problems. But elevating the public discourse can’t be accomplished with hour-long lectures or tedious writing that’s impossible to understand. Cassuto told me that graduate schools need to teach students to “write and speak in public” and universities need to reward that public work just as much as they do for academic publications aimed at specialized audiences.

3. Be honest with prospective students about their job prospects after graduation. Most universities don’t keep close track of what happens to their PhD dropouts or graduates. They probably don’t want to know because it wouldn’t be good news for their glossy admissions brochures. Many universities need a steady stream of graduate students coming in the door in order to provide cheap academic labor for introductory undergraduate courses.

Most students who apply to graduate school know their odds are long in the job market, but they apply anyway, thinking they’ll be the one candidate to break through. Undergraduate programs are under pressure from students and parents to report the job outcomes of their graduates, so it’s only a matter of time before graduate schools are required to do the same.

Graduate schools need to collect and publish data on job placements and offer real guidance to students on how to navigate the job market both inside and outside academia.

4. Focus spending on students, not on the misguided ambitions of administrators. Universities are in an arms race to build graduate programs and increase research spending that is in some ways reminiscent of what they’re doing in athletics. Campus leaders think graduate schools and athletics will bring them prestige, but they often just result in disappointment and budget deficits.

This academic prestige race has real costs to undergraduates and their families. For example, around a quarter of the top 100 universities that receive the most federal research dollars have doubled their own spending on research in the past decade using undergraduate tuition dollars. Their hope was that those dollars would bring in more federal research. But get this: nearly half of them ended up getting fewer federal dollars, not more.

In his book, Cassuto calls for a new “campus ethic” that focuses reform efforts on fixing graduate school first. “If you don’t teach graduate school right,” Cassuto writes, “then it’s hard to make the case for the rest of higher education.”