Over the past quarter-century, some rough figures have been obtained between numbers of B.A.'s in the humanities and numbers of first-year graduate students in those fields.
To guess how many B.A.'s will go on to graduate school and how many will complete Ph.D.s, one has to make assumptions about attitudes and motives. If people pursue graduate training in the humanities primarily to prepare for careers as teachers, then evidence of poor job prospects in academe should shut off the flow fairly rapidly. If they enter graduate school primarily for other reasons but complete the Ph.D. chiefly to pursue employment in teaching, then graduate enrollments might remain high but fewer and fewer students will stay to earn their diplomas.
On the other hand, if non-vocational motives are strong all the way through, then trends in numbers of both graduate students and Ph.D.'s might correspond only faintly to trends in the academic labor market. The mix of motives could also influence student choices of graduate schools. At this point, therefore, we have to turn from demographic data to data drawn from survey research.
Every student who was interviewed said that he or she would not stay in school if forced to borrow. Many indicated that they would not have come at all if they had not been sure that some form of university financial support would materialize no later than the second year. Quite a few testified that their choice of school had turned on the size of a fellowship offer.
Although it is possible that the small minority using savings or borrowing money represent a more dedicated group, analysis of the survey data suggests that they are more likely to be people held in graduate school by family or household pressures or by hope of recovering something from sunk costs.
Taken as a whole, survey and interview data and other pieces of evidence suggest that graduate enrollments in the humanities will remain at higher levels than would be the case if they were strictly responsive to conditions in the academic labor market. Large numbers of people come to graduate school; it appears, for the experience itself. Many are prepared to pursue the experience even if doing so involves going from a good school to one not as good.
In a great many cases, the short-term prospect of a fellowship or assistantship exerts allure, despite knowledge that longer-term job prospects are bleak. And the fellowships and assistantships are almost certain to continue, for universities cannot find much cheaper ways of filling out their teaching forces. Consideration of these factors suggests that the population of humanities graduate students should probably be projected as not falling much below 50,000 at any time in the next two decades.
As a student of French literature at NYU said, "The Ph.D. is a commitment you make to yourself and you want to get it." Some, of course, could have other motives. A graduate student in English at Johns Hopkins said that he and his fellow students were completing their degrees only because they were afraid to issue from the academic co-coon. He described himself as "lazy and frightened" and accused others of being similarly timid in the face of a world where efforts and rewards took forms other than examinations and grades. In either case, the result would be the same. If, however, the proportion of dilettante students increases, the relative numbers actually getting degrees would drop.
Nor does existing evidence permit more than speculation concerning the quality of graduate students and Ph.D.'s. Indications that many students go from challenging colleges to less challenging graduate departments, together with evidence that choices by the majority may be strongly influenced by the availability of short-term financial support, give rise to apprehension that there will be not only a diminishing proportion of purposeful would-be scholars but that some-perhaps many-may fail to go to the universities or graduate departments where they could get the most rigorous training. While the Ph.D. boom was on, many institutions enlarged or initiated doctoral programs even though their faculties and research facilities were comparatively weak.
The question concerns those talented and purposeful people who do obtain scholarly training. If not all of them-perhaps, indeed, only a few of them- can find secure careers in academe, what are the chances of their being able to contribute to scholarship from bases elsewhere in society?
The two questions are intricately related because the attractiveness of graduate training to people with potential for scholarship may well turn on their impressions concerning opportunities and possibilities in the event that they do not spend their lives as professors.