There is growing concern among educators and policy makers over recent levels of attrition from Ph.D. programs as reported by some U.S. universities. Of the studies currently available, some institutions place graduate attrition at 50 percent for selected fields in the sciences and humanities; others have documented attrition at levels well over 65 percent for some programs. Some attrition will always occur as students progress through demanding research degree programs. Nevertheless, the rates reported by these institutions are considered "high" compared to estimates provided by faculty and deans in 1960 when they placed attrition at 20 to 40 percent.
Our confidence in the effectiveness of graduate education in the United States depends to a large extent on the statistics that describe the outcomes of the enterprise. The estimates provided by universities today are based on careful procedures using administrative records at their institutions. Reliable estimates of graduate attrition are important because of their potential to reduce the waste inherent in the premature departure of talented individuals from advanced preparation in the sciences and humanities. Unfortunately, such estimates of graduate attrition are not available for the full complement of institutions comprising the U.S. graduate education enterprise.
This report responds to a request from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a summary of data sets that could be used to monitor trends in graduate attrition and degree completion in the sciences and humanities at U.S. universities. The study was conducted under the auspices of the National Research Council's Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel (OSEP), which invited two members of the OSEP Advisory Committee on Studies and Analyses to serve as an ad hoc panel to oversee the project.
In the course of the study the panel commissioned a summary of national data sets that have been or could be used to analyze patterns of graduate attrition and degree attainment in the sciences and humanities. The data bases are described in Appendix A of this report. The panel also commissioned two papers to identify and summarize studies of graduate attrition and degree attainment published in the past decade; these results appear in the Annotated Bibliography.
From its review of these materials, the panel concludes that there is a distinct body of knowledge about attrition from doctoral programs at U.S. universities. The panel identified three types of studies: (1) those that generated estimates of attrition utilizing administrative records, (2) those that involved special-purpose studies and surveys to document factors contributing to graduate attrition, and (3) those that modeled student persistence in graduate study.
Because of the diversity of graduate programs, however, and the need to collect data on attrition from the records of individual institutions, the panel also concludes that it is not feasible to design a system to produce national estimates of attrition from Ph.D.
programs. A few academic institutions have recently undertaken the longitudinal analyses that are needed to ascertain rates of attrition and degree attainment at their own institutions. Some movement is also evident in the educational research community to develop profiles of graduate attrition at selected groups of institutions. These studies are not expected, however, to yield national estimates of attrition from graduate studies in U.S. universities as a whole.