Are Students More Likely to Finish at Elite Doctoral Programs?

Over at ActiveHistory.ca, Mark Sholdice notes the predominance of PhDs from a few elite programs in the academic history profession. The elite programs do enjoy higher placement rates—especially in the high-profile world of PhD programs. But he goes on to speculate that students from these programs “are more likely to graduate than their peers in smaller programs.” That inference is not borne out by the data.

Based on annual reporting from doctoral programs in the U.S., there is no clear correlation between the ranking or size of the program and actual completion rates. Each year we ask departments for the number of students that matriculated into the program five and ten years earlier, and their status in the program (either completed, still working toward the degree, dropped out of the program, or missing in action). The net result is that students at top-ranked programs and programs that confer a particularly large number of degrees seem to graduate at close to the same rate as other programs.

In the most recent reports from 120 departments, 24.2 percent of the students matriculating into all programs five years earlier had finished their degrees, and 61.4 percent of the students matriculating ten years earlier had completed the programs.

Students from the lowest-ranked programs seemed to complete at a slightly higher rate than students from the top-ranked programs. The programs in the top quartile of the rankings reported that 18.1 percent of their students had finished within five years—as compared to over 23 percent of the students at programs in the bottom half of the rankings.

The finding for completions at the ten-year mark is a bit more complex. At programs in the top and bottom quartiles of the rankings, around 65 percent of the students had completed their degrees. The difference lay in the middle of the rankings, where closer to 55 percent of the students had completed their degrees.

There was a closer correlation based on the size of the program. Smaller programs reported a higher completion rate at the five-year mark (with 25.8 percent finished as compared to 18.2 percent at large programs), but the difference was largely reversed at the ten-year mark. The large programs reported an average of 65.4 percent of their students had completed the program, as compared to just 53.2 percent at the smaller programs.

Sholdice’s larger observations are well worth reading and considering, even if the data suggests the actual experience is a bit more complex. The numbers can only tell us overall rates of completion—not how or why they might differ, or how it affects the experience for students in the program.

Author’s note: Thanks to Jonathan Dresner (Pittsburg State Univ.) for pointing me to the original article and asking for the comparative data.

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  1. Jonathan Dresner

    Thanks for looking into it!

    The size-completion correlation is interesting, and suggests (to me, anyway) some interesting possibilities about the effectiveness of mentoring, the importance of a good relationship between students and supervising faculty, and the immense lag that can result from mismatches there.

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