Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Growth of Ed.D. Programs in Higher Education and Possible Consequences

In January, I took over as coordinator of the higher education specialization within my department’s Ed.D. program. I was hesitant to take on this role because I am still working towards tenure and knew it would entail a major time commitment. However, I taught several required courses in the program and had developed close relationships with the students. I was eager to continue developing a program that both challenged and supported them. At the same time, I was aware that the program faced a number of major issues. One of these issues was the apparent increase in the number of Ed.D. programs in the state and across the region. We certainly weren’t the only player in the game, and it seemed like online and “executive style” programs, in particular, were on the rise. I started to think about the growth in Ed.D. programs and the possible implications. In this post, I’m going to explore why we might be witnesses growth in Ed.D. programs and enrollments, as well as a few consequences for this growth.

Before I jump into the deep end, I want to express a few caveats. First, although Ed.D. programs are designed for educators and professionals of all levels of education, I’ll primarily stick to what I know, which is the field of higher education and student affairs. Second, I’m not at all suggesting that we shut down Ed.D. programs or steer students away from these programs. I’m simply asking what I think are important questions and speculating on answers. Third, I’m not making a statement about the quality of Ed.D. programs relative to Ph.D. programs, and I’m not advocating for one over the other. As I note below, I care deeply about my doctoral students and believe we run an excellent Ed.D. program. I know amazing scholars and practitioners who have graduated from both types of programs. Fourth, I don’t think I have all of the answers. I don’t even know if I’m asking the right questions. So, I invite anyone to engage with me to improve my thinking. Because I care about my students and my program, I’ve thought about these questions and hope you’ll think about them, too.

Are Ed.D. Programs Growing?

An important question to consider right out of the gate is how I know Ed.D. programs are growing. In truth, I don’t know this for certain. It’s an educated hunch. I have carefully monitored programs in North Carolina, as my program has regional orientation and pulls 99% of its students from the state. We’ve caught wind of several new programs, and we’ve also heard of existing programs growing and expanding. At least one program in our state offers classes in several extension sites. (Sidebar: My program also ran extension sites for several years, but we discontinued them.) Additionally, I have openly discussed Ed.D. programs and their growth on Twitter. Several individuals have confirmed my hypotheses, relating that the Ed.D. program in which they teach has grown or been encouraged to grow. So, sure, not exactly the type of data on which I would rely to make big decisions. When time permits, I hope to explore a few datasets that might shed more light on this question and collect some of my own data about program structures and sizes. I invite any readers to educate me one way or another if they have more insight into this question. However, in the meantime, my sense is that there is something here, enough to continue asking questions.

Why Are Ed.D. Programs Growing?

Part of the reason why I think there has been a proliferation of Ed.D. programs is that several structural conditions have emerged to make these programs attractive to individuals and institutions. At the individual level, in the field of higher education and student affairs, obtaining a master’s degree is now required for many entry-level positions and the majority of mid-level positions. Thus, many individuals seeking jobs have the same baseline credential, and competition likely encourages pursuit of additional education to stand out in a busy crowd. Competition has become fierce, in my opinion, because many universities rely heavily upon a large number of entry-level employees, and there are relatively few opportunities for mid-level positions or above. Using common job titles, many universities have a plethora of “coordinator” positions and fewer “assistant director” positions. This is partly the case because coordinators are paid less and, therefore, cost institutions less. Yet this benefit for institutions is problematic for individuals. Those coordinators may struggle to make ends meet, especially if they live in a city or have student loan debt. In this context, individuals have reason to see pursuing an Ed.D. as a pathway to a promotion and better pay.

A common refrain I hear from students in our master’s program is: “I eventually want to be a dean/vice president/director, so I might as well go for my doctorate now.” So, readers might ask why they don’t pursue one of the very good Ph.D. programs in higher education and/or student affairs already in existence. Of course, many do pursue these programs and find success. However, the reality is that many Ph.D. programs are highly selective, and there are more higher education administrators aspiring for upward mobility than spaces at Ph.D. programs. Moreover, some Ph.D. programs assume students will pursue their studies full-time and work part-time. This simply isn’t an option for some prospective students who have bills to pay and/or families to support. Many Ph.D. programs still require that students have a physical presence on campus. This underscores the issue of time. Some Ph.D. programs take 5-7 years to complete, and some students can’t imagine an academic commitment of that magnitude. This concern is exacerbated by fear that Ph.D. programs are more difficult and more theoretical. By contrast, Ed.D. programs can be completed part-time; they can employ hybrid and/or online delivery models; they can be completed in under 5 years; and they can be highly applied, sometimes foregoing the traditional dissertation for other capstone experiences.(Sidebar: I don’t fully buy into some of these distinctions between Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs, but I mention them here for the sake of argument.) In short, the Ed.D. can provide a very attractive option to some students.

It’s no secret that many colleges of education have experienced enrollment shocks. At the undergraduate level, as a consequence of politicians and popular media bashing the teaching profession for years, many colleges of education are struggling to recruit students to education majors. Some states have also cut pay raises for teachers who receive a master’s degree, which has reduced enrollments in certain master’s degree programs. Ed.D. programs have provided a source of new enrollment at a time when other education programs are contracting. And these aren’t just any other students; they are doctoral students. This means that, according to some state funding models, they are worth more in state appropriations than undergraduate students. Furthermore, doctoral students can help institutions that are striving to be perceived or reclassified as more research-oriented. For these reasons, I contend that many institutions have created new Ed.D. programs and/or looked for ways to grow Ed.D. programs through extension sites, new specializations, and/or or going online.

Why Might This Growth Matter?

It’s possible, of course, that the growth in Ed.D. programs and the number of education professionals with Ed.D. degrees aren’t problems. I happen to love coordinating my program, and I think we provide a high-quality education to amazing students. We aim to cultivate scholar-practitioners, and it’s reasonable to argue that more scholar-practitioners is good for higher education. Nevertheless, there are a few possible consequences of the multiplication of Ed.D. programs. If nothing else, I think the field should more proactively initiate a conversation about the topic.

One possible consequence of the growth in Ed.D. programs is that there is an increase in professionals with terminal degrees. Some of these individuals may have relatively few years of experience in the field, yet they possess a doctorate. There are two potential problems with this scenario. The first is that obtaining a doctorate becomes the standard minimum credential to access mid-level positions in higher. In essence, entry-level positions would require a master’s degree, and positions higher up the ladder would require a doctorate. Employers may increasingly expect this qualification among managers and directors because a) there plenty of candidates in the job market with the credential and b) they themselves may have a terminal degree. Employers may expect a doctorate even if the job responsibilities don’t necessarily require the types of skills developed in a doctoral program. Thus, if growth in Ed.D. programs happens too fast or reaches a critical mass, we might see a collective shift upwards in terms of the educational credentials that would not have been required a decade ago.

Relatedly, some individuals may find that their job market expectations are not met because they are “over-educated and under-qualified.” As an educator, I struggle with the idea that anyone can ever be “over-educated.” However, the realist in me recognizes that, irrespective of the terminology, an imbalance of experience compared to degrees could be a problem for some Ed.D. program graduates. To be fair, this is a possible problem for anyone who enters a doctorate with only a few years of professional experience. Heck, I experienced this on the job market not very long ago! (Sidebar: Have I expressedly lately how glad I am to have this job?) As a result, it is hard for me to argue that there is a “right” time in one’s career to pursue a terminal degree. Nevertheless, it’s possible to imagine someone earning their Ed.D., but becoming deeply disappointed if it’s the case that this credential alone isn’t enough to help them take the next step in their career. There could be a multitude of dissatisfied professionals out there who, despite working very hard on their education, have to gather more experience before they get the promotion they desire.

Another consequence of the growth in Ed.D. programs is that it changes the structure and orientation of institutions, as well as colleges of education. I would bet that a significant share of new Ed.D. programs are established at institutions whose main mission is undergraduate education. This means that the institution doesn’t really have infrastructure for graduate education or, more specifically, doctoral education. For example, the institution might not have tutors in the writing center who can help graduate students, or the center may not be able to provide services online or after working hours. The institution might not have funding support for conference travel. It’s library may not have adequate resources or research support. Operating a doctoral program, one that serves full-time professionals, requires that some institutions and colleges of education rethink and alter their practices to better support these students. Additionally, colleges of education may have to seriously consider their mission if an increasing percentage of their students are at the graduate level. They may no longer be primarily colleges of teacher preparation, but rather colleges of leadership development. Lastly, colleges of education may have to think about the type of faculty member that needs to be recruited, hired, and developed to teach/advise doctoral students. Starting an Ed.D. program can be relatively straightforward, but making an Ed.D. program successful requires careful planning and management on the part of institutions and colleges of education.

My worry is that institutions are attracted enough by the enrollment boost to sidestep these crucial conversations. There is an ethical question at play here if it is the case that institutions are enrolling students and accepting their tuition without being fully prepared to support them, or fully aware of the program outcomes.


This is a call to start a larger conversation about doctoral education in higher education and student affairs. In particular, I think we should have an honest discussion about the growth of Ed.D. programs and the experiences of Ed.D. program graduates. What does the proliferation of these programs mean for the education job market, the perceived value of terminal degrees, and the structure of institutions/colleges hosting these programs? I argue that we should more closely study Ed.D. programs, including the enrollment figures and the outcomes. I’m attempting to do that in my program; attempting to ensure that we’re giving students the best possible experience to translate their education as scholar-practitioners into positive returns. But my concerns linger. With a little luck, I’ll be able to tackle some of these questions through empirical research in the near future.