Answering the Call: CAHNRS Graduate Programs Show Significant Improvement

One of the key benchmarks in WSU’s quest to become an AAU-like institution is enhancing the quality and enrollment of our graduate programs. In comparing WSU’s profile to those of AAU institutions, this is an area where we fall significantly short. Therefore, the WSU Strategic Plan includes aggressive goals concerning advancement of graduate education over the coming years. This message is reaffirmed in both the Graduate Education Commission (GEC) Report and the Yardley Report (an external review of WSU’s graduate programs), both of which outline strategies and goals for transforming the University’s culture, curriculum, and outcomes around graduate education.

One should not have to spend much time justifying the need for advancement of graduate education at WSU. Quite simply, the status of graduate education is one of the foremost defining characteristic of any research university. By almost any measure, the breadth and perceived quality of an institution’s opportunities for graduate education, and particularly its doctoral programs, determine its status among its state, regional, and national peers. Our goal is not, however, to simply compare favorably to other institutions. Instead, these efforts are aimed at becoming a world-class university that addresses major issues of our time and educates the next generation of scientists, scholars, artists, and world citizens.

Graduate education is an area in which CAHNRS must provide university-wide leadership. Why? First, with the exception of the human and natural resource sciences, CAHNRS has relatively small undergraduate programs, so it is important that the college “carry more freight” when it comes to graduate education. Second, CAHNRS is a research leader within the university, and its research and graduate missions are largely interdependent. A study conducted by the Graduate School demonstrated that the vast majority of refereed publications authored by WSU faculty emanate from graduate student research. Hence a necessary condition for increasing research productivity is increasing graduate enrollment. Third, CAHNRS leads the university in extramural funding, and this success provides a critical funding source to further enhance graduate enrollment. Finally, there is a high demand for these graduates, and it is our responsibility to provide the human capital required by the industries which we serve.

The GEC Report included a “call to arms” for the university community to make significant advancements in graduate education, particularly doctoral enrollment. CAHNRS has answered the call! Fall enrollments provided by our departments indicate that college faculty advise 507 graduate students, including 258 doctoral students. These enrollments represent a 15 percent increase in total enrollment since Fall 2007 and a 24 percent increase in doctoral enrollment. These are impressive achievements on the part of our faculty, particularly given recent budget recisions which have reduced the state funds available to fund GTAs and GRAs.

One concern raised by the Yardley and GEC reports was the relatively low number of faculty contributing to our goal of advancing graduate education at WSU. Analysis of college data does not reflect this issue in CAHNRS. In Fall 2009, 80 percent of the tenure-track faculty in the college were advising one or more graduate students. About two-thirds of the tenure-track faculty who have access to a doctoral program were advising a Ph.D. student. When one looks at Fall 2008 and Fall 2009 data combined, nearly 90 percent of our faculty were engaged in service as a major advisor for at least one student during this period. These statistics compare quite favorably to university averages and illustrate that our recent success is truly a team effort.

What next? While we have made great progress, further improvement is possible. Some specific actions we will be pursuing are:

  • Most units have participated in enrollment increases, but a few have lagged. These departments are being asked to “pick it up” over the next year.
  • Despite being located away from the Pullman campus, faculty at our research and extension centers are making significant contributions to graduate education. Improvements in course delivery and technology at these centers will allow these faculty to contribute more fully.
  • A re-launch of the Master’s of Science in Agriculture distance learning degree will provide graduate opportunities for place-bound students.
  • Most importantly, as during 2009, we cannot balance our budget on the back of our graduate programs. We will continue to protect graduate programs as we seek out budget solutions during the coming year.

Go Cougs,
Dan Bernardo