Boston — The steep decline in the numbers of students seeking advanced degrees is sending ripples of alarm throughout American academic communities. Some are calling it a crisis of scholarship. But coupled with the proposed Reagan cutbacks in higher education funding, many observers, including some industry heads, are plainly concerned about future US research capabilities.
Stymied by a frustratingly low number of academic job opportunities, students , many of them the most promising of their generation, are increasingly deserting traditional PhD programs in favor of professional schools, such as law or business. And in the case of engineering and computer science students, the undergraduates are being siphoned off directly into high-paying industry jobs.
This trend, which many educators say is changing the face of American graduate education, is showing up in significant declines in the number of doctorates being awarded. In some cases, entire university departments are being shut down. The Unversity of Michigan, Duke University, and the State University of New York at Albany are among schools closing specific graduate programs and even whole departments.
Recent data collected from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) reports that the number of doctorates has declined nationwide over the past eight years. Over half of all top college graduates, the institute reports, now choose professional schools to further their advanced education rather than arts and science PhD programs. In 1964 only 20 percent of top undergrads chose law, business, or medical school.
All fields, from astronomy to zoology, have experienced losses of gradute students. With changing demographics, such declines might have been anticipated in the job-slim liberal arts fields. But engineering and science departments have also experienced the same plunge. The New England Board of Higher Education reports a 35 percent increase in engineering undergraduate degrees in New England schools for 1971 to 1980, but a 27 percent decrease in PhD candidates.
Even the venerable Massachusetts Institute of Technology has experienced a decline in engineering doctoral students. ''Our outlook in basic science (research) is spotty,'' says graduate school dean Ken Wadleigh.
The proposed curtailment of the Guaranteed Student Loan program (GSL) will only further exacerbate an already difficult situation, educators say. Harvard University's dean of arts and sciences, Henry Rosovsky, calls the decline in graduate study ''an obviously dangerous trend.'' But he adds, ''It's been bad for 10 years. Next year looks to be the toughest yet if the proposed Reagan cuts are approved.''
Nearly half of all graduate students now use the federal loans to complete their advanced degrees, according to the American Council on Education. And many educators fear that the tightening of federal education aid will simply turn off the already dwindling supply of up and coming scholars and researchers.
Others contend there are already too many PhD's. Estimates show 40,000 PhD recipients competing for 10,000 junior faculty openings by the 1990's. ''It depends upon the field,'' says UCLA education Prof. Lewis Solmon. ''In the humanities, the PhD decline has been adequate (to keep pace with the declining undergraduate interest in these fields). In fact, we could use a further decline.''
But most educators see dark days ahead.
The Reagan cuts, ''are a terrible blow,'' says Princeton University graduate school dean Theodore Ziolkowski. ''They are short-sighted to the point of irresponsibility. You cannot turn on and off the pipeline of scholarship.''
The loss of scholars is clearly showing up in the engineering and applied science fields. With more students lured away from graduate study by the high salaries and up-to-date equipment offered by the buoyant computer industry, science departments find it tough to compete for the students needed to maintain credible research programs.
Realizing the link between healthy universities and strong industry, some engineer and computer firms are already finding it in their best interests to aid the ailing university engineering departments. The Exxon Foundation is one of several big oil education foundations contributing funding in much the same way. Several computer firms, such as the Massachusetts-based Wang and Data General have already donated equipment to some nearby computer-starved universities.
While such industry handouts are few and far between for the arts and humanities, many of those schools are doing some innovative bootstrapping to offset declining enrollments. Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the Unversity of California at Santa Barbara are two schools revamping parts of their history departments to turn out historians trained for nonacademic jobs. At Pennsylvania State University, the French and business departments have combined some resources to produce students marketable for foreign business.