The University of Minnesota will not accept new students into many of its liberal arts doctoral degree programs this fall, pausing admissions to save money during the pandemic and to focus on supporting current students.

English, history, political science, theater arts, and gender, women and sexuality studies are among 12 Ph.D. programs that have temporarily halted admissions. Fifteen additional liberal arts doctoral programs will only accept a limited number of new students this fall. No doctoral programs outside the U's College of Liberal Arts have paused admissions, according to the university.

Students in those doctoral programs are typically guaranteed five years of funding to support their studies. By not admitting a new class of Ph.D. students, U administrators estimate they will save $2 million to $4 million, which will help brace the school for budget uncertainty and possibly fund another year of study for doctoral students whose work has been disrupted by the pandemic. But some fear the admissions freeze will lead to many of the programs being permanently downsized.

"It's not a decision that we took lightly," said Steven Manson, associate dean for research and graduate programs in the College of Liberal Arts. "I think there's a really active and ongoing conversation across academia right now, but particularly in the humanities and social sciences, around right-sizing programs."

More than 100 doctoral programs across the country have enacted a fall admissions pause. In Minnesota, the U appears to be the only public university that has taken this action. Doctoral programs at the seven universities in the Minnesota State system have not changed their admissions plans, a spokesman said.

Manson cited the possibility of state funding cuts as a reason for the hiatus.

Additionally, many Ph.D. students have been forced to delay clinical rotations, travel and field work needed to complete their degrees. And with most colleges freezing hiring during the pandemic, the job market for academics has become bleak. With the admissions pause, some doctoral programs might be able to use institutionally funded teaching assistantships to support students who require a sixth or seventh year of study.

"We want to try to … extend funding beyond five years," said Professor Ann Waltner, chair of the history department. "We're not in a position to promise that, but we really hope that we'll be able to."

The history department will re-examine its curriculum and structure during the hiatus, Waltner said. The job market for history students is "grim," she said, with most graduates bouncing between postdoctoral and adjunct faculty positions. Even when admissions resume, the department may opt to accept fewer students going forward.

"We don't want to produce more Ph.D.s than there are jobs for, so I think a smaller, more focused program may not be such a bad idea," Waltner said.

In the English department, the average new class of doctoral students has shrunk over the years from as many as 20 to about a dozen, said department chair Andrew Elfenbein. He expects yearly cohorts will average about five to six students post-pandemic.

"It's impossible not to wonder, does this spell the end?" Elfenbein said. "But I have not seen evidence that would lead me to believe that."

Graduate students have expressed mixed feelings about the admissions freeze.

Chieh Kao, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in speech-language-hearing sciences, said many students felt blindsided by the news. She found out her department would limit admissions through a graduate student newsletter sent out Nov. 30. Administrators say they began consulting departments about the pause early last fall, but several graduate students said they did not learn about it until months later.

Jayne Kinney, a second-year history Ph.D. student, worries that skipping an admissions cycle will lead to a shortage of teaching assistants. With fewer doctoral students around to help teach undergraduate classes, Kinney wonders if they will be expected to shoulder a larger teaching load than usual.

Kinney said she is also skeptical about the college's desire to financially support students beyond their fifth year of study: "We've seen nothing in writing and also were given no guarantees."

Suzanne Ortega, president of the national Council of Graduate Schools, said colleges are wise to focus their funding on current students instead of new ones, calling it the "moral choice." But she cautioned that a one-year pause could have long-term consequences. First-generation and low-income college students who had planned to pursue a Ph.D. this fall likely cannot afford to wait until admissions resume in 2022, Ortega said.

In the years to come, "the cohorts not only may be smaller, but they will almost by definition be less diverse," she said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234