The No. 1 Graduate School of Education?

What's the No. 1 graduate school of education in America? If you asked people in the academic world, many would probably mention Teachers College at Columbia University, which is not only well-regarded by its peers, but also unusually large, granting more than 100 doctoral degrees in education every year.

But for the past two decades, one university has out-produced Teachers College in doctorate production: Nova SoutheasternUniversity. Based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Nova enrolls more than 25,000 students, making it the seventh-largest private, nonprofit university in the nation. It was founded as a technical university in 1964 and specializes in distance learning for adult students. Most students for advanced education degrees are classroom teachers and other educators in public schools.

For most of the 1990s, Nova Southeastern granted about 250 education doctorates per year. But as Chart 1 shows, those numbers began to increase sharply in 2002. By 2005, Nova's degree production surged to almost 450 a year. Teachers College granted 150 education doctorates that year, virtually the same as it granted in 1998.

Two other relative unknowns also entered the competition for most prolific granter of education doctorates during the same period. Argosy UniversityÔÇôSarasota, another Florida institution, granted 49 education doctorates in 1998, ranking it 43rd among all institutions nationally. In 2002, the for-profit institution granted 89 doctorate degrees, moving it close to the top ten. As Chart 1 shows, the number of degrees granted by Argosy grew exponentially from that point, climbing to 359 in 2005, making it second only to Nova Southeastern.

Capella University, based in Minneapolis, is another new entrant to the market, granting its first education doctorate in 1999. But, teaching almost entirely online, it granted 101 in 2005, seventh-most in country. If current trends continue, Capella will soon challenge Nova and Argosy for doctoral supremacy.

Being the biggest, of course, doesn't necessarily make you the best. There is no objective way of measuring the quality of the scholars a university produces, and few schools of education follow their graduates back to the classroom to see if they're successful in helping students learn. So there's no way to know for sure if Nova, Argosy, and Capella are sacrificing quality for quantity.

But quality is likely a secondary consideration for many teachers pursuing advanced credentials. The salary schedules used by most public school districts provide additional compensation to teachers and administrators who earn master's degrees and doctorates. Few, if any, provide more money for a degree from a highly-rated university. Nor do they check to see if additional education translates into greater effectiveness in the classroom.

Universities therefore have incentive to provide as many education degrees as possible at low cost. Doing so was made substantially easier by the Internet, which reached the majority of American households at the same time that Nova, Argosy, and Capella began their rapid expansion. As long as these incentives remain, the trends shown on the chart above are likely to continue.

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Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy program at New America.