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PhD Scientist Glut (Not POLITICAL Scientist; We Already Knew That)

NSF-PhD-Employment

Jordan Weissmann details “America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts.”

Politicians and businessmen are fond of talking about America’s scientist shortage — the dearth of engineering and lab talent that will inevitably leave us sputtering in the global economy.

But perhaps it’s time they start talking about our scientist surplus instead.

I am by no means the first person to make this point. But I was compelled to try and illustrate it after reading a report from Inside Higher Education on this weekend’s gloomy gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In short, job prospects for young science Ph.D.’s haven’t been looking so hot these last few years, not only in the life sciences, which have been weak for some time, but also in fields like engineering.

The graphs below, drawn from National Science Foundation Data and some of my own calculations, depict Ph.D. employment at graduation. It’s not a perfect measure of the labor market for young science talent — ideally we’d have data on graduates nine months or a year out of school, since some people need a little extra time to job hunt. But looking at these figures over time, it seems pretty obvious that there’s no great run on trained scientists in this country.

I’ll not repost all seven of his charts here but the overview graphic, which aggregates all PhD graduates regardless of field, is interesting by itself: Less than 40 percent have a job upon graduation and some 35 percent have neither a job nor a postdoctoral study program lined up.

The no job number is high across the board: Above 30 percent for life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering. What’s more shocking is this:

And finally, the humanities Ph.D.’s — the few, the proud, the Romantic literature buffs who are practically assumed to be unemployable upon graduation. Thanks to the relative lack of postdoctoral spots, these scholars are both more likely to have a job upon graduating than any of their peers in the sciences and more likely to be searching for employment. All told, their fate isn’t all that much worse than the lab geeks’ (though their pay, should they land a gig, certainly is).

That’s right: Humanities PhDs are actually more likely to have gainful employment upon finishing their degree than their counterparts in the STEM fields.

Of course, job/no job isn’t the only meaningful question.

Georgia State University Professor Paula Stephan has broken down NSF data on biology Ph.D.’s five or six years post-doctorate, and her findings offer both a bit of hope and discouragement (as well as an extraordinarily messy graph; apologies in advance). She doesn’t identify hoards of unemployed biologists burning their lab coats for warmth. But she does find that fewer than 1 in 6 are in tenure track academic positions — smaller than than the number still stuck in post doc positions (in green). A full 10 percent are out of the labor force or working part-time.

For humanities and social science PhDs, the inability to get a tenure track job amounts to failure for most. Some social scientists intentionally get their degrees with careers in government and public policy careers in mind, but presumably most everyone majoring in English literature, Medieval History, or Women’s Studies did so with an intention of becoming a tenured professor.

In the STEM fields, there are obviously plenty of more lucrative alternatives to teaching undergraduates. Still, the notion of finishing a grueling doctoral program in the hard sciences and not being able to find commensurate employment is disheartening, indeed.

 

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Hal 10000 says:

    A couple of points. The “nothing” does not mean they aren’t finding jobs; it means they don’t have jobs ready. The unemployment rate for those with doctoral degrees is extremely low. It’s just that fewer are finding faculty jobs. Second, this has been going on for a long time. I’m in astronomy and most people I know have done two or three postdocs before they get a faculty job (and even then, it’s often soft money, like mine). For someone to leave grad school and go into a faculty job is almost unheard of unless it’s a pure teaching position. (Although, when the Labor Department calculates their “average salary” they only do it for tenure track or civil servants leaving out the low end of the salary pool).

    Finally, this is only going to get worse if the sequester happens (I’ll put the wisdom of it aside for the moment). Because grants are funded over a number of years, a cut in funding is going to essentially mean no new grants this year form NIH, NSF, DOE, NASA, etc. In fact, the agencies are talking about having to potentially claw back funds already committed. So unless you are already funded — and possibly overfunded — you could be in trouble.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    You mean our resident trolls can’t blame everything on art majors any more?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  3. Just Me says:

    My oldest is majoring in Bio Chem but has no interest in teaching. She essentially wants to work in a lab.

    Job prospects for when she graduates worry me (she is in her sophomore year).

    My youngest daughter (graduates from high school in June) intends to major in engineering (likely biomedical but maybe chemical). I admit I don’t worry as much about future employment for her, but maybe I should.

    Sounds like plans to have an academic career may not be wise no matter what your field of study is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  4. Do they have any similar figures for STEM BS degrees? My intuition is that the problem is not a lack of STEM jobs, but rather that outside of academia, there’s really no reason to have a PhD and that someone with a PhD but no work history is overqualified for any entry level jobs and too much of a risk for any experienced worker jobs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  5. JKB says:

    Why the assumption that the call for more STEM majors means Ph.Ds? We really don’t need more university professors. We need people who can do useful things with their education. Not that Ph.Ds can’t but you don’t need a Ph.D to do that in STEM.

    My brother-in-law manages a slew of Ph.Ds all with his BS in Chemistry. Why because he isn’t a lab monkey, he runs the business areas. He has been doing it a good while but no reason another BS in chem can’t do the same. I have a friend with a BS in Chem E, he runs a small synthetic fiber production company. How many humanities majors do you think are doing the critical jobs up in the ND oil sands? How many Ph.Ds as opposed to BS and MS?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  6. Tsar Nicholas says:

    This post and the underlying article to which it cites really are cognitively dissonant to extreme degrees, pun intended but also not intended.

    First off, obviously hiring for Ph.D.’s currently is in the tank. Doesn’t matter whether your speciality is petroleum engineering or political science. To a large extent that category of student remains in academia. Public money schools are dealing with budget calamities. Private schools already are staffed to the eyeballs.

    Nobody is suggesting that Ph.D.’s become de rigueur. What people are suggesting — people who actually work in private industries — is that we as a country promote the hard sciences over the useless arts at the bachelor’s and the master’s levels. When the likes of Genentech, Chiron, Applied Sciences, Oracle, Texas Instruments, Advanced Micro Devices, hell, pretty much all of high tech and bioscience look for new hires they’re not necessarily married to getting people with Ph.D.’s. Not at all. Masters degrees in the relevant fields are more than adequate for the vast majority of available positions in high tech and bioscience corporate America.

    It’s not a coincidence that Silicon Valley for over a decade has been screaming to the rafters that they want and need higher caps on H-1B visas. And it’s not merely because Indian and Chinese M.Eng.’s are cheaper. Education priorities do have material consequences.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  7. wr says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: “What people are suggesting — people who actually work in private industries — is that we as a country promote the hard sciences over the useless arts at the bachelor’s and the master’s levels.”

    Yes, because the only things that are important in the culture of a nation are oil drilling and gas fracking. Art, music, poetry, fiction, film — all completely useless. True, the products of the entertainment industry are a huge chunk of American exports, but nonetheless, they’re useless.

    Let us all follow the example of Mr Gradgrind, that brave teacher from Mr. Dickens’ treatise on education called Hard Times, and eliminate everything from our lives but Fact.

    What a grim, ugly world these righties live in. No wonder they become libertarians. If I saw the world as they did, I’d probably hate all human beings, too…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  8. CSK says:

    The dirty little secret is that most employers outside of academe don’t like to hire Ph.D.s, period. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. The reasons given are varied: Ph.Ds aren’t team players, they think they’re smarter than everyone else, they cost too much money, you can’t “train” them, and finally…the Ph.D. is “seen as a teaching degree.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Not in the area I work in….in Physics, you’re going to need a Ph.D. There is now so much material that you need to learn that the M.S. just doesn’t cut it.

    And you ARE going to need a Ph.D. or its equivalent for any job that requires cutting edge research. A lot of the advances are now happening in interdisciplinary areas so if you really want to know the material you’re going to have to have a lot of knowledge to tinker around with. I worked in a high-tech start-up for several years and they were hiring Ph.D.s as sales people because we would be going in and talking directly to top researchers. We were respected and listened to because we knew exactly how our instrumentation could apply to their research. I really doubt we would have had the background with a M.S.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. rudderpedals says:

    I worry about the kids who have 5+ figure student loans that need servicing upon graduation. I hope they’ve all avoided private student loans and parental guarantees.

    Esoteric credentials actually are needed if you’re going to reach engineering VP or better at a big defense contractor but you’re not going there fresh out of school. Maybe it’s the same for flag officers in the military.

    The other guys Tsar mentioned? These are multinationals, corporations people but unlike many defense contractors they are without loyalty to any particular country. With ordinary multinationals American STEM grads are more and more in a race to the bottom with the rest of the world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. Ben Wolf says:

    Let me translate the above screed of our resident trolls:

    “Goddamnit, everything will be the fault of art majors!!! We will here no more about insufficient jobs for engineers!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. @grumpy realist:

    You’re a very unrepresentative group though. In 2010 (most recent BLS figures), there were 2.5 million “Computer and Mathematical Occupations”, 2.4 million “Architecture and Engineering Occupations”, and 1.2 million “Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations”. Of those 6.1 million jobs, there were a mere 18,000 physicists.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. superdestroyer says:

    @JKB:

    Engineering is always different than physics, chemistry, or biology. A BS holder in the purer sciences or math is basically unemployable. Anyone applying for a job is competing against all of the advanced degree holder. Sure, a few of them can get jobs in sales/business development but that is a skill that is basically independent of education.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Again, we’re missing the big picture. The shortage is not is STEM majors; the shortage is in STEM majors who will work for start ups at minimum wage or as contract laborers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  15. Dave Schuler says:

    The length of post-docs has been increasing pretty steadily over the last decade or so, too. That’s a pretty fair proxy measurement for unemployment among PhDs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  16. wr says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Thank you for cutting through all the crap and getting to the truth — employers who say they can’t find workers mean they can’t find workers who will work for nothing, allowing them to keep everything.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  17. JKB says:

    @superdestroyer:

    If you want to be a lab monkey, you are going to have trouble. But if you are willing to use the skills learned in the objective studies you completed, the problem solving, the deep understanding, then you can make a good living. You might not do much with the science but you’ll need the background to understand your product or service.

    Bottom line, STEM or humanities, college doesn’t set you up for a job. It doesn’t teach you what is needed to get a job. However, a college degree can have prepared you to go further than you might had you not gone to college if you are willing to work at it.

    Personally, I would say a STEM degree gives you very good skills. Sure, STEM grads could use a bit better writing skills. But they have analytical thinking, problem solving, math, understandings of physical processes and the scientific method, lab skills, and critical thinking. Do all have this? No, I’ve known some who were encyclopedias but they needed adult supervision outside their research.

    The first part of this career session presented to MIT grad students is informative. Later on it gets into the nitty gritty of job search, etc. But the beginning has good information about the STEM higher level job market.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Dave says:

    @Just Me: I have a biochem degree and graduated in ’09 which was not a good time to graduate. I found a job in 3 months. I am still there and they are currently paying for me to get my PhD. Biochem is a great field for employment, especially if she can find a biomed or agriculture employer. I would not be too worried, STEM jobs are one of the best areas to actually find employment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  19. Crusty Dem says:

    As a life science PhD, the H-1Bs are killing us. We now have a glut of cheap labor who can be threatened with deportation if they don’t work 100 hour weeks or give the results the PI wants. The result is a great deal of fraud and lower salaries and fewer good opportunities for Ameeica’s best and brightest. It’s not good for science, it’s not good for progress, it’s not cost effective. It’s a disaster.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  20. Hello World! says:

    I was a CS major and Crusty Dem is right about the H1B’s killing us. No one in the media or Washington wants to address that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  21. Just Me says:

    @Dave:

    Thanks for the encouragement. She loves her major and is doing well, but I can’t help but worry given the current job market for people her age. Luckily for her she has enough between scholarships and other aid that her loans are minimal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Rob in CT says:

    This relates to STEM in general, not PhDs…

    I was chatting with a friend last night. He’s an actuary. He says ~80% of his department is Chinese, and then remarked “I guess nobody in America can do math.” [note: I didn't probe to figure out for sure that when he says "chinese" he means actually chinese and not Chinese-american. Given the context, I *think* he means Chinese Chinese)]

    I wonder. Perhaps that’s so. Or perhaps it’s just cheaper to import some Chinese guys on visas. Perhaps its a bit of both.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. C. Clavin says:

    “…we as a country promote the hard sciences over the useless arts…”

    You really have to wonder about the world that maroons like Tsar want to live in.
    A country without all those “useless” arts…that would be fantastic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  24. Barry says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: “What people are suggesting — people who actually work in private industries — is that we as a country promote the hard sciences over the useless arts at the bachelor’s and the master’s levels. ”

    We are producing quite a number of graduates in those fields; salaries are generally not increasing much (which is the gold standard of a ‘shortage’).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just Me:

    Luckily for her she has enough between scholarships and other aid that her loans are minimal.

    My niece managed to graduate with zero student debt. Of course, that means she worked just as hard at getting grants and scholarships as she did at her studies. Nothing was too small for her to apply for. The local VFW for $500? Done. SPLC for $250? Got it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. As I mentioned earlier, there were as of 2010, 6.1 million STEM jobs in the US. There were, that year, a total of 433 thousand H-1b visas. That is, visa holders are taking up seven percent of the STEM jobs out there.

    Funny how everyone starts turning into superdestroyer the second someone vaguely ethnic starts competing for a middle class job.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  27. Crusty Dem says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    And how many have moved on to other visas or become citizens? Can you think of another field where we’ve recruited huge numbers of non-citizens to fill jobs that could easily be done by citizens?

    I’m only reporting what I’ve directly experienced. My boss at !superhugeA1+ivyleagueschool! repeatedly threatened H1-B visa holders with deportation if they didn’t give him the results he wanted, the hours he wanted, or he thought might be looking at other positions (Why? Considering his awesome treatment..). We had an H1-B reciepient turned prof, thanks to a string of Science and Nature papers, who was able to spurn an NIH investigation by destroying every piece of data in his lab. He’s still there.

    I’m far less concerned about my salary or competition than I am about the rampant fraud that occurs from putting people in high pressure situations that they can’t control. Science is built on trust and it isn’t designed to handle intentional, repeated fraud in a timely manner (if at all). I’m not blaming “furriners” or cultural issues, these are really good people put in very bad situations.. Maybe it works better in other fields, but from what I’ve seen, it’s a terrible system..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  28. @Crusty Dem:

    And how many have moved on to other visas or become citizens?

    And if they are citizens now, why exactly should I be horrified that they have jobs? Are you implying that native born citizens somehow have more of a right to employment than non-native born citizens?

    Can you think of another field where we’ve recruited huge numbers of non-citizens to fill jobs that could easily be done by citizens?

    Manual labor, agriculture, cleaning, landscaping, childcare services, …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  29. @Crusty Dem:

    My boss at !superhugeA1+ivyleagueschool! repeatedly threatened H1-B visa holders with deportation if they didn’t give him the results he wanted, the hours he wanted, or he thought might be looking at other positions

    The solution to which is not eliminating H-1b visas, but allowing people who have one to stay to the end of the visa even if they momentarily lose employment, so that they can’t be extorted with threats of being fired.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. george says:

    @Barry:

    We are producing quite a number of graduates in those fields; salaries are generally not increasing much (which is the gold standard of a ‘shortage’).

    I don’t think there is a shortage of STEM graduates. I think the reason industry is asking for more STEM graduates is they hope an increase will lower STEM wages. Currently STEM wages are still fairly decent, because there aren’t enough qualified STEM graduates desperate to work for a pittance. If you’re hiring, its always better to have a surplace of qualified candidates – you get better quality for less pay.

    STEM salaries have been more or less constant because the supply of graduates more or less meets the demand. I’d argue this is a good situation, though for the graduates themselves it’d be better if there were a shortage, for the businesses it’d be better if there were a surplus. The businesses tend to get into the news more than the graduates, so you hear about “projected” shortages, which never seem to arrive.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  31. rudderpedals says:

    @Stormy Dragon: That fixes the abuse and indentured servitude part but the fix lacks advocates. There’s nothing in it for the H1B users. They’ll ask why should I have to eat the H1B expense when the guy is going to move to greener pastures once he gets here?

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  32. John D'Geek says:

    (My post needs to be resucued from the Anti-Spam filters!)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  33. @rudderpedals:

    They’ll ask why should I have to eat the H1B expense when the guy is going to move to greener pastures once he gets here?

    Which is the situation they face with every other employee. If they want an employee to stay, they need to make the job more valuable to them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  34. rudderpedals says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Agreed and that’s how it should work but there’s no effective constituency for H1B worker rights.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  35. Crusty Dem says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    And if they are citizens now, why exactly should I be horrified that they have jobs? Are you implying that native born citizens somehow have more of a right to employment than non-native born citizens?

    If you’re going to assess the impact of the program, I don’t think it’s proper to include only current recipients and exclude everyone who’s come here via the program. I’m really addressing this in terms of what I see as a glut of STEM workers a number of whom have been recruited from abroad through various government programs. Without these programs, I think it’s reasonable to say they wouldn’t be here.

    Can you think of another field where we’ve recruited huge numbers of non-citizens to fill jobs that could easily be done by citizens?

    Manual labor, agriculture, cleaning, landscaping, childcare services, …

    Really, we have special programs to recruit people to do this, I must have missed that, please elaborate..

    The solution to which is not eliminating H-1b visas, but allowing people who have one to stay to the end of the visa even if they momentarily lose employment, so that they can’t be extorted with threats of being fired.

    Given that all of these are key components of the visa, I’d argue that it would be better to replace the system with something completely different, if not eliminate it.

    The key points are A) we don’t have a shortage of STEM workers (though obviously the system benefits certain universities/companies in allowing them to hire workers at lower costs) B) The H-1B system is incredibly flawed, damaging for both current American STEM workers, those who are brought to the US to work under the system, and science in general.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  36. john personna says:

    I see that the important number, the “nothing” for Employment at Graduation of Engineering PhDs is below what it was 20 years ago. Not bad for a bad economy. “Nothing” for physical science PhDs is only slightly above what it was 20 years ago. “Nothing” for life sciences is significantly worse, possibly because those are a bigger bin of some marketable (medical) and non (environmental glut) degrees.

    Perhaps people without the STEM can’t read charts, again.

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  37. john personna says:

    Note that the “nothing” rate for humanities PhDs is about 42%. For engineering PhDs it is 36%.

    Dollars to donuts the “in field” rate is about twice as high in engineering as well.

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  38. john personna says:

    Top 10 Majors by Salary Potential

    But you know, if you can’t make that top ten, feel free to substitute dubious figures.

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  39. Crusty Dem says:

    @john personna:

    I thought we were talking about PhDs. Nothing on your list divides by education at all..

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  40. john personna says:

    @Crusty Dem:

    Two things. First why do we focus on the STEM subset of the PhD subset? It might be a corner case of the education picture from which you would NOT want to generalize on STEM education. Second, without data why would you assume that the most lucrative undergraduate degrees would break down, with more education?

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  41. john personna says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    Low end workers in STEM are both working well above minimum wage and are not degree holders. Think self taught web designers, light scripting, etc.

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  42. john personna says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    So visas took 1/7th of jobs.

    Which 1/7th?

    The strongest or the weakest?

    Market theory would say the weakest, and so we should ask if it is really in the national interest to keep the weakest workers in play.

    (Though likely visas also expanded hiring and did not strictly displace.)

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  43. grumpy realist says:

    People can be quite willing to work for start-ups, provided they get stock options, etc. I think the major difference between STEM education now and what it was when I got my Ph.D. is that there’s less $ for grad students’ stipends, especially in light of increased tuition. It used to be that if you were a grad student in a STEM field, you wouldn’t have to take on much debt (if any) because of stipends attached to being a T.A. or an R.A. (I in fact was told by one of my professors that if a university didn’t offer a stipend attached, don’t even bother with it.)

    I think the best thing we could do for university and graduate education in the US is a) get rid of all of government student loan support, and b) get rid of at least half of the government bureaucracy. That’s where all the increase in tuition is going–it’s certainly not going to professors’ salaries! It would also be good if parents didn’t continually insist on 5-star hotel accomodations for their special snowflakes, as well. I’ve always considered university to be the place where you learn how to deal with 100 Different Ways To Cook Ramen, how to cook as cheaply as possible, and how to protect your food supply from the damn cockroaches.

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  44. grumpy realist says:

    Sorry, not ‘government bureaucracy”, but “university bureaucracy” above. We’re already cutting the former.

    (don’t complain about shoddy patents getting issued or the length of time it takes to get one, libertarians. You wanted fewer governmental workers, that’s the result you get….)

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  45. john personna says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I think the best thing we could do for university and graduate education in the US is a) get rid of all of government student loan support, and b) get rid of at least half of the government bureaucracy.

    I agree, though I think we are in a time of education reinvention so transformative that none of us can know the endpoint.

    Coursera emails me that they have “90 New Classes and 29 New Schools.” That is a mileage marker, and not a destination.

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