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There's a shortage of school psychologists. So why is Penn State's College of Education closing its School Psychology Ph.D. program?

Old Main, the Penn State administrations building on the University Park campus.
Min Xian
Penn State’s College of Education plans to close its doctoral program in School Psychology within the next four years, because of a decline in enrollment and lack of intended career placements.

Penn State’s College of Education plans to close its doctoral program in School Psychology within the next four years, because of a decline in enrollment and graduates going on the different jobs than intended for the degree, according to the college.

The program's goal is to train students to specialize in combining psychology and education practices.

College of Education Dean Dr. Kimberly Lawless called the program “not viable” and said that students currently enrolled in the program will be able to finish their degrees within the next four years.

“This was not a decision made lightly, nor quickly,” Lawless said in an email statement.

She said the decision was made because enrollment has been in steady decline and graduates overwhelmingly choose to work in school districts over becoming researchers, “which raises important questions about the fit of the degree for the current student market.”

There are 34 students enrolled in the Ph.D. program this year. Over the past decade, new Ph.D. enrollments have ranged from 5 to 7 students each year. The program received less than half the amount of applications for the 2020 school year than in 2011.

Penn State Dean of the Graduate School Regina Vasilatos-Younken said those numbers and other sustainability issues such as cost are taken into account before reaching the decision to close the program.

“From 2011 to today, the university has ended 31 graduate degree programs, of which 15 were replaced with six more sustainable versions of the original programs,” Vasilators-Younken said in a statement.

More than 2,300 people have signed an online petition opposing the decision, including alumni of the program and working school psychologists. Many commented they’re concerned about the impact the closure will have on the existing shortage of mental health professionals nationwide.

Dr. Julia Szarko graduated from the program in 2000 and is currently the National School Psychologist of the Year. She said problems with the program demand solutions, not closure.

“We desperately need more school psychology programs. The last thing we need is for a program to close, especially a program that is so esteemed and so high caliber as Penn State’s,” Szarko said. Penn State’s School Psychology Programs is one of the oldest of its kind in the country.

“The solution is to save the program. Get faculty in those unfilled vacancies and expand the program so that we can have a master's or an educational specialist certification level as well as the doctoral level,” she said. “It just doesn't make sense to me at all why this would be happening. It's the last program that should be closed, honestly, in our nation right now, if we think about our children's needs.”

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of one school psychologist per 500 students in order to provide comprehensive school psychological services. Currently, the association estimates a national ratio of 1:1211, with some states approaching a ratio of 1:5000.

“The door is certainly not closed on the presence of a program to develop school psychologists at Penn State,” Dean Lawless said. “The possibility remains that a new and innovative program reimagining how we train school psychologists can [be] developed. But the space needed to develop such a program does not exist when the focus is on trying to save a program that is not viable."

Penn State Provost Nick Jones will be notified and consulted by the Graduate School before the action is finalized.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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