WASHINGTON – At a time when much national higher education discussion revolves around student access to and through college, the Council of Graduate Schools’ annual conference that wrapped up in Washington, D.C. over the weekend focused on the challenges associated with positioning students to pursue more than just a bachelor’s degree.
Sometimes, the lack of interest in graduate school stems from lack of information on what graduate school entails and the financial benefits that it brings, said Larry A. Griffith, vice president of the Gates Millennium Scholars program at the United Negro College Fund.
“We need to help them think about what graduate school is and how to communicate that to their community of support,” Griffith said at a panel discussion titled “Diverse Perspectives on Achieving Student Success.” He lamented that graduate school has proven less enticing than the world of work, particularly for Hispanic students who feel compelled to work to help out their families.
The Gates Millennium Scholars program, which provides unmet need scholarships and guidance to high-performing minority students who are Pell Grant eligible, has served some 14,000 students since its inception in 1999. Of that number, 2,470 have gone on to graduate school.
However, when you delve deeper into the numbers, they reveal that the program is failing to persuade many males to pursue anything beyond a bachelor’s degree.
For instance, of the 697 Gates scholars currently in graduate school, only 201 are male. Griffith said part of the problem stems from higher education proponents not making a strong enough case to answer the question “Why bother?” when it comes to graduate school.
” I think we have lost the conversation with the large majority of students and particularly with African-American males in helping them understand why college, why graduate school and a doctorate are important to their success,” Griffith said, arguing that many have become disillusioned by instances of racism in corporate America and have opted to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors that enable them to maintain their identity.
“They’re saying there are other avenues that I could pursue that are more reflective and respective of me,” Griffith said.
On the flip side, the low number of males in graduate school is not always a matter of a lack of interest but a lack of preparedness, said Dr. William A. Person, associate dean of the graduate school at Mississippi State University, who attended the panel discussion where Griffith spoke.
“I’ve had students come to me and say, ‘Dr. Person, I want to come to graduate school,’” Person recounted during an interview with Diverse. “And I look at their record and say, ‘I don’t know what program is going to admit you.’”
” So we ask them to develop some clean-up strategies like come back and work on a second bachelor’s degree and make good grades. That might help you get into some good programs,” he said.
Similar discussions played out throughout the 50th anniversary meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, which drew more than 700 graduate school deans and others to the J.W. Marriott in Washington, D.C.
Topics ranged from what graduate school deans can do to attract more students in tough economic times to developing strategies for effective diversity programs in graduate schools.
Council of Graduate Schools president Debra Stewart said the conference helped provide clarity on where graduate schools fit into the Obama administration’s college completion agenda, which calls for, among other things, restoring the United States to its former status as the most college-educated nation in the world.
“The fact of the matter is, if we don’t improve the completion rate for America’s undergraduates, we’re not going to have Americans go to graduate school in the future,” Stewart said.
Stewart said she thought the conference helped illuminate possible solutions that graduate schools can employ to remain viable and vibrant in tough economic times.
“The standard of success in this meeting is did it really provide deans with some new perspective and new tools for being effective in what is a tough environment,” Stewart said. “I think the answer to both of those questions is yes.”
Person, who has been attending the organization’s conferences for 20 years, concurred.
“What I got out of it was the need to start looking at information that helps to inform us better about the kind of planning that we need to be doing in terms of preparing students for the 21st century,” Person said. “The demographics basically are telling us that we’re not paying close attention to what’s going on.”