‘What Does it Take to Get There?’
… ‘A graduate degree,’ many conclude,
as a weak job market has students flocking to
graduate schools despite limited financial aid
By Page Melton
Obra Hackett has a common-sense exercise for undergraduates weighing the choice between graduate school and a job. “Write the year 2023 on a piece of paper,” Jackson State University’s career counseling director tells students, and then asks, “Where do you want to be in 20 years?” Once students identify a goal, Hackett asks a tougher question: “What does it take to get there?” These days Hackett and other higher education experts are seeing more students concluding that a graduate degree is “what it takes,” a sign that business at America’s graduate schools is booming.
With unemployment at a nine-year high, and careers in teaching, health and technical fields requiring new skills, more students in their 20s, 30s and even 40s are seeking postgraduate degrees. Applications to graduate schools are climbing by 5.5 percent, sending institutions scrambling for funding and space, and students hunting for financial aid.
The cause of the boom? A weak job market that’s turning away undergraduates and squeezing out older workers. “There’s a strong correlation between graduate school and the state of the economy,” says Peter D. Syverson, vice president for research and information services at the Council of Graduate Schools. “As employment opportunities diminish, graduate school enrollment increases,” says Hackett, noting that he sees a lot of interest in law school. “Graduate schools are benefiting from that downturn.”
That link between jobs and graduate degrees isn’t lost on today’s students. The U.S. Labor Department identifies technology and computer-related fields as the fastest-growing occupations, along with some health-care jobs. Subsequently, about half of all master’s degrees — degrees most closely tied to the job market and four out of five postbaccalaureate degrees awarded — are in education and business, with additional growth in engineering and health sciences.
The Council of Graduate Schools also notes that minority enrollment is soaring: The number of African Americans receiving master’s degrees rose 132 percent from 1990 to 2000, while Hispanic students earning master’s degrees increased by 146 percent in the same period. “Groups that have not traditionally been as well-represented in graduate education see a master’s as a good way to upgrade skills and get important credentials they need in careers,” Syverson says. And graduate schools aren’t just for students fresh out of college. More Americans are fitting classes in between job and family demands to enhance résumés or start new careers. The average graduate student is 33 years old, and a full one-quarter of students are over 40.
All this escalating interest in graduate schools poses some immediate challenges — and opportunities — for the nation’s graduate programs. At the University of Cincinnati, enrollment in graduate and professional programs jumped from 7,100 to 7,400 students in the past five years, prompting the land-limited urban campus to hunt for additional space for classrooms, labs, offices and research room. “The growth occurs in graduate schools because of the need to provide greater dimension to the educational experience,” says university architect Ron Kull, who
tracks academic space through a computer matrix and his own “clandestine” observations about how space is used.
To meet space demands, the university will look for money from sources including the state legislature, but like other graduate institutions, it will also ask their growing programs to help pay the bills. With nearly all states entering the third year of reduced revenues and subsequent budget shortfalls, public colleges and universities are feeling the pinch with reduced or stagnant operating and capital budgets. With less state support, and more flexibility than undergraduate programs, graduate and professional schools are becoming increasingly creative in fund raising, seeking more private contributions and pursuing competitive research dollars.
“Most schools are trying to grow a research project because it’s a source of revenue, but also an opportunity to expand their status in a competitive world,” Kull says.
At the University of Virginia, the state share of support for the law and business schools dwindled so that the university sought and received legislative authority to operate the professional schools with more autonomy from the state. Today, the schools can raise tuition, while continuing to attract eager applicants. “UVa (University of Virginia) has such a big draw that they can charge more or less market rates for their graduates,” says Dan Hix, a fiscal policy expert with the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia. Virginia is not alone as a public institution moving toward more market-oriented operations. The University of Texas wanted more authority this year to set its own tuition, especially for popular areas such as business.
While traditional classroom-driven campuses grapple with uncertain state budget appropriations and unwieldy brick-and-mortar issues, a nimble competitor is increasingly appealing to students. The number of for-profit degree programs and online graduate programs offered by universities and “virtual” schools has exploded in recent years, putting the classroom as close as the nearest computer. “Suddenly, instead of 3,600 institutions of higher education, students can choose from a far larger array of institutions and programs,” says The Futures Project, in a June 2001 report. While no one is predicting the death of traditional campuses, the shift is prompting introspection, the report concludes. “Competition is forcing a hard re-examination of the purpose and effectiveness of every activity — from how well and often faculty interact with students, to whether expenditures on student life actually create a learning community, to the issue of costs and the wise use of resources.”
Online or satellite courses are especially popular with older students who may already have jobs. “In higher education, people appear quite willing to pay more for what they perceive as better convenience and service,” says the Council of Graduate School’s Syverson. “Cost is not as direct an issue as you would imagine.”
Yet cost is still an issue for many, especially students choosing to finance a full-blown degree. Dr. Michael Nettles, University of Michigan education professor and an expert on financial aid, notes that while each area of graduate study is different, from the master’s degree to the doctoral program, graduate programs could use more help from the states. “The graduate level is even less of a priority for legislatures than the undergraduates,” Nettles says. “The justification is typically that undergraduate study is much more for the public benefit.” Nettles thinks some self-promotion might help. “Universities have to do a better job of persuading legislatures of the benefit of supporting doctoral education.”
Recent studies show that today’s graduate students are both forced to — and willing to — go deeper into debt to finance their studies, in part because of that limited financial aid. The Lumina Foundation for Education found that students are borrowing about twice as much as they did two decades ago for higher education overall, and that a student’s decision to pursue graduate degrees hinges more on grades and degree expectations than on debt concerns.
With graduate study so tied to the job market — and Syverson says master’s degree recipients can expect to earn about $10,000 more a year than undergraduates — America’s graduate students seem to be looking at their lives and answering Hackett’s question of “What does it take to get there?” Whether they have the money, and even if the public institution is charging substantially higher tuitions, graduate students seem willing to do what’s needed to reach their personal goals. “Overall, it’s a matter of looking for the school that can do you the most good, you get into it, and put the package together to go there,” Hix says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com