Five strategies to ensure the value of masters (opinion)


Are masters destroying the future of Americans who are just trying to get ahead? You might think so if you read the multitude of recent articles on graduate studies. Kevin Carey called it a “big mastery scam.” Anne Helen Petersen has written a series on “The Master’s Trap”. Melissa Korn and Andrea Fuller described students as “hampered for life” by the debt accumulated in master’s programs.

And my phone kept ringing (metaphorically, of course, because no one is calling anyone anymore) with questions from students about the value of degrees and professors sharing their views on what is right and wrong. in these articles. As an administrator responsible for the well-being and success of thousands of graduate students at the University of California, Irvine, I have read these articles eagerly, certain to find in-depth information that will help answer the question. to the needs of our students.

What I found instead was a rough ride on a handful of programs that really don’t represent what I see every day. Critics are rightly concerned about the high price of some programs that do not directly lead to lucrative careers that can pay off those investments. These articles also address the challenge of almost unlimited borrowing from our federal lending systems in addition to the borrowing that students have been able to take out to finance their undergraduate studies. These concerns are especially important for the growing population of first-generation and under-represented students who may have had to borrow more for the undergraduate level and have fewer safety nets if something goes wrong. How do you keep the promise of higher education while providing students with the levers they need to succeed, without the risks all of these articles cite?

It is certainly true that universities are underfunded due to decades of systematic funding and the increased need for students to access a wide variety of on-campus services, from fitness facilities to counseling to day care. -to eat. Combined with a tight labor market, these forces have placed students and institutions in the precarious position of balancing the needs of students and employers with the costs and capacities of universities.

What the review papers lack, however, is all that a good master’s degree can do for a student. I regularly look at data from my own institution as well as from the Association of American Universities. What I am seeing are thousands of graduate programs nationwide that are uplifting people. I see hundreds of thousands of alumni who say that getting a master’s degree was the best decision they’ve ever made. Most graduate programs are an incredible investment. And despite the examples often put forward by critics, many students can indeed make financial gains by pursuing a professional degree.

It’s more than money, however. The quest for new knowledge is something to be valued in itself. We must resist the urge to talk only about return on investment. Reducing student decision-making solely to the labor economy destroys the beauty and promise of higher education. I prefer to live in a world where a student who is passionate about a subject and the time to devote to it can study that subject, regardless of the employment outlook or the economics of such a decision. Of course, unfortunately, we don’t live in this world. Students need and deserve good careers after graduation, and faculty and administrators need to be sensitive to both cost and work placement. But that doesn’t mean the deluge of articles covering a handful of predatory graduate programs is representative, either.

Five strategies

So what can we do to improve the outlook for master’s students? One crucial thing missing from these articles is the perspective of those of us on the front lines of higher education. We need to ask ourselves every day how to provide students with valuable experiences that pay off for the investments they make of time and money in their education, while balancing the very real needs of the institution’s finances.

As Dean of Graduate Studies, I am fortunate to have excellent partners in the Faculty Senate, a Provost and Chancellor concerned with improving access and quality of higher education, and a Director savvy financial with committed budget office staff. They recognize that we are educators first, that our students are not customers, that our programs are not commodities, and that everything we do should be student-centered. This combination is powerful and has enabled the following key strategies for our high quality continuing professional education programs.

  • Market research. There is a substantial need for accreditation and graduate studies in many fields, but where do the greatest demands lie? Before launching new graduate programs, we undertake a feasibility study to ensure that there are capable students ready to invest in the specific programs. We also carry out informed analyzes of employment and career paths in related fields that will allow them to realize a return on their investment in a realistic way. Our professional programs aim to make this investment profitable for all students within five to 10 years.
  • Adequate financial assistance. Institutions should be committed to providing as much support to graduate programs as to undergraduate students. At the University of California, system-wide organizations review and approve fees for professional programs to ensure that these programs remain within the university’s mission to teach, research, and serve. residents of California. Like many higher education institutions, the university reimburses a huge amount of the tuition fees we receive – we are targeting a third party – to financial aid students. This support is essential to ensure that students can access higher education without going into massive debt.
  • Career placement. We often describe higher education as an important step in career progression, “an investment” that “pays off”. This attitude is even stronger at the master level. Students expect and deserve degree programs that help them achieve their career goals. As graduate programs develop, work placement services and professional development offerings must also mature. This is not an easy task, especially when graduate programs are very decentralized and support for different programs varies. Universities need to create partnerships between academic units, career resource centers, and donor and alumni bases to connect students with the world outside the university. Students should expect great careers to result from obtaining graduate degrees, and we owe it to them to invest in building that path to postgraduate success.
  • Measurement and evaluation. Programs need to be evaluated regularly, reiterated and, yes, sometimes closed in response to quality of learning and career outcomes. At our university, all of our professional programs are evaluated after three years of first class graduation. Each university will have its own timing and pace. What matters is that we pay attention to the needs of the students and make sure we measure our success by theirs.
  • Sharing the truth, all that. Calls for transparency in higher education are increasing. In response, many places have launched information centers like the one at the University of California that help shed light on how we run our programs, what students can expect from us, and what results we can reasonably achieve. wait for our students. We recently started a career outcome analysis for all of our alumni, which we will also make available to them.

It’s easy to sit back and be horrified by the high prices of master’s degree programs that don’t lead to good jobs. It is much more difficult to understand the nuance that separates the vast majority of high quality programs from the few that do not advance students and their careers. It is even more difficult to work to resolve the underlying issues that create the conditions for predatory programs.

We must collectively, administrators, legislators, business leaders, donors, address the structural issues of concern in master’s programs through intentional investments, as well as highlight and support programs that are working well. A graduate degree doesn’t have to be a burden. This should enable today’s students to pursue multiple opportunities in their fields and help expand those opportunities for those who follow in their footsteps.


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