Are master’s degrees destroying the future of Americans who are just trying to get ahead? You might think so if you read the recent collection of articles on higher education. Kevin Curry called it the “Great Masters Degree Monument.” Anne-Helen Petersen wrote a series on “The Master’s Trap”. Melissa Korn and Andrea Fuller described the students as “lifetime defaulters” due to the debts accumulated in their master’s programs.
And my phone didn’t stop ringing (figuratively, of course, as no one was calling anyone anymore) with questions from students about the value of testimonials and faculty who share their views of right and wrong in these articles. As the person responsible for the well-being and success of thousands of graduate students at the University of California, Irvine, I have read these articles avidly, and am sure to find some profound insights that will help meet the needs of our students.
What I found instead was an uphill ride on a few shows that aren’t really what I see every day. Critics are rightly concerned about the high prices of some programs that do not lead directly to profitable jobs that are likely to return those investments. These articles also address the challenge of virtually unlimited borrowing from our federal loan systems as well as the borrowing that students may have taken to fund their college education. Such concerns are particularly salient for the growing and underrepresented first-generation student population who may have had to borrow more undergraduates and have fewer safety nets in case something went wrong. How do we deliver on the promise of higher education while providing students with the levers they need to succeed, without the risks all these articles point to?
To be sure, universities are under pressure to get paid from decades of regular funding defunding and the growing need for students to access a variety of on-campus services — from fitness facilities to counseling services to food pantries. Combined with a tight job market, these forces have put students and institutions in the precarious position of balancing the needs of students and employers with the university’s costs and capabilities.
But what important essays are missing is how much a good master’s degree can give a student. I look at data released regularly from my own institution as well as those from the Association of American Universities. What I see are thousands of graduate programs nationwide that are uplifting people. I see hundreds of thousands of graduates who say that getting a master’s degree was the best decision they ever made. Most graduate programs are an incredible investment. Despite examples often highlighted by critics, many students can, in fact, make financial gain by pursuing a professional degree.
However, it is more than just cash. The search for new knowledge is something to be appreciated in and of itself. We must resist the urge to talk only about return on investment. Reducing students’ decision making just because of the economics of work destroys the beauty and promise of higher education. I would prefer to live in a world where a student who has a passion for a subject and the time allotted to it can study that subject, regardless of job prospects or the economics of such a decision. Of course, unfortunately, we do not live in this world. Students need and deserve good jobs after their education, and faculty and administrators must be sensitive to both costs and job placement. But that doesn’t mean the deluge of articles covering a few predatory graduate programs are also representative.
So what can we do to improve the prospects for students pursuing a master’s degree? The important thing that these articles miss is the perspective of those of us on the front lines of graduate education. We must ask ourselves every day how we provide students with valuable experiences that return the investments they make in time and money in their education, while balancing the very real financial needs of the institution.
As Dean of Alumni, I am fortunate to have wonderful associates in the College Senate, a Dean and Chancellor who cares about improving the access and quality of alumni education, and a smart Finance Manager with committed budget office staff. They understand that we are teachers first, that our students are not customers, that our programs are not commodities and that everything we do must be student-centered. This combination is powerful and has enabled the following key strategies for high-quality professional graduate training programmes.
- Find the store. Accreditation and advanced higher education are in dire need in many areas, but where do the biggest demands lie? Before launching new graduate programs, we conduct a feasibility study to ensure that there are qualified students willing to invest in specific programmes. We also conduct informed analyzes of career and career paths in relevant fields that will give them a realistic return on their investment. Our professional programs aim to return this investment to all students within five to 10 years.
- Adequate financial aid. Institutions should commit to providing as much assistance to graduate programs as they do to undergraduate students. At the University of California, system-wide bodies review and approve fees for professional programs to ensure that these programs remain within the university’s mission of teaching, research, and serving Californians. Like many institutions of higher education, the university refunds a huge amount of our tuition fees – we aim for a third – for students who receive financial aid. This help is necessary to ensure that students have access to higher education without incurring the kind of massive debt that worries everyone.
- Job placement. We often describe higher education as an important step in an individual’s career advancement, an “investment” that “pays off.” This position is stronger at the master’s level. Students expect – and deserve – degree programs that help them achieve their career goals. As graduate programs grow, so must employment services and professional development offerings as well. This is not an easy task, especially when graduate programs are highly decentralized and the support offered to different programs varies. Universities must create partnerships across academic units, professional resource centers, and donor and alumni bases to connect students with the world outside the university. Students should expect excellent careers to result from their graduate degrees, and we owe them an investment in building this path to success after graduation.
- Measurement and calendar. Programs must be regularly evaluated, repeated, and sometimes closed in response to quality learning and professional outcomes. At our university, all our professional programs are evaluated three years after the first class graduate. Each university will have its own timing and rhythm. What matters is that we pay attention to students’ needs and make sure that we measure our success by theirs.
- Share the truth, all of it. There are increasing calls for transparency in higher education. In response, many places have launched information centers such as one at UCLA that help highlight how our programs are run, what students can expect from us and the results we can reasonably expect for our students. We have recently started an analysis of career outcomes for all of our alumni, and will make it available to them as well.
It is easy to sit back and be horrified by the high prices of master’s programs that do not lead to good jobs. It is very difficult to understand the nuances that separate the vast majority of high-quality programs from the few that do not advance students and their careers. It is still difficult to work to fix the underlying problems that create the conditions for predatory programs.
Collectively – administrators, legislators, business leaders, and donors – we must address structural issues of interest in master’s programs through intentional investment, as well as highlight and support programs that are doing well. An advanced degree does not need to be a burden. Today’s students should be freed to pursue multiple opportunities in their fields and help expand these opportunities for those who follow in their footsteps.