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The Future of Graduate Education

As graduate student demographics change, institutions also must change to keep pace.
University Business, Aug 2004

Graduate education is growing in importance and will increasingly be seen as a prerequisite for access to society's better jobs. By the year 2008, more of such study will be part-time, online, involve credentials other than traditional degrees, and be dominated by female students over age 35. Two factors, working in tandem, are adding fuel to this growing demand: an explosion in new knowledge, particularly technical knowledge; and, somewhat paradoxically, the growing obsolescence of knowledge. As these students will use their degrees to enhance their education and advance their careers, universities need to be prepared for a changing student body and be ready to meet their demands.

It is estimated that today's college graduates are exposed to more facts in one year than their grandparents were in a lifetime. According to Twigg and Oblinger (The Virtual University, 1997), the sum of all that is known is now doubling every seven years. With this explosion has come a continuing need to evaluate the continued relevance of prior learning. This is a particular problem in technical fields where the pace of new discovery is constantly accelerating. Within the fields of science, engineering, and even business, it is estimated that much of what undergraduates learn in four to five years of college will be obsolete by the time they graduate.

Future grad students may study part-time to earn a post-baccalaureate "certificate" or a "professional diploma."

Given the rising cost of education, those pursuing graduate degrees will increasingly study part-time while remaining employed. This is due to the fact that nearly 20 percent of all graduate and first-professional students get some tuition support from their employers (80 percent for those in Fortune 500 companies). Additionally, there is the "opportunity cost" of giving up income for the period of full-time study. When faced with the $107,000 price tag for Duke's International MBA, for instance, many may need both the boss's support and a paycheck.

The need to continue working while going to school has added to the appeal of anytime, anywhere online learning. It is estimated that 90 percent of public institutions, and 55 percent of privates, are now offering some instruction online, with half of these offering entire degrees (Sloan Consortium Study, 2003). The educational research firm Eduventures reports that online graduate programs are the fastest growing category of new offerings; nearly all of America's name institutions now offer some programming in this format.

The 2003 Sloan study ("Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the U.S., 2002-2003") found that "a majority of academic leaders (57 percent) believe that learning outcomes for online education are equal to or superior to those of face-to-face instruction." Of those surveyed, nearly three-quarters felt that this would be true within three years. Universities should expect exponential demand and growth for this form of learning.

According to futurists Michael Dolence and David Norris (Transforming Higher Education, 1995), each individual in the workforce will need to accumulate learning equivalent to that associated with 30 credit hours of instruction, every seven years, if they are to remain competent and competitive in the face of the knowledge explosion described earlier. Thus, future graduate students may increasingly study part-time and online, but may not necessarily be seeking a degree. Many will already hold a master's or doctorate. Instead of another degree, they will seek a post-baccalaureate "certificate" or a "professional diploma." These relatively new types of credentials will document the holder's efforts to remain current within a given professional area and that they have completed a specific curriculum, albeit less than that required for a graduate degree.

The graduate student of the future will be older and increasingly female. Already, we see that 68 percent of those enrolled in part-time graduate study are 30 years of age, or older. Further, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last August that 57 percent of full-time and 62 percent of part-time graduate enrollments are women. Additionally, the Department of Education's projections through 2013 show women earning graduate or first-professional degrees at significantly higher rates than men, i.e., doctorate degrees show a 20 percent increase for women, and less than one percent for men. First-professional degrees are expected to increase by 26 percent for women and 16 percent for men. These statistics are thought to reflect the larger numbers of women in education and health care, two of the largest areas for graduate study and the fact that women are entering the workforce in growing numbers. Also, there are currently two million fewer men than women enrolled in higher education. This gap is projected to increase over the next eight years.

What do these differences mean for university administrators and their campuses? From a program perspective, it suggests a need to offer more "blended" programs. That is, course offerings that combine online instruction with face-to-face interaction. Additionally, there is likely to be an increased need for classrooms on weekends and evenings, as well as at off-campus locations.

When forced to choose between prestige and customer service, many prospective students can be expected to opt for the latter.

With regard to instructional planning, a mix of degree and other academic credit options (certificates and diplomas) will be needed. Formats will likely shift from traditional quarters and semesters to more hybrid, need-specific periods. Pressure will emerge for more year-round programs to accommodate these students; especially in competitive fields where time-to-completion will be a concern.

In the area of student recruitment, institutions will increasingly need to recognize that service and convenience are major competitive advantages. As the 200,000 University of Phoenix students have already demonstrated, when forced to choose between prestige and customer service, many prospective students can be expected to opt for the latter. This has significant implications for staffing levels, training, hours of operation and overall institutional culture.

For the distance education student, administrators will need to recall that the regional accrediting bodies have adopted uniform standards regarding the services that need to be provided for geographically remote students. The expectation is that a distance learning student should have access to all the student support services that are available to a student who attends classes on campus. This includes the library, financial aid, academic advising, career services, and bookstore.

Information systems will be needed that can track a student's progress through a variety of instructional formats and methods of learning--traditional terms, intensives, online, classroom, and so on. Higher education's traditional "assembly line" approach (whereby everyone proceeds through the learning experience at a similar pace, receiving prescribed doses of content at standardized, pre-determined intervals) will decline in applicability.

Each graduate student will expect a unique program, that they have a voice in tailoring to meet specific needs in their professional and personal life. Planning, tracking and reporting this student's progress will become more and more complex.

The graduate student of the future will place increased value on an institution's career assistance programs. Instead of focusing only on initial job placement for graduating seniors, these services will be expected to continue to assist with career management over a student's professional lifetime. Those universities that rise to this challenge will not only be able to better serve their alumni, but also to identify and fill the lifelong learning needs of their graduates.

One of the great challenges with the growing movement toward remote access and part-time study will be that of community creation. Students who come to campus just one night per week, or only attend classes via the World Wide Web, will not likely develop the same attachment to the institution as that of on-campus, full-time students. This may have implications for institutional loyalty and future activity in alumni and development efforts. However, research is finding that a sense of community can be formed online, and those distant students, grateful for the opportunity to have had access to a university and its programs, can be quite proud of their affiliation. The growing number of universities providing online access will be well served to better understand and foster the methods by which such allegiance is being generated.

Whether delivering instruction or student support, faculty and staff will need to be prepared for an older, more experienced student--one who will see him or herself as "the customer," to be valued and served. Such students will be less price sensitive than traditional students (thanks to employer support), but will demand value for their tuition dollar.

These students are already present in the continuing education programs of our colleges and universities. Over the course of the next five to eight years, they will become increasingly present in other program areas and will impact the university and its services in a variety of new ways--for better or worse.

John Ebersole is the associate provost and dean of Boston University's Division of Extended Education and the immediate past president of the University Continuing Education Association.

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