The Conundrum of Higher Education Master's Programs

Where did you go to grad school?

April 3, 2014

"Where did you go for grad school?" I was asked that question while working at the University of Illinois at Chicago back in 2003. Working at my first salaried student affairs position, I didn't know that people went to graduate school for higher education. I started looking at masters programs in student affairs / higher education. It turns out that there are scores of programs in the United States. Unfamiliar with assistantships and tuition waivers, I lucked out with my grad program. Oregon State University (OSU) offered me a graduate assistantship and a tuition waiver. Essentially, I was able to go to grad school without incurring any debt. My assistantship within the department of Enrollment Management at OSU provided me with a monthly paycheck that I used to pay for my living expenses. Plus, not having to pay tuition was a tremendous benefit.

However, not everyone who goes into a higher education masters program gets the same deal that OSU gave me. There are countless stories of student affairs graduate students who attend popular masters programs and have to pay full tuition during their two year experience. In some cases, they don't even have access to assistantships. Paying full price for a student affairs graduate program without a professional-level assistantship experience is ludicrous. The return on investment just isn't there. Schools that provide tuition waivers and paid assistantships are the gems of the higher education grad program sphere. Especially when you consider the starting salaries for entry-level student affairs positions. Incurring significant debt during graduate school only to find starting salaries in the mid 30 thousand range is insulting.

I really struggle in my thinking about this topic. On one hand, not everyone can get into a program that provides the same benefits as the one that I went through. Some individuals can only access a student affairs masters program via an online-only track due to their life circumstances. It just seems quite ironic to me that our field, a profession that speaks volumes about justice, financial literacy, and professional experience, would saddle a large number of our own with significant loan debt (and sometimes minimal professional experience).

I'm currently thinking about putting together an online course for a web-based student affairs masters program. The nuance/challenge of this issue is swirling about in my head. Part of it has to do with my own drive to create a course that could (in theory) be taken by a large number of future student affairs professionals. However, what about the costs of an online-only student affairs program? My guess is that assistantships and tuition waivers aren't afforded to online-only student affairs masters students. It's a conundrum.


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