The past year has been like no other for so many areas of the country and the world. Following months of labor movements across multiple major American university systems, racial justice movements across all the United States and a pandemic across all the world, graduate education will never be the same. We will not return to normal. We must deal with a new normal -- and, honestly, it's about time.
Graduate education must become more flexible, more adaptable and more in tune with the needs of the students.
Globally, the world is now filled with contingent and contract workers, in contrast to a generation or two ago when salaried employees loyal to a company that was loyal to them were once the norm. In this new world, a professional graduate education -- like an M.B.A. -- is no longer a value that companies are investing in heavily. Full-time employees have higher turnover rates than ever before, and increasingly, they aren’t even employees. They are often contractors and consultants. So companies are paying for less graduate education. That means universities can no longer rely on a steady stream of applicants from industry ready to pay whatever price their tuition reimbursement allows.
With all the massive economic changes and entire industries dying, one might imagine that governments would step in to support graduate education as a way to shift people out of those dying industries. While that has happened in a few places, we haven’t seen that kind of investment on a large scale. In many states, the primary role of the graduate student that state legislatures care about is their ability to serve as teaching assistants for in-state undergraduate students, whose parents are their constituents.
All that means that graduate education has moved from a corporate or societal good to a personal one. It’s now viewed as a decision by an individual to invest in themselves. And those individual investors want to see a return on that investment. They also want to do it on their own terms and at their own pace. Enter the world of modular, stackable, hybrid remote and online degree programs.
Universities tend to view things in black-and-white terms when it comes to academic programs. Either they take a workload-based approach -- no graduate degree may result from under 36 units of content taken in person on our campus and used for no other degree -- or a knowledge and competency-based approach -- show that you are competent in your field as befits our standards using some mix of our courses, and we will certify your degree. Both approaches center the notion of instruction as partly effort through our processes and classrooms and partly certification by our experts.
Universities that will weather this growing storm will be the ones who are flexible in applying these models. For instance, someone with an M.B.A. may return to earn a master’s in data analytics that has heavy overlap with their M.B.A. courses. Should they be forced to retake those courses in overlap or replace them with new and different credits that go above and beyond what is required for the data analytics degree? Or can we imagine a new world in which they can take only the courses they need for the additional competency -- what some people call a stackable degree? These ideas are not new. Some colleges and universities already take on this approach at the undergraduate level, but in many ways it makes even more sense for our graduate and professional students.
Students looking for efficiency and a return on their investment will choose the stackable degree every time. And do we really want to lose our excellent alumni and prospective students to someone else because we are mired in the measurements of old?
Stackable degrees help our alumni and attract new students with prior degrees. No longer does taking two to eight years off from work seem realistic for students seeking master's and doctoral degrees. And what about those who aren’t sure graduate education is right for them?
This is where modular degrees can help. If a “normal” master’s degree is 12 courses, for example, why not break those into four mini-degrees? Academic rigor, including admissions standards and quality of coursework, should be just as high for a mini-degree as a degree. The difference here is a student can dip their toe in the water, try something out and come back for more later. Small snippets of coursework that don’t time out and give a pathway to mix and match degrees to one’s own goals and careers allows the engagement with potential lifelong learners that universities desperately need.
Some professors will argue that students need to take two to eight years off from their lives to get the true experience, especially for doctoral studies. To those people, I say, that ship has sailed. Get on board this one or drown in the ocean of modern graduate education.
Why? First of all, students are not taking this time off and sitting in the woods like Thoreau thinking deeply. Thoreau could do that because his mother did his laundry and brought him sandwiches -- oh, and he was rich. The modern graduate student, in the United States anyway, is sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt from undergraduate studies, may already have kids and a partner, and needs to work. Doctoral students are spending half their time as teaching assistants -- a little less for a STEM field -- in part because state and federal funding is drying up. Those professional master’s students we were discussing earlier? Their companies aren’t paying for them to take two years off to study anymore. If they are lucky enough not to have hit the lifetime limit, they might be able to take out loans and take some time off, but they aren’t luxuriating in a world of intellectual thought the way many faculty imagine them to be.
Second, in the fast-moving professional world of today, many students who take time out of the workforce lose more money in opportunity costs, never mind the price of the education itself, than they can ever remake. Yes, graduate education absolutely pays off, both in terms of intellectual growth and in terms of salaries. It pays off better if you can do it without quitting your job. Fully funded Ph.D. students by and large cannot work during the year. But even they should be supported in working in the summer, through internships or consulting in addition to options for paid work on the campus. The idea that doctoral students should stop all work for hire in the summer to focus on their studies without compensation is going away, and the faster the better.
Modular, stackable degrees mixed with appropriate online and hybrid course options, connection to a professional network, and internships create a partnership between the university and the student in their own career development. Universities that develop and sustain these lifelong learning partnerships will thrive in this new world.