What Does the Future Hold for Graduate Degrees?

By Bill Leonard May 11, 2015
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Depending on whom you listen to, the future of master’s degree programs in the United States either appears bleak or else sits on the verge of great growth and change. The reality probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes and depends largely on the type of degree earned and the school offering the program.

A ​recent article in The Washington Post questioned the future of master’s degrees and cited recent layoffs and cutbacks in graduate studies programs at George Washington University. The article pointed to declining enrollment in graduate schools in the United States as a worrisome trend, and some research does indicate enrollments are down—especially at U.S. law schools. However other data show that enrollment in graduate schools is expanding.

Statistics from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill showed that the number of students applying for the UNC Master of Business Administration (MBA) program jumped 22 percent in 2014 and nearly 30 percent the year before. In addition, the National Science Foundation reported that the number of full-time graduate students enrolled in science and engineering programs has increased since 2013, after two years of essentially flat enrollment numbers.

“Overall, we are seeing more interest and growth in the number of students pursuing graduate degrees,” said Julia Kent, director of communications, advancement and best practices at the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, D.C. “The growth and interest does depend largely on the types of degrees given because students are becoming much more selective and choosing to pursue degrees that offer more career opportunities.”

The council found that overall graduate school applications for enrollment in the fall of 2013 (the most recent data available) dipped slightly from 2012, while applications for degree programs in information technology, math and health care experienced strong growth—11.2 percent for computer science and mathematics degrees, and 11 percent for health sciences.

A Changing Master’s Degree Landscape

This growing interest in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields has led some schools to begin offering Professional Science Master’s degrees, or PSMs. The new degrees allow students to pursue advanced training in science or mathematics fields while simultaneously developing workplace skills highly valued by employers. Most PSM programs consist of two years of academic training, which is combined with a professional component that may include internships or “cross-training” in workplace skills, such as business, communications and regulatory affairs. More than 300 PSM graduate programs are now offered at colleges and universities nationwide.

“The market dynamics are changing, which is leading to shifts and changes in graduate school programs as students look for the options that offer them best value and career growth potentials,” said Sridhar Balasubramanian, Ph.D., associate dean of the MBA program at Kenan-Flagler.

An Economic Dynamic

The recovering U.S. economy is also having an impact on graduate school programs, according to sources familiar with the issue. When the economy turned sour and the effects of the Great Recession began to ravage the U.S. job market in 2008 and 2009, thousands of people laid off from work enrolled in graduate schools to improve their individual knowledge, skills and employability. As the economy continues to improve and the job market strengthens, the dynamic is shifting away from individual needs, and now the emphasis for graduate programs is now focusing on the job skills and knowledge that employers want and need.

Graduate programs that are slow to adapt and offer the educational opportunities and value that potential students are now demanding will struggle and, in some cases, close down, sources agree.

“In this market, you have to run hard and fast just to stay in place,” said Balasubramanian. “And you have to run even harder and faster to get ahead.”

Mastering Online Content

Balasubramanian and Kent agreed that graduate programs that are flexible and provide options to students, such as online classes and content delivery, will be the most desirable and more successful than programs that don’t offer flexible options.

Many graduate programs that haven’t adapted to the times and addressed prospective students’ wants and needs are losing in enrollment.

Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., is an example of one school that has dramatically altered its tactics, announcing in October 2014 that it would no longer accept applications for its business school’s full-time MBA program. As full-time enrollment has decreased over the years, Wake Forest officials reassessed the program and decided to focus on offering part-time and flexible options for earning a master’s degree in business.

Additionally, online delivery of content for master’s degrees has begun to gain traction after a sputtering start. In 2011, Kenan-Flagler launched an online MBA program that is now ranked No. 1 by several business magazines. More than 600 students are currentlyenrolled in the program, which has become a model for other business schools.

According to Balasubramanian, the UNC online program is much more than just videotaping lectures and posting them online. The best and most effective programs have to be interactive and engaging for students.

“We were very conscious of this when designing the MBA online program,” he said. “We made every effort to ensure that the program met the high academic standards which Kenan-Flagler is known for.”

Since UNC’s business school is consistently ranked among the top MBA programs in the country, it has an advantage because employer demand for graduates of elite programs is high—and is intensifying.

“We will definitely see stratification, with the top schools rising to the top,” Balasubramanian said. “This is a very interesting and crucial time for master’s degree programs because the landscape and demands of students, and the businesses which hire them, are shifting rapidly. We will certainly see a shakeout as schools find equilibrium between what they can offer and what students want and need.”

Bill Leonard is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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