Published on 2014/06/10

What Separates Non-Traditional Graduate and Undergraduate Students?

AUDIO | What Separates Non-Traditional Graduate and Undergraduate Students?
Though more non-traditional graduate students are working full-time and paying for education with employer reimbursements than undergraduates, price is still a major factor in their decision-making process.

The following interview is with Tanya Zlateva, dean of Boston University’s Metropolitan College. The Metropolitan College serves a wide variety of non-traditional students as part of its mission to expand access to higher education — from on-the-ground undergraduate students to online master’s degree students. In this interview, Zlateva shares her thoughts on the differences between non-traditional undergraduate students and their graduate-level counterparts.

1. Fundamentally, what differentiates non-traditional students in graduate programs from those in undergraduate programs?

They are at different stages of their professional career. Undergraduate students are facing a much longer time to [complete their] degree; typically five to six years going part-time. Graduate students could be done in as little as one year.

The majority of all non-traditional students do have a full-time job; however, 14 per cent more of the graduate students in our college have a full-time job. Additionally, because they’re at different levels in their career, undergraduate students have lower household incomes and lower reimbursement from their employers than graduate students. So they are in a tougher place but they are also younger.

2. Other than age, in what ways are they the most similar?

The greatest similarity is the motivation and the reasons they choose to come back to school. When we survey our students and ask them about the deciding factors for coming back to school, invariably it’s the importance of the degree, the importance of jobs, knowledge and skills and, very close to this too, personal satisfaction. So it’s a choice that is pragmatic but at the same time has to be in harmony with their interests. That is the same for undergraduate and graduate students.

3. When it comes to determining the best mechanisms to put into place to support retention, how do the services for graduate students differ from those designed for undergraduate students?

The undergraduates have to shape a curriculum from a broader range of topics and subjects but, at the same time, it’s a more fundamental type of knowledge; they have to get the breadth of the liberal arts along with their major if they have a traditional major. So [helping them design the ideal curriculum] is best done by professional counselors. They’re experienced; they know the requirements of the degrees, the depth of the university offerings.

Graduate students, on the other hand, don’t need that much information. The range is not as broad but it is deeper, and they need counseling by faculty working in the field, so we have faculty advisors who work with them.

4. Given that the services for graduate students are less robust than those demanded by non-traditional undergrads, is the cost-per-student for the university lower for graduate students than it is for undergrads?

No, actually, it isn’t. The counseling [and] the advising services at the graduate level are just as developed because faculty time is more expensive. There is still the need for administrator support for a number of issues: enrollments, scheduling, class availability, etc.

5. Does price hold the same weight for non-traditional graduate students as it does for undergrads?

Price is important — no question about it — for both of them. However, the price sensitivity for non-traditional students is probably higher at the undergraduate level due to the length of the degree, the lower household income, the lower percentage of tuition reimbursements. What we’re observing is that people are very price conscious and this is why they tend to choose public institutions, which have lower tuition.

This doesn’t mean it’s not an issue at the graduate level. It is. With the cost of education having increased steadily over the last two decades, questions of [job security and debt repayment] are very important at the graduate level. It might be slightly less so probably because at that point, students look for a particular field of interest and they work in that field — they specifically choose programs that focus in those fields — so they would be willing to pay more for a specific program. All of the non-traditional students, despite working full-time, despite having tuition reimbursements from their employers, 30 per cent of them rely on loans, so [price] is a fundamental issue.

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Readers Comments

Belinda Chang 2014/06/10 at 11:03 am

I don’t agree with Zlateva’s assessment that non-traditional graduate students are better equipped to pay for their education. It’s true that undergraduate education tends to take longer to complete, which can lead to high costs, but graduate education tuition and additional fees tend to be higher than undergraduate ones from the outset. And while non-traditional graduate students may be earning more because they’re further along in their careers, they may also have more expenses or financial commitments. All things considered, I would say that these two groups are probably more similar in their financial situations than they are different. Financial assistance for all non-traditional students is notoriously low. As institutions work to fix this, they should focus on providing support to all non-traditional students who demonstrate need, whether they’re undergraduate or graduate students.

Tyrese Banner 2014/06/10 at 6:30 pm

Interesting comments about the differences between non-traditional graduate and undergraduate students. We’re often quick to put non-traditional students into one large group, and offer services to them as a whole, even when that’s not appropriate. Zlateva highlights the need for different, targeted services to reach each unique group.

Phil Thomas 2014/06/11 at 10:03 am

I’ve worked with both graduate and undergraduate non-traditional students for about a decade, and I find that each group needs more support at different points in their programs. Undergraduate non-traditional students tend to require more supports and services at the beginning of their degrees, when they’re still developing program pathways and getting oriented with the campus. Graduate non-traditional students, on the other hand, tend to need support as they approach graduation, with career planning and transitioning out of student life. I just find this difference fascinating.

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