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Greater Student Understanding Central to Overcoming Challenges Facing Graduate Education

The EvoLLLution | Greater Student Understanding Central to Overcoming Challenges Facing Graduate Education
Adapting to the multitude of challenges facing graduate schools today requires institutions to reshape their graduate offerings to meet the needs of the modern, working non-traditional student.

The topic of the “disruption” of higher education permeates boardrooms, legislative chambers and the popular press. Disruption comes in many forms, from lean principles to efficiency to performance-based funding to unbundling of faculty roles and the curriculum, and the list goes on. Most of this discussion centers on the undergraduate experience. More and more, however, graduate education is being faced with some of the same questions and issues.

Boards of Regents are asking about the time to degree in graduate as well as undergraduate programs. Higher education leaders are expressing concern on persistence and completion as doctoral programs continue to see 50-percent attrition rates. Alongside shifting expectations and concern from the leadership ranks, those of students are evolving as well. Student demographics are changing, as more working professionals are enrolling in the university with no intention of leaving their jobs while pursuing their graduate degrees. These students are seeking more flexible delivery modalities and program structures. Students are increasingly asking about the relevancy of graduate degrees and future career prospects. Competency-based programs and credit for prior learning are topics students are raising with graduate administrators. A discussion of challenges would not be complete without mentioning the continued reduction in funding facing public institutions, fewer federal dollars in some research areas, and the increased pressure on deans and faculty to increase supplemental graduate funding through alternative revenue sources. Overlay the distinctive purposes of the master’s degree and the doctoral degree and the complexity of addressing these challenges becomes apparent.

Students choose a graduate school for many reasons, including future career goals, quality and reputation of the program, faculty teaching in the program, program delivery modalities, program structure and return on investment. While the traditional model of full-time enrollment in residence is seen as optimal and a requirement of some graduate programs, students are increasingly looking for online, blended and part-time options for their graduate programs. Students are assertively expressing their desire to be given graduate credit for learning they have acquired through work, continuing education, professional certifications, military service and other life experiences. At the same time, students expect to have the opportunity for grants, scholarships, teaching assistantships, and other funding opportunities during their graduate studies. Working professionals as well as traditional graduate students express an uncertainty about the academic requirements of graduate school and future job prospects after completion of the degree. Students are also analyzing the return on their investment. Will the amount they are investing in tuition pay off in future career opportunities and increased wages across their lifetimes?

Faculty teaching in graduate programs express some of their views on the changing face of graduate programs. Increasingly, students are working professionals who are attempting to balance workplace pressures, family obligations and self-induced anxieties associated with returning to a formal graduate learning environment. Procrastination is as pervasive among graduate students as it is with undergraduates. Having to guide graduate students on time management is progressively a part of graduate supervisors’/advisors’ role. Graduate students need not only content knowledge but also the refinement of their critical and systems thinking skills, as well as improved writing skills. Aligning relevancy of course work to future job requirements is paramount in assisting students to complete graduate work. Increased expectations for fundraising along with attainment of grants and publishing is coupled with the sometimes subtle and gradually more overt requirements for faculty to develop a different model for graduate education.

Suggestions being deliberated among graduate schools to address these challenges include, but are not limited to, the categories of improving student completion, faculty innovation and administrative leadership.

Student Persistence and Completion

  1. Articulate clearly the steps for completing the graduate degree.
  2. Provide a checklist of requirements including courses, internships, practicums, research, thesis or dissertation that is reviewed annually by the student with the graduate supervisor.
  3. Provide options for course delivery format such as online, hybrid and face-to-face.
  4. Reinforce the expectation of active engagement by the faculty supervisor or a graduate advisor/coach with the student to keep the student on the pathway to degree completion during coursework and thesis/dissertation.
  5. Provide opportunities for internships, practicums and research during the program even with diverse delivery modalities and program structure.
  6. Provide opportunities for scholarships and assistantships for part-time as well as full-time students.
  7. Provide support systems for students on critical thinking, writing skills and time management.

Faculty Innovation

  1. Explore options for the structure of degree programs including part-time student status, competency curriculum and options for internships and practicums that are tied to current or future career goals of students.
  2. Explore greater use of technology in teaching, including hybrid and personalized adaptive learning, as well as fully online options
  3. Examine how to collaborate with a variety of disciplines around problems and research to increase funding opportunities beyond the primary discipline taught
  4. Provide relevancy of curriculum for career options outside of academia
  5. Work closely with senior administrators to develop an innovative model for graduate education while maintaining the integrity and objectives of the master’s degree and the doctoral degree

Graduate Administrative Leadership

  1. Listen to graduate student voices
  2. Listen to graduate faculty voices
  3. Support faculty innovation in graduate teaching
  4. Seek funding for greater integration of technology and alternative delivery modalities into the teaching of graduate education
  5. Provide a clear, well-communicated vision for the graduate school

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