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Globalization and Outcomes-Focus are Changing the Face of Graduate Education

Globalization and Outcomes-Focus are Changing the Face of Graduate Education
Shifting student demographics and increased demand for immediately-relevant labor market skills is driving change in graduate education.
Education across the board is under increasing scrutiny. From the emerging “common core” to the  Department of Education’s recent series of new rules for higher education to Congress’ hearings on higher education and student debt, we have seen a dramatic shift or disruption in how we view education.

Where once we viewed education as a lynchpin of democracy wherein an educated citizenry was critical for the success of a participatory democracy, we have witnessed a shift to a more business-focused model that views education in terms of measuring “success” by mandatory standardized tests at the K-12 levels and “bang for the buck” models at the postsecondary level.

In higher ed, this has led to the devaluing of the concept of the liberal arts education; degrees in humanities or the social sciences are undervalued because the jobs graduates secure may not pay enough to easily offset the expense of attaining their degrees. This is particularly true at the undergraduate level, but increasingly so at the graduate level as well, where professional degrees typically outpace traditional academic degrees in terms of enrollment. Enrollment in master’s degrees in criminal justice, business administration and management is typically far higher than in history, humanities or social sciences.

In addition, we have new players in the education arena whose motives may be well-intentioned, but whose impact is both far-reaching and not well understood by those outside the academy. The Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation, for example, have had a major impact on designing the “common core” and the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), but both are unaccountable to those whose task it is to implement the required changes. The DQP was driven in no small part by the European Union (EU)’s struggle (via the Bologna process, among others) to develop equivalencies across diverse education systems. How does an employer know, for example, that a two-year degree from EU Country A is comparable with one from EU Country B? Attempts to answer such questions and to increase the mobility of EU citizens have led to the standardization of learning outcomes. Similarly, in the United States, the DQP seeks to provide a shared understanding of what a degree means. This outcome-based focus extends to the master’s level as well.

While these shifts have been underway for some time, the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution, with its proliferation of technology and the ability to generate big data, has provided a host of ways to “measure” the effectiveness of our education. Insofar as technology allows us to generate big data, we are still left to grapple with just what the data mean and whether it can be useful in driving innovative improvements in higher education. So while we can reach more non-traditional learners as a result of the ICT revolution and we can engage in more innovative content delivery, the jury is still out on the degree to which this has led to better learning outcomes.

Likewise, we know the ICT revolution is dramatically changing how people engage within their professions. This requires schools to provide students with the needed skill sets to meet these new demands. Moreover, the external environment within which higher education exists is one where we see increased competitiveness in the job market, including the mobility of the world’s educated people to relocate for job advancement, thereby creating immigration and emigration pressures that demand workers hone skills in order to be competitive. We see, for example, older workers returning to school to get caught up on technological innovations. Increasingly, the graduate student body is more likely to consist of older working adults. Reaching this “new” type of student has led universities to explore new ways to deliver content. As a result, we have seen an increase in online and hybrid type courses, and a surprising growth in Massive Open Online education.

Those with a bachelor’s degree find that going back to school for training is increasingly important because the competitive pressures are not just from within one’s borders, but also from educated workers in other countries. Companies actively recruit technologically skilled workers from countries with depressed wages, offering them emigration incentives. This globalization of labor helps drive workers back to school to try to stay ahead of the competition. At the same time, economic pressures on universities have led them to explore the international market for potential students. This is paying off. In 2014, for example, we saw a 32 percent increase in American graduate school applications from India.[1]

Taken together, we find a variety of factors intersecting to push for new and innovative approaches to higher education in particular and graduate education specifically.

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[1] Sara Custer, “India drives 7% increase in US graduate applications,” The Pie News, April 17, 2014. Accessed at

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