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From school to work to school again: the changing face of graduate education

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2011 - Mark Lenihan is a first-year law student at DePaul University. He graduated from Rockhurst University in May 2009 but did not enter law school until the fall 2010. In between, Lenihan served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, working as a teacher in Camden, N.J.

"After undergrad I thought that I wanted to be a lawyer but wasn't sure. Who is sure after undergrad?" he asked.

For Lenihan, the Jesuit volunteer corps presented an opportunity to think about his career and life before ultimately entering a law program.

Claire Bira, a recent graduate of Saint Louis University, also felt the pull of other opportunities before selecting a graduate program.

"I was not ready to enter graduate school," she said, "I graduated early, in 3.5 years, and I didn't know what I wanted to get a master's in."

Instead, Bira accepted a job at her alma mater and is working as a development assistant at SLU. She said this is an entry-level job she will eventually leave, but the job offers opportunities to move up in the professional world and allows her to attend graduate classes at SLU free of charge.

"I feel really lucky with the position I'm in now," she said.

The new face of graduate students

Recent graduates like Bira and Lenihan are part of a demographic change in graduate students. "The traditional-aged student is a shrinking population," said Jennifer Giancola, dean of the School for Professional Studies at St. Louis University.

In the past, a traditional graduate student was one who entered graduate school full-time after completing a bachelor's degree. Today, graduate programs see a wider range of students, from 22-year-old recent graduates to early retirees from the workforce.

At Webster University, the averag age of applicants to graduate programs has dropped to 24. "This tells us that people are applying for graduate programs at our institution shortly after finishing undergraduate or after being in the workforce for a few years and deciding they want to move ahead," said Matt Nolan, dean of admissions and associate vice president of enrollment management.

Even though the mean age is 24, Nolan said, around 98 percent of Webster's graduate students are "working-adult students" -- students taking classes while also working a part- or full-time job.

Overall, the university has seen a 13.3 percent increase over the past five years in its graduate programs, with a 6.2 percent increase in the MBA program. "The largest increases in new graduate student headcount have come from areas of concentration in International Relations, Procurement and Acquisitions Management, and Environmental Management," Nolan said.

In contrast, the mean age for students in the School for Professional Studies at SLU is 35. About 70 percent of the students are women, and around 35 percent are African American. The school has specially designed professional degree programs for working-adult students. Generally, "we have continued growing over the past three years, including a 30 percent increase in 2008, and an 18 percent increase in both 2009 and 2010," said Tony Gallini, the school's marketing and recruitment manager.

The average age of an MBA student at Washington University is 27. Most students work about four years full-time before entering the MBA program. Like SLU and Webster, Wash U's MBA program has seen a significant increase in applicants over the past few years. Evan Bouffides, assistant dean of the MBA program, said the number of applications in the fall of 2006 was 568 and this past fall the number increased to 1,529. Bouffides said the growth may be due in part to the economy and the desire to come back to business school.

Flexible programs for working students

To accommodate a higher population of working-adult students of all ages, many universities are offering new programs. The MBA program at Wash U recently created platforms, or areas of study aligning with particular career purposes. "Students can design their own curriculum or use our concentrations as a guideline. It's up to the individual and depends on how focused they are and what their background has already been," said Bouffides.

The program also recognizes the importance of providing students with real-world experience and practicum opportunities with various companies. Bouffides said these projects allow students to "get real-world experience and this informs them in a very different way."

Similarly, the School for Professional Studies at SLU tries to be flexible and entrepreneurial by following jobs forecasted to be in growing markets. The school has also developed many online courses and programs to accommodate working-adult students.

Webster offers certificate programs, which allow people to update their resumes quickly, as these programs are not as lengthy as traditional degree programs.

Specialized graduate school programs are one option for resume-building, but many students work before graduate school or while completing a graduate degree.

Though she knows she wants eventually to enter graduate school for industrial-organizational psychology, Samantha Allen, who will graduate from the University of Missouri-Columbia in May, is delaying entering graduate school to make money while teaching English overseas. "I am responsible for my graduate (education), so getting paid well for a year in a place with a very low cost of living is going to be very helpful," she said.

Graduate programs represent a significant commitment of time and money. Though many programs can lead to greater job security, having experience in a related field is often just as important.

Katie Becherer, a senior at SLU, eventually wants a master's in urban planning, a degree she said is necessary to work in the field. But she is believes working for a year or so before entering her program will give her real-life experience to draw on. "I think working or completing a fellowship for a year before going back to pursue my master's is beneficial though because it will give me a new perspective on my studies," she said.

Enrollment numbers demonstrate that students understand the importance of a graduate degree to "get ahead" in their career field, but more recent college graduates are taking more time to consider their plans before applying to graduate school. This is a move university officials believe is important for students of all ages.

"When I advise students, I say, 'Have you figured out whether this degree is necessary for what you want to do in your life,'" Bouffides said.

Paul Carney at Webster agrees that students need to be self-motivated to earn a graduate degree. "We shouldn't be the one to convince them to earn a master's degree," he said. "It needs to be their decision and they'll be much more successful if that's the case."

Erika Miller, a student at St. Louis University, is an intern at the Beacon. 

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