The State of Graduate Education in America

By Melissa McCreery

Part 1 in an ongoing series

We need to take a fresh look at the purpose of graduate education. Why do more than three million people in the United States pursue a post-baccalaureate degrees each year?

Actually, let’s start with why those three million people shouldn’t be pursuing graduate studies.

You shouldn’t pursue an education because you feel you have to — or worse, feel you’re suppose to. You shouldn’t pursue post-baccalaureate studies because you feel pressured to do so. You shouldn’t pursue it solely to line up a job, and you certainly shouldn’t pursue it to put off the ‘real world’. If that’s your approach to continued learning, you’ll be sorely disappointed with the experience, and the outcome.

You should pursue a graduate degree to challenge yourself. To expose yourself to thoughts, opinions and ideas that you aren’t familiar with, or maybe don’t agree with. You should pursue your education to wrestle with complicated thoughts, theories and practices and to learn from historians, philosophers, theologians and contemporary thought leaders. And finally, you should pursue continued learning to allow the space in your life to put these thoughts and theories into practice. We should always be striving to grow and to learn and, to some extent, to make ourselves uncomfortable.

In 2008 Kilns College was founded on the belief that the sort of education described above was lacking in the higher education landscape, and that it should not only be readily available to students, but available at a minimal cost.

The Kilns administrators made a commitment at that time to stand apart from the traditional higher education model. To imagine other possibilities. There are more than 200 institutions of higher education in the United States alone, so rather than being a small fish in a very big, very established, very traditional pond, we decided to imagine what was beyond that pond. What others either hadn’t dared to imagine or lacked the space to create fully.

Our first order of business: Tackling that troublesome cost issue

The average cost of graduate education today is $30,000 for public institutions and $40,000 for private institutions. Given those large numbers, it’s not surprising to learn that on average, graduate students borrow slightly more than $57,000 for their schooling.

That’s a frightening number.

A report by the Federal Education Budget Project found that 40% of the $1.1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt is from graduate and professional degrees rather than bachelor’s degrees. And yet, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, graduate students make up only 16% of the total higher education student population.

Those numbers are even more frightening.

Recent articles in prominent higher education journals have reported that students, on one hand, backlash against these exorbitant costs; yet on the other hand expect lavish learning experiences (wealthy athletic programs, beautiful campus spaces, start-of-the-art gymnasiums, the newest [and fanciest] computer labs, etc.)

Frank H. Wu, Chancellor and Dean at UC Hastings College of the Law stated in an article for Huffington Post, “Very few institutions, much less their ‘customers,’ are eager to offer a no-frills version of higher education. [Student] expectations continue to rise, but their willingness to pay has begun to fall.”

I actually don’t believe this statement to be true. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I believe students, at heart, want nothing more than a profound learning experience that allows them to be challenged and changed and transformed. An experience that allows them to be part of a broader conversation and network of voices and individuals.

They’re drawn to the extravagance because that’s what’s placed before them. That’s what is marketed and sold by institutions in competition to “out due” one another, to “win” the student and to bump their enrollment figures.

But when did an authentic learning experience become synonymous with frills anyway? With bells and whistles? With luxury and excess? Shouldn’t true education be marked, not to “equip [individuals] with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses,” as Martin Luther King Jr. stated in an article written for his college newspaper in 1947,  but to “enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”

Let’s look a little deeper.

How does an award winning football team benefit a graduate student’s education? Now please don’t mishear me, I’m a big time sports fan and I think college football has it’s place (to an extent) in helping to shape an undergraduate experience, but a graduate experience? Let’s be honest, we’re all allegiant to our undergraduate athletic programs anyway.

How does an elaborate gym facility benefit graduate students? You can usually purchase a student rate gym pass at a local gym anyway. And it’s a lot cheaper than $40,000 a year.

What about those fancy libraries? While they’re absolutely beautiful pieces of architecture and provide great study space, how do they really improve the learning experience for the ever- expanding distance learning student demographic? Most online and on-site students use electronic library services and prefer to study at a trendy coffee house.

And let’s not even waste time of those five-star resort-style student housing complexes that seem to be popping up around the country! How does a student of theology, or medicine, or law or philosophy benefit from a multi-story, deluxe living space? Yeah, we’d all love  to live in a luxury penthouse apartment, but does that really speak into our education? Or just our student loan debt?

When you peel away the extravagant and the unnecessary, you find that you actually can quite easily offer a truly great education for $8,000 – $12,000 per year.

A Successful Model

With limited overhead, Kilns operates distinctly outside the reality of most institution, and we’re free to imagine, dream and create. To focus every dollar on truly engaging students in their learning experience.  Not a dime is spent on elaborate brick and mortar buildings, lavish gymnasiums, under-utilized student unions or over-the-top arenas and stadiums. The Kilns model of learning costs the student just over $8,000 per year.

Unfortunately a growing number of institutions today aren’t able to consider such a model. They have no choice but to carry burdensome costs carried through already existing (and often expanding) campuses, growing athletic programs and modern campus facilities — all needed to compete with one another. Traditional institutions aren’t able to sift through the frills, the whistles and the debris that’s weighing them down to find the diamond that is true education.

So how do we do it? How does Kilns keep its cost low and its learning experience rich?

Simply put, we cut out the crap and focus instead on the good, the true and the beautiful.

Stay tuned for future posts on the State of Graduate Education in America series.

Photo Credit: Thomas Le Ngo, Creative Commons

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Categories: Innovation & Leadership,Justice & Culture

Melissa McCreery earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcast Journalism and Political Science from University of Southern California and her Master’s Degree in Higher Education from Harvard University. She has experiences as an admissions coordinator, communications liaison and academic researcher. Currently she is the Executive Vice President of Kilns College in Bend, Oregon.

Theology and Culture