Graduate education is getting a bad rap these days, but its detractors are taking a short-sighted view of individual opportunity on the one hand and long-term changes in the work-force on the other. Critics suggest that young Americans should be entrepreneurial and create their own careers. Critics also mock the proliferation of questionable-quality online programs while at the same time deriding the cost of better university programs. What are we to make of all this?
As a fiscal conservative, and more importantly, the son of a small business owner, I strongly agree that Americans should be entrepreneurial and creative. We need many more Henry Fords, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Tory Burches, and their ilk.
But most successful enterprises, from start-ups to non-profits to mature corporations, rely heavily on a highly educated workforce. And by ‘highly educated’ I don’t simply mean the ability to read and write, but I also mean employees who have the technical expertise to do the job (e.g. in technology or languages or finance) as well as a broader understanding of the context of the marketplace. For a moment, think like a CEO: what kind of team do you want to hire?
Universities, and more specifically graduate or professional education, provide this well-prepared, diverse workforce. Indeed, it is likely that a reasonably successful young leader who as their B.A. behind them and a few years of grueling-yet-profitable experience on their resume would benefit from slowing down and adding some deeper learning and skills to their toolbox, and thus will be all the more attractive in their next job interview.
Of course, all of the statistics are out there to demonstrate that Masters degrees in particular are likely to raise one’s earning potential significantly. It is true that the savvy leader-of-tomorrow can learn most lessons that the marketplace has to teach in the School of Hard Knocks, but why do it the hard way? A graduate education allows one to concentrate many of those lessons into a shorter, and less brutal, time period. Moreover, one’s classmates in a graduate program are often good teachers in and of themselves. Many have years of experience and are coming back to learn more about themselves, hone their craft, and gain a competitive edge by using the grad school experience to reconsider their options. This is an excellent strategy when one thinks about the dynamism of the 21st century economy.
It is true, of course, that there are a variety of quality graduate programs out there. But the smart individual will do the research and not be suckered in by slick campaigns promising easy-entrance and a speed-of-light matriculation. Here’s what to look for: standards. Only apply to programs that have high entrance standards, such as GPA requirements and a professional test (e.g. GRE, LSAT). You want to ensure you surround yourself with other high-quality students. Furthermore, what level of professional attainment does the faculty have? Look up their biographies online and see if they have the bona fides to teach you what you need to know to excel in your field.
It is no longer the case that non-traditional and online graduate education must be of poor quality. You may choose to go full-time in residence, or part-time in residence (e.g. evenings), or take the courses online. In 2013 there are plenty of high quality programs to choose from. At the end of the day, if you are wondering about whether or not to apply to a graduate program, just ask yourself these questions: do I really believe that in 2020 my competitors are going to have less education than I? In 2020 do I want employees who are not well-educated and well-trained? What is the logical direction for a successful American economy? The answers seem obvious, at least to those making more money and influencing more people thanks to their graduate degree.
Eric D. Patterson, Ph.D., is a former White House Fellow during the George W. Bush administration and the current Dean of Regent University’s Robertson School of Government. For more information about the School of Government, please visit this site.
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