First, a huge thank you to everyone who read and commented on a post I write a few days ago, Do You Really Need a Master’s Degree?. I’ll be back to work at my college in just about a month and what you wrote is good food for thought as I try to think of how best to teach and advise undergraduates, and prepare them for the world after college.
The Chronicle of Higher Education also reported about the growth in the graduate student population in the US and addresses the topic that is often at the top of students’ thoughts: How to pay for graduate school.
More than a few undergraduates I’ve spoken to over the years have been surprised to learn that their funding for college doesn’t just “roll over” when they go to graduate school — that, when they apply to graduate school, the whole process of funding their education starts all over.
Using data on enrollment and financial aid from the 2007-8 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the majority of graduate students are “leaning heavily on loans and grants” to finance their education. This is sobering news as so many undergraduates are already graduating with significant debt from having to pay back student loans. Says the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The average annual price of attendance for full-time graduate study ranged from $28,400 for a master’s program at a public institution to $52,200 for a professional-degree program at a private, nonprofit institution. Across all types of degrees and institutions, however, most students received some type of financial aid. Those in professional programs at private, nonprofit institutions received the highest aid, on average, at $36,200 annually.
Aid for graduate students included loans and grants, including employer subsidies, assistantships, and other work-study arrangements. More than three-quarters of professional students borrowed against the cost of their education, while only 42 percent of doctoral students in education and 20 percent of those in other fields did. Ph.D students were the least likely group of graduate students to be dependent on loans, averaging 14 percent of their aid in loans, compared with 80 percent of law students and 82 percent of medical and other health-sciences students.).
These figures are sadly and squarely in keeping with many discussions I’ve had with students. Ph.D. programs do tend to offer the largest amounts of financial aid, in part because doctoral students are making the longest commitment to an institution to further their education. While masters students are sometimes awarded scholarships, they are only considered after funds have been awarded to doctoral students. Students in professional programs — for MBAs, in particular — generally have to pay their way through loans or otherwise. Most students in medical school and law school take out loans to finance their education in anticipation of solid payback once they’ve started careers. Some of my students have gotten scholarships to law school, especially if they are willing to let the financial aid package decide where they’ll study.
As the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s data indicates, many students earning masters degrees in professional fields like education and business are working and attend graduate school through employer subsidies (this is the case for teachers in some New Jersey school districts).Universities offer a limited number of assistant positions in which graduate students in the humanities might teach or do research or work in an administrative office. Not surprisingly, a far higher number of masters degree students works at least part-time:
Master’s students were significantly less likely than either doctoral or professional students to enroll full time, with only 17 percent of those studying education and 32 percent of other master’s students taking a full course load each year. That compares with 60 percent of doctoral students in fields outside education, 79 percent of law students, and 89 percent of medical students with full course loads. More than 70 percent of master’s students in education or business and doctoral students in education continued to work full time while enrolled in graduate study. In contrast, only 43 percent of Ph.D. students, 10 percent of medical students, and 19 percent of law students did so.
Indeed, if one is a Ph.D. student and awarded a fellowship from one’s school, you’re not supposed to be working anything more than part-time, so you can concentrate on your studies and write a dissertation. (“Supposed to.”)
What’s disquieting about these figures is that they suggest that, even though more people are earning masters degrees, graduate school remains out of the reach of many or is only possible with students going into more debt post-college. For students earning a masters in a humanities field such as English or history, what happens afterwards is a bit uncertain: They might apply to a doctoral program to continue their education, although jobs in academia, especially on a tenure-track, are becoming increasingly rare. A graduate degree is not in and of itself a sure step to a job and a career, something that schools don’t emphasize to prospective students but that it pays to know.
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