The Fast-Changing and Competitive World of Grad Degrees

EdSurge Podcast

The Fast-Changing and Competitive World of Grad Degrees

By Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 16, 2019

The Fast-Changing and Competitive World of Grad Degrees

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

There’s a boom in the number of graduate degrees and certificates awarded these days, especially as more colleges now offer degrees online. And these degrees come in different shapes, sizes and prices.

Last week’s ASU GSV Summit in San Diego made clear just how dynamic this market for grad degrees are. The annual meeting co-hosted by Arizona State University and GSV Capital, a venture-capital firm, brings together thousands of educators and business leaders looking for the next big thing in education. Perhaps the biggest buzz was the $750-million purchase of Trilogy Education Services, an education company that helps set up and run short-term coding programs at university extension schools, by 2U, one of the biggest companies helping colleges set up online grad programs.

Meanwhile, Arizona State University announced a new spin-off venture that will help giant corporations like Starbucks set up employee benefits that give free or low-cost tuition to workers from participating colleges.

These announcements point to a very different educational world after college, where higher education continues over a lifetime. And it is a world where the most-famous universities in the world may serve far more people, at least at the graduate level. And that might make it difficult for smaller colleges to compete.

To help understand this shifting landscape, EdSurge sat down this week with Sean Gallagher, who has written a book on the future of university credentials, and runs a center at Northeastern University that tracks this area. (Last week he wrote a column for EdSurge about how prestigious colleges are winning in this new grad school boom.)

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: People have been very focused on the last few weeks on this college admissions scandal at the undergrad level. Could you talk a little bit about how the graduate landscape is changing these days?

Sean Gallagher: It's really a continuation of trends that have been going on for decades, but I think they fly a little bit under the radar. Even within universities where you have departments and people who might be experts in some of these markets, there's this sense that most graduate education is people earning PhDs and it is hyper selective, right? But in fact you have a lot of prestigious universities and certainly the universities below them in the rankings as well, the mass market if you will, that have been scaling and looking to grow their graduate programs. That ties to a broader point: There’s lot of innovation in credentials—from new forms of certificates, various types of micro credentials, all the work integrated learning that's going on, and much of the online education.

So the innovation is not happening in undergrad?

When you look at the data—and we still need better data—studies show 80 percent of the people pursuing [bootcamps and MOOC]s already have a bachelor's degree. So there's a lot of work we could get in to talking about what we could still do to provide more and better access at the undergraduate level, like connect community college to bachelor's degrees and other kinds of credentials. But I think people tend to have a perception of the graduate space as something very idyllic and fixed, but 40 percent of all graduate education in the United States in terms of enrollment is now hybrid or online.

Then we have “your father's MBA,” let's call it. Now we have these lower-cost graduate degrees. It's the same graduate degree from the same institution, and it might be a third of the cost. Higher ed is experimenting with trading out the different services and inputs. So a MOOC-based certificate might be for you [based on watching free videos], but if you want a little more coaching, if you want a little more access to the faculty, you know, some more rigor and services in different regards there's this kind of new credential for you. Then if you can afford it and can get to the school and study face to face we still have the old MBA credential.

Georgia Tech, the University of Illinois, now the University of Michigan and MIT—they're doing some interesting things [with these low-cost options], and we can see some early evidence that it's actually disrupting the vertical. It's taking market share in a outsized way. When you go from zero students in a program to one or 2,000 students enrolled, that's a lot of growth compared to how the total number of MBA students across the United States.

I used to live in Washington, DC for a long time, and there’s more graduate education there than in other cities. Is that a preview of the future that will spread elsewhere, that there will be more expectation in a lot of industries that you'll need to earn some sort of continuing ed past baccalaureate?

Yeah, absolutely. It's been happening.

Now that's not to say that we just need to give everyone a graduate degree, but when you look at the job market side of the equation, there's steady demand. There are salary premiums that are increasing. It doesn't always have to be a master's. It could be a certificate, maybe it's a bootcamp sort of thing. It's just that today we now have many great options for that. It doesn't have to be exclusively offered by a university. It could be an alternative provider. It could be, in the future, some new form of apprenticeship.

What about the move by some employers not necessarily requiring a bachelor's degree. Could we see a day where these undergraduate degrees are not as important?

This is something I've been following very closely. You could refer to this as the skills-based hiring movement, or competency-based hiring. We recently did a national employer survey of 750 Human Resources leaders across all industries and across all company sizes and we found that at least half of them are looking at and exploring prioritizing skills and competency over degrees.

Hear more of the conversation on the podcast version.

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