DC DISPATCH-At the risk of going all-in on the "as a..." culture , it's time to report on my quest to return to graduate school as a mid-career professional who has no intention of stepping away from my work-life for any serious amount of time.
For those of us who struggle to schedule a vacation amongst the deadlines, the idea of "time away" for education can seem not only a non-starter but frankly just a bit ludicrous. For one thing, my work is mostly in Washington and my favorite school, USC, is 2,262.2 miles away.
A bit of background may be in order. This idea I’ve had for a long time really caught fire after I read a recent New York Times article by Alina Tugend entitled "The 60-year Curriculum." Tugend explained how the traditional degree program model, for both undergraduate and graduate degrees, is now being disrupted, especially by the Internet and online educational program management companies like 2U, Pearson or Academic Partnerships. This, of course, also applies to a spate of certificates and other credentials through shorter-term programs and "boot camp" classes that offer a boost to both knowledge and careers. 60 Years of Higher Ed---Really?
What seems the most surprising to me is how much the cost equation changes now that I’m considering online degree programs as opposed to full-time, in-person degrees. Many of the online tools for making graduate school comparisons are surprisingly centered on the university-specific costs, like tuition and book s and housing. For the many of us who are considering a return to school but who can’t upend their life, relocate to a different city, and spend a six-figure tuition and a couple years of their life for a traditional on-campus degree, online education fast becomes a clearly attractive option.
I'm hardly alone. A 2018 story from Inside Higher Ed noted "... the most bullish proponents of online learning have argued for years that the modality can lead to better outcomes for students, lower costs for institutions and more access for underrepresented minority groups... authors of a study released today say their work supports that view. 'Making Digital Learning Work,' a wide-ranging new report from the Arizona State University Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group, offers six case studies of prominent online offerings and concludes that strategic digital learning initiatives can pay off for students and institutional planners alike..."
The more I considered the online option, the more it resonated with me. I happen to be a Latina lady who’s been fortunate enough to have had a very good but narrowly focused traditional education when I was younger. I now feel the need to broaden and advance my education, both for my own benefit and to enhance my employment prospects. In my case, I've always felt that I've needed more education in engineering and technology, especially in today’s fast-changing economy. All of the shows I watch on the Science Channel have reminded me how interested I’ve always been in technology and its applications, but also left me feeling I need to build out, refresh or reinforce my knowledge across the entire sequence of the letters in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
Curious about my options, I researched further and found a recent article in The Atlantic. One of the things that caught my interest was that this story was written by a woman, Katerina Manoff, who was considering practical ways she might return to seek a school for a Ph.D., not unlike my current quest.
Further along in her story, Manoff raised an interesting point I hadn’t fully considered: the top degree programs have limited enrollment not just because of their high standards, but also because a brick-and-mortar campus can only absorb so many students. When she talked with Patrick Mullane, who manages Harvard Business School’s online offerings, he explained that this applied even for Harvard: “... exclusivity came about simply because of the constraints of a physical campus … It wasn’t the intent to be exclusive.”
Suddenly, the potential of online education—made more widely available by companies like Coursera and 2U—has upended all that. Now, for even many top degree programs the limiting factor is the student’s ability to excel—not the university's ability to fit enough classrooms and desks onto the campus grounds. Online education provides the opportunity for these universities to reach large numbers of new students—an opportunity that dovetails with their stated mission of spreading knowledge. As Harvard’s Mullane put it, "Given that we’re a mission-driven organization … with most of our programs, we want to reach more people rather than fewer."
I had the opportunity to try out the online classroom technology in participating in an online simulation and was very impressed. "LiveClassRoom" powered by Zoom had the bandwidth to host over 45 prospective students, giving us a sneak peek into how classes would be conducted. The quality of images and sound were much better than expected. Although the session was being hosted out of California, it sounded like a call from my next-door neighbor.
One concern I had was that once I looked into schools with online degree programs, I might be deluged by incessant marketing calls from aggressive sales staff pushing high-status degrees like 1980s-era timeshares. In her article, Ms. Manoff told of her experience receiving multiple marketing calls on the same day. She went on to quote Howard Lurie, the principal analyst of online and continuing education at the research and advisory firm Adventures, who echoed her concerns about assertive marketing: "By and large, [prospective students] are reluctant to get on the phone with enrollment advisers... what [they] tend to rely upon are the publication websites, recommendations from co-workers or employers, and word of mouth."
Happily, at least in my case, any concerns about aggressive marketers proved wholly unfounded. My direct initial inquiries to programs have brought very quick, concise and helpful information about things like the application process, deadlines, curriculum, and transcript delivery, all without any overly aggressive tactics. It seemed to me like these admissions counselors are seeking self-motivated students who know what they want.
So, "as a" possible post-grad student, I will say the financial cost-benefit analysis is only one part of a decision that is less a two-sided equation and more of a matrix. Like so many of us, I will consider the monetary costs and benefits, but also the professional and intangible benefits I get from continuing education. It’s hard to quantify the benefits I get from being better informed about technical developments, being more competitive in the career market and sometimes gaining the cognitive edge when playing a brain game against my fiancé…and, of course, that online degree boost to the resume is part of the attraction as well.
(Sara Corcoran is publisher of the National Courts Monitor and writes for CityWatch, Daily Koz, and other news outlets.)