Graduate Degree Programs: Plain Vanilla, Chocolate Fudge,
or a Cherry on Top?
When something becomes common or easily produced, it is
considered a commodity.
Friedman explained that any specialized service or product could become a
because of new technology.
A case in point may be
graduate degree programs in higher
education. New colleges or universities are extremely rare. In fact,
there have been only a
hand-full in the last ten years in the United States. However, hundreds
of graduate programs
have submitted credentials to their accrediting agencies for approval
during this same period.
Is this an example of a specialized service becoming commonplace,
perhaps? Most of these
new graduate programs are driven by technology. Online and off-campus
degrees are now
commonplace, even for the most prestigious institutions.
and universities, both private and public, have discovered that the cost
of the technology to
get into the game is relatively small and the revenue potential is quite
large. Technology is
also making off-campus sites more attractive and affordable to
institutions offering graduate
degrees. Professors can now teach in several locations simultaneously.
made it possible for students not only to attend classes away from
campus, but also to receive
their degrees as off-campus students. Students that attend class online
or at satellite sites
have access to their professors by email or other electronic means.
They access their
libraries and use library services online. Students register and order
books or school spirit
paraphernalia from the campus bookstore online. They access assignments,
assignment, and receive their grades electronically. They can even watch
the home team's
football or basketball games via live streaming on a computer at home.
To attract the attention of prospective students, it seems that a
college or university
need only advertise that the program is "student-friendly." A billboard
with a group of
smiling grad students is stereotypical. Being student-friendly may mean
never having to
leave your home from start to finish of your graduate program. It may
mean that you can
attend classes at a satellite site near your home. It may mean attending
program of study that requires as little as 5 weeks to complete each 3
It may mean that instead of a thesis or dissertation, you complete an
action research paper
that is limited to your own work or school setting.
clearly defined the four important issues in graduate degree programs:
Speed, (2) Convenience, (3) Cost, and (4) Quality. There is very little
disagreement that the
first three are the easiest to measure. Prospective graduate students
usually ask; "How long
will it take, how far do I have to travel, and how much will it cost?"
In some cases, getting a
graduate degree has very little to do with what will be learned or even
the cost, and
everything to do with how long it will take or how many papers are
required. If institutions
of higher education allow speed and convenience to become the driving
competition will likely impose a level of mediocrity on their graduate
degree programs. They
become ordinary and unoriginal - the plain vanilla programs. The
technology that makes
online/off-campus degrees possible is causing a convergence of cost and
large and small public universities and between public and private
institutions to a lesser
extent. When students consider graduate programs, cost and quality are
less of an issue if
speed and convenience are demonstrably different among institutions. In
fact, cost is likely to
be the third most important issue and quality usually finishes a poor
fourth in the
consideration of graduate programs by some prospective students.
In extension of Friedman’s ideas, the graduate programs that are
willing to offer
"chocolate fudge" in addition to the plain vanilla degree can
distinguish themselves from the
hundreds of other graduate degrees that technology has made available to
students. The few
institutions that are willing to offer a "cherry on top" will excel at
providing quality master's
and doctoral programs. Quality graduate programs are found at
institutions that offer
exceptional student support, as measured by a high graduation rate;
preparation, as measured by job placement success; and outstanding
value, as measured by
low student debt at graduation. It would be encouraging to see fewer
billboards with smiling
faces and more stressing the quality of programs rather than the speed
or convenience of
obtaining a graduate degree.