May 23, 2016

Schools using 4+1 programs to lure students

Worcester State University is marketing its fast-track program for nursing degrees to potential students.
William F. Fisher, Clark’s dean of graduate studies and associate provost
PHOTO/EDD Cote
Worcester State University offers six degree programs where students can achieve their master’s degree in one extra year.

This summer, a flood of new graduates will enter the job market. Among this sea of young job seekers with bachelor's degrees will be Worcester alumni with the added benefit of a master's degree.

Through accelerated five-year degree initiatives – or 4+1 programs – students are entering the job market with an edge honed by additional education and skills, but the schools also benefit from a unique selling point when making their pitch to cost-conscious parents and potential students.

"Jobs are getting more competitive right now, and students are going to be looking for that edge as they compete for jobs in the marketplace. A 4+1 degree program can provide them with an extra line in their resume that could help them stand out," said Thomas Harnisch, the director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "The master's degree can provide some specialized skills and knowledge they may not have had in their bachelor's degree program, and it can come off as more tangible than a bachelor's."

Worcester schools have pioneered programs carrying students smoothly from a bachelor's to a master's degree at an accelerated pace, cutting the time for a degree from two to one year in most cases. Clark University has offered its accelerated degree program since 1994, with certain criteria making students eligible for a tuition-free master's degree in an extra year. In the fall of 2015, 120 students entered into this program at Clark.

These degrees are offered in a variety of programs such as business, finance, communications, public administration and education. These are fields where the master's will put the students above their peers with a bachelor's degree, said William F. Fisher, Clark's dean of graduate studies and associate provost.

An accelerated master's degree takes many forms in the city. For example, Worcester State University offers six focused degrees that shuttle students up the path to a master's in an extra year assuming certain requirements are met. Assumption College offers accelerated paths to master's degrees through agreements that jet its students off to other schools to complete their studies. Regardless of the details of how the program is carried out, though, all these proograms are all laying out the same path of an added degree at a lesser cost.

Marketing the school

These programs are major recruiting tools for the schools. As students, and especially parents, have a closer eye on return on investment, an extra degree can be particularly enticing. Clark's program has been a major selling point since it was introduced, said Fisher.

"It tends to be extremely important when we are recruiting students … A very high number of them will cite it as a reason for why they apply to Clark," he said. "The parents are thinking ahead to what is going to happen on the other end and that this is a really good value."

This added edge is especially useful in the Northeast where there are fewer high school students graduating locally, said Harnisch. Colleges and universities are having to be even more competitive to pull in the same number of students.

While applications have risen for colleges, enrollment has declined. Of the four-year colleges surveyed in May by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 70 percent reported application increases in 10 of the 15 years leading up to 2013. However, only 36 percent of those applicants enrolled, down from 49 percent in 2002.

Promoting the benefits

The desire for master's degrees has grown not only among students but among employers, as the value of degrees has declined. Degrees simply aren't worth what they once were, said James E. Samels, president and CEO of the Framingham higher education consulting firm the Education Alliance. Jobs, which previously required a high school degree, now call for a bachelor's degree.

"There are many areas where 20 years ago, a bachelor's degree would be a lock on moving into that industry, and now typically you'd need a master's to land a solid entry point into that industry," said Alan Mabe, the chief academic officer for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Fisher said this is especially true in international development, in which Clark offers a degree, where students sometimes need a master's just to break into a job. To advance in the field, you're ultimately going to need international work experience, a master's or higher, and foreign language training.

Then there is the earning potential, which Ryan Forsythe, Worcester State's vice president for enrollment management, stressed about its program that gets students into master's degrees such as nursing and management.

"We know that our students leave here with greater earning potential with a master's degree to the tune of [$750,000] of extra earning potential in their lifetime," Forsythe said. "These are programs where students will benefit from having a master's degree"

Looking to expand

Assumption College in May expanded its master's offerings, announcing an agreement allowing students to get a master's degree in engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. The deal is the latest in a group of articulation agreements allowing Assumption students to go on to places like Notre Dame, Duke University and New England School of Law.

Clark University has eyed an expansion to open up master's degrees to students who do not qualify right now, while Worcester State examines other professional degrees that benefit from a fast-track to a master's.

"Universities must continue to provide young people with the skills and education they need to be competitive in the job market," Forsythe said.

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