Grappling with enrollment numbers that are declining after many years of increases, colleges and universities are retooling their offerings — and, in several cases locally, adding grad programs.
"It's very attractive for a university to offer graduate programs for a variety of reasons," says Victor DeSantis, associate provost for civic and community engagement at Millersville University. "You don't have to have the on-campus infrastructure. They're less likely to be heavy users of your residence hall, your student centers. They also add a lot to our campus in terms of they bring a level of professionalism and a level of expertise to our campus and also work closely with our faculty members in terms of research."
And, DeSantis says, grad programs give universities another shot at students who are already familiar with them, having completed their undergraduate degrees there. At MU, about a third of the graduate students are alumni.
"It's a level of comfort with an institution. Sometimes it's also a familiarity with the faculty members," DeSantis says. "They're not always coming back for the exact same field. We might have some folks who came here for an undergrad in psychology but come back for social work."
Grad degrees are nothing new at MU, which currently offers 33 of them, but as part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, it has recently been given the authority to offer applied doctoral degrees, also known as professional doctorates.
"The competition right now in the graduate field is more intense than ever," DeSantis says. "There are so many options that you have: online, face-to-face, blended, all these different types of learning structures. For us to have a viable program, we need to do our homework."
At the other end of the spectrum, Central Penn College is kicking off its first grad program.
"Obviously, the college itself wanted to expand itself beyond its early history of just the very small business school to something that's very collegiate," says Patrick Hughes, lead faculty of graduate studies at CPC. "Based on the recession, there are a lot of adult students returning to school. The bachelor's degree has almost become what a high school diploma was."
CPC is not alone in that, Hughes says: Smaller colleges are starting to offer grad degrees, and they're "starting to get a little more variety rather than cookie-cutter, something that's not only needed in your area but others may seek and not find elsewhere."
Greg Buckley, associate dean of graduate studies and continuing education at Lebanon Valley College, has a different perspective.
"I don't know how many new graduate programs are being put together," Buckley says. "We are not contemplating the addition of any new grad programs in the very near future. It's something that you have to do cautiously."
On the caution college leaders agree. Offering a new grad program, they say, should draw on the strength of a school's existing undergraduate programs and faculty. And, perhaps more importantly, there needs to be market demand for it — and not just among students.
"The state system is very concerned in the current environment about duplication and efficiency of the system," DeSantis says. "They truly want us to show evidence that we are going to be able to not only find enough students for the programs and attract them, but that there are ample number of jobs to support those students."
That emphasis is relatively new in higher education, DeSantis says, emerging only within the last decade. Hughes notes that the Department of Education is also looking for proof that grad programs will fill educational holes instead of duplicating existing programs and lead fairly directly to jobs.
"We will look at labor market trends, we'll look at emerging industries and emerging professions, and we will look for gaps that there is an identifiable need for advanced professional training," DeSantis says.
The emphasis on graduates being job-ready can extend beyond the syllabus. At Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, the recent announcement of two new graduate degrees came with a footnote that HU assembled an employer advisory board to further ensure that the programs align with the needs of the market. HU said the board will meet quarterly with faculty about the courses, share insight on what's needed to solve the skills gap and provide internships and projects to students in the programs.
Central Penn just introduced its first grad program. The master of professional studies degree in organizational leadership offers concentrations in organizational development or information systems management.
"An advanced degree in organizational leadership is a natural next step for the college," said college Interim President Melissa Vayda.
According to a news release, the majority of Central Penn graduates are interested in pursuing graduate studies, and 72 percent indicated they would consider attending a Central Penn grad program.
By contrast, F&M discontinued its graduate degree programs.
"Until about 1970, the college had a small number of master's programs in subjects including geology and physics," said Julia Ferrante, F&M spokeswoman. "College leaders decided to discontinue these programs as the college returned its focus to the strength of undergraduate education."
Evening school and continuing education programs were discontinued about 1990 for similar reasons, Ferrante said, and although F&M does house graduate programs administered by Elizabethtown College, Temple University and Penn State Harrisburg, those are unrelated to F&M's educational program.
"Many of our students do go on to pursue graduate degrees," Ferrante said, noting that F&M has an office of student and post-graduate development and that faculty advise students extensively on their graduate choices.
Occupations requiring master’s degrees are projected to increase about 22 percent from 2010 to 2020. That is the fastest of any educational level over that time, with doctoral or professional degree occupation growth coming in second at 20 percent.