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The Graduate Path Ahead: Preparing for Graduate Education

In recent years, graduate school applications have risen and, although limited job opportunities due to the recession could be a determining factor, the trend seems to go deeper. In fact, many would say masters and professional degrees are becoming the new baseline required by many employers.

Whereas a bachelor’s degree used to be sufficient to gain employment entry with some of the country’s most desirable employers, as of late, it appears four years of post-secondary education is very often not enough. But when did a master’s degree become the new bachelor’s? Perhaps, even more importantly, how is Alverno responding to this larger social trend?

Defining the Need

From a financial perspective, evidence supports that advanced degrees equate to greater lifetime earnings. A recent study from the Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce found that gross earnings for a person with a professional degree are close to $4.7 million – substantially more than someone with a bachelor’s degree who, on average, earns $3.4 million over a lifetime.

While it makes sense that higher education correlates quite specifically with increased wages, when it comes to the pursuit of an advanced degree, the path to a bigger paycheck doesn’t appear to be the only factor. In fact, there seems to be a shift in people’s perception that advanced degrees are now seen as a requirement for career growth and prosperity.

The same Georgetown study, “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020,” shares data that helps to explain this change in employer demand, which affects public perception.

The study looks back to 1973, citing that only 28 percent of the 91 million jobs required some college or better, and of this total, only seven percent required more than a bachelor’s degree. Fast-forward nearly 40 years to 2010, and of the 143 million jobs in the U.S., 50 percent required some college training with 11 percent of the total requiring a master’s degree or better. In other words, 6.37 million jobs required master’s level coursework or better in 1973 compared to 15.73 million jobs in 2010.

The study also predicts significant job market growth as it looks ahead to 2020. With the job market expected to grow from 140 million to 165 million and given the natural rate of attrition, the study cites the potential for 55 million new jobs in the next decade. Of those new jobs, 6 million will require a master’s degree or better.

Why the increased demand? Growing evidence supports the notion that our country’s global competitiveness requires the advanced knowledge and skills that come with graduate education.

A 2010 report, “The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States,” from the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education explains that a graduate-level workforce is necessary to maintain our country’s capacity for innovation, which drives the nation’s competitive spirit.

Specifically, the report identifies that many of the challenges facing the U.S. and the world require innovative solutions dependent on a “creative, knowledgeable and highly skilled workforce.” It continues by contending the application of knowledge and skills to 21st century challenges will help “maintain our country’s future economic prosperity, and growth, foster social well-being, and assure our leadership position in the global economy.”

Determining the Audience

While employer demand may help spark the need for advanced-level skills that come with graduate education, there also has to be desire on the part of students.

This is where women play a pivotal role. In fact, studies show that more women dream of going to college and, as a result, are more likely to enroll, persist and graduate.

A 2012 report, “Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study,” from the National Center for Education Statistics states that, in 2004, 96 percent of female high-school seniors aspired to go to college, compared with 90 percent of their male counterparts.

The study makes a connection between a higher number of young women (80 percent) putting more time and effort into the college search process than males (68 percent). In addition, once enrolled in college, a greater percentage of women remained in school and graduated. The report shares that of all first-time, full-time bachelor-degree seeking students who started college in 2004, almost 60 percent earned a degree six years later from the same institution. Of this number, a greater proportion of women (61 percent) than men (56 percent) had finished. Overall, female students across all racial and ethnic groups were more likely to graduate than their male counterparts.

While the “Higher Education” report studies 2004 enrollment and graduation rates, census figures show that women continue to outpace men when it comes to earning college degrees. The first notable accomplishment came in 1996 when women first surpassed men in earning bachelor’s degrees. More recent census figures show the quick tempo has continued with 20.1 million women now holding bachelor’s degrees compared to 18.7 million men.

In April 2011, there was another win for women when census figures released at that time indicate that – for the first time in U.S. history – women held more advanced degrees than men. Specifically, among adults aged 25 and older, 10.6 million American women held master’s degrees or higher, compared to 10.5 million men. The census data confirms women hold a nearly 3-to-2 majority in undergraduate and graduate education.

The consistent trend of women holding more advanced degrees than men is expected to continue as job openings in health care, community services and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) will grow the most rapidly among occupational clusters. Of these three areas, women continue to dominate the job market in health care and community services, and steadily gain in STEM fields.

Preparing the Future

As women continue to play a vital role in our country’s global competitiveness and overall job market growth, the importance of women’s colleges, like Alverno College, will persist.

In 2008, the Women’s College Coalition commissioned research from Hardwick Day that showed graduating from a women’s college significantly increases a woman’s chance of earning a graduate degree. In fact, 51 percent of women who attend a women’s college will ultimately earn a graduate degree compared to 27 percent of women who attend a flagship public university.

In addition, students at women’s colleges are more likely to thrive in areas of science and math, which are two high-growth occupational clusters still underrepresented by women.

Alverno is stepping up to the plate, continuing to do its part in preparing and encouraging women to pursue advanced-level coursework. Along with UW-Milwaukee and Cardinal Stritch University, the College remains one of the top three schools in southeastern Wisconsin in terms of further degrees earned by undergraduate alumnae.

Perhaps more impressive than numbers are the personal stories of young Alverno women — some who previously could barely comprehend the dream of earning a college degree — go on to receive a master’s or doctorate degree, thanks to the encouragement and support of their professors.

In many ways, Heather Bort ’11 is one such example. Bort started at Alverno as an Education major, but switched to Mathematics and English early into her academic path. After realizing her affinity for Math, Susan Pustejovsky, professor of Mathematics & Computing, urged her to switch majors. Bort originally selected English as a minor, but Judy Stanley, professor of English, convinced her to double major instead. The combination was ideal for Bort.

It was after travelling with Pustejovsky to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to attend a “Women in Mathematics” conference that Bort decided to pursue graduate school. Bort adds, “The conference was absolutely enlightening, so when we got back to Alverno, Dr. Pustejovsky put me in touch with some of the professors at Marquette, and I got started on determining the next steps of my academic path.”

Bort is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Marquette University where she’s pursuing an advanced degree in Computational Science. She expects to earn her PhD in May 2015. “I tell people this a lot – I don’t think I would have graduated from college let alone gone on to grad school had I not attended Alverno. When I started at Alverno, I had zero social skills, so my time there taught me many things, most importantly, the belief in my own skills and abilities.”

Kristin Slattery Kaminski ’06, a Business & Management major at Alverno, always knew she’d attend college after high school, but never realized how much she’d love it. Her curiosity for knowledge unearthed a deep desire to pursue graduate school and although Kaminski explored MBA programs at first, her uncle – who happens to be an attorney – convinced her to check out law school.

Kaminski isn’t convinced she would have pursued graduate school if she attended a college other than Alverno.

“I tell everyone Alverno is a wonderful school, and what it does for women is amazing,” explains Kaminski. “The transition to grad school is a huge adjustment, so while Alverno doesn’t teach you everything you need to know, it instills in you the confidence to know you can do it.”

A big component of Kaminski’s time at Alverno was her involvement with a multitude of student leadership and extra-curricular activities, including captain of the dance team and manager of The Mug Coffeehouse. As much as these activities helped to refine and improve her leadership skills, one of the most valuable components of Kaminski’s education was the required internship.

“I was required to complete two internships in my discipline and it didn’t take long for me to see the value,” shares Kaminski. “Not only did I gain valuable work experience, but it also opened the door to professional networking. That’s something I wouldn’t have pursued had I not been pushed to do it.”

Once she made the decision to pursue a career as an attorney, Kaminski joined the Pre-Law Society at Alverno. The student group provided Kaminski with an opportunity to collaborate with a network of law-inspired peers who soon collectively began to prepare for the LSAT, a standardized entrance exam for admission into law school.

Even after successfully completing law school in 2010, Kaminski tapped into an Alverno exercise to land her current role as associate attorney for Anderson, Dorn & Rader in Reno, Nevada.

Kaminski had just passed the Nevada Bar Exam and was looking for employment. She called a local firm and, although there wasn’t an immediate opening, she was invited to the firm for an informational interview and soon after was invited to attend a seminar hosted by the firm. “Every step of the way, I was still very interested in the firm, and always made a point to express my gratitude and continued interest with a thank-you letter, which is something faculty at Alverno encouraged us to do.” Soon after the seminar, the firm opened a position for Kaminski and extended an offer of employment.

Megan Stewart ’09 studied History (major) and Global Studies (minor) at Alverno, and always knew she’d go on to graduate school. “Especially with my major, graduate school is necessary,” explains Stewart. “But it didn’t happen right away. After I graduated I went to China to teach English for three years. It was during that time I decided I wanted to take things in a different direction.”

As a teacher in China, Stewart realized how much she enjoyed working with people and teaching English. During the time she was teaching, Stewart decided to return to school for an advanced degree in Applied Linguistics. She started a distance-learning program in January 2012 at the University of Portsmouth in England and expects to complete the program in January 2015.

“Much of Alverno’s curriculum is from a global perspective, so travelling abroad and studying at a university in another country really never felt so different,” shares Stewart. “In so many ways, Alverno helped prepare me for both experiences.”

She credits former Alverno Professor Dimitri Lazo with providing the encouragement to pursue teaching English in China. “Alverno faculty have a good handle on the students they teach and will often point us in directions that will challenge us, but never overwhelm us. That’s how I would describe the encouragement I received from Dimitri.”

Stewart is currently an adjunct professor for Wisconsin Lutheran College where she teaches English for academics to international students, and in the future, hopes to get even more involved teaching at the university level. She notes that Alverno’s History department expected a lot from students, which ultimately helped prepare her for the rigors of graduate school.

“It was at Alverno that I learned to be more open-minded, to be more flexible and to think more critically. These are essential traits that help me perform well in my master’s program, and will also assist with every step of my professional career.”

Stewart also recognizes that she’s not alone. “The learning experience at Alverno is different, which makes it so incredibly valuable. That’s why I strongly believe there is a lot of potential for Alverno women to do very well whether it’s a graduate program or in their profession.”