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The Rush To Offer Graduate Programs

By Joshua Williams

6 Jan 2022


Joshua Williams

In a recent New York Magazine article, author William Deresiewicz stated, “For educational institutions, master’s programs are cash cows since their students get far less financial aid than undergraduates. For students, the master’s program responds to a specific need: American workers are competing more and more with those around the world, and the more college graduates there are, the more you need to find a way to distinguish yourself from the mass.”

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This is particularly true when it comes to vocational studies, such as fashion, where master’s programs have proliferated from a handful across the U.S., to a handful of offerings from hundreds of universities. For example, Parsons School of Design in New York City now offers twenty master’s programs, including MFAs, MAs, MSs and MPSs. The MPS, or Masters of Professional Studies, is a relatively new moniker that is given to vocation-specific education, such as Fashion Management. It isn’t an MBA, in that it lacks the focus on finances and statistics, and it’s focus is on one industry only--fashion. The cost of these programs, especially by high-profile universities from Columbia to RISD, are very high, often over $50,000 per year. And that adds up in a 2 or 3 year program. And while data suggests that students who graduate with a masters do make more than their counterparts, these high costs make a graduate program very risky, saddling students with debt that may take years to pay off. This is especially true in fashion, where only two generations back, it was unlikely that a fashion employee even had a two-year associate’s degree, let alone a 3 or 4-year undergraduate degree. A master’s degree in fashion then is still a bit of a novelty in the job market--and can even be a bit off-putting to a hiring manager who may not have a master’s themselves. Of course, that is changing the more students that graduate and move up in the ranks, but it certainly is worth considering as a potential graduate student. So, why are universities offering more graduate programs? The answer can be quite complex, but it starts with the fact that as student numbers decrease and undergraduate programs in fashion have become ubiquitous, universities must find new ways to stand out from their competition, as well as find new profit centers. Universities with well-known brand names are able to leverage their undergraduate reputations into the graduate space, even without specific expertise or structures in place to run a graduate program. What’s more, while these programs can be hard to staff, due to the lack of master’s and doctoral level faculty, the hope is that in time, graduates will return and teach creating the circularity that exists in other fields. And finally, there is a hope that graduate programs will in time add academic heft to the school’s reputation, via research, symposia and extended networks. So, then what about the students? As Deresiewicz states in context of the MFA, or Masters in Fine Arts, “Both the financial rewards of an M.F.A. and the motives for getting one can be extremely murky. The degree is not like a master’s in physical therapy, say, something that feeds you directly into a well-defined employment field with proven and stable demand.” And he points out that, “... in many cases the infrastructure had been built, or overbuilt, and the schools had to keep finding asses for all of those seats. Admissions standards plummeted.” And yet, these programs continue to grow. In some cases, it is because students are getting a strong education, taking the opportunity to deep dive into the complexities of their current or future fashion career. In other cases, it’s a way to pivot from another industry into fashion without starting all over with another undergraduate degree. And finally, graduate school is something to do while figuring out your career, when you’re in between jobs, or extending your visa if you are an international student. In the end, there are many different reasons for students to participate in a graduate degree, and the outcome is largely contingent on the student’s expectations and goals. However, what happens upon graduation is a bit more difficult to parse out. These programs are rarely built to bridge the gap between education and a job--there isn’t the same legal prerogatives to do so as in the undergraduate space, so schools don’t keep count of who gets a job, or when. When it comes to fashion, the general sense is that those already with a job, and an employer’s support throughout the process, tend to fare better than those who do not, because the employer sees the potential rewards of a better educated employee. Ultimately, it’s up to the newly graduated student to leverage their graduate degree in the best way possible, with the hope of outpacing their student debt and competing with an increased number of fellow master’s graduates. In our next episode, we discuss the necessary shift to an omni-channel learning model, that recognizes the different needs and modalities of modern learning.
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