The State of Education
Wisconsin’s public and private colleges prepare students for careers in a global society.
Have you read one of those articles suggesting that college isn’t “worth it” because students won’t recoup the costs in their careers? If so, higher-education administrators throughout Wisconsin want you to know they disagree. Strongly.
ollege is expensive; I acknowledge that,” says William Cario, senior vice president of academics and chief academic officer at Concordia University, in Mequon. “But it’s very clear that a college education does have an impact on earning power.”
In fact, Cario predicts an even stronger tie between a college degree and earnings power in the coming years, saying that higher education “will only get more important as we continue to transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy, which is already well underway. There are fewer and fewer jobs where you can make a living wage in a factory assembling widgets.”
A lifetime of value
Lois Smith, interim dean at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, says consideration of lifetime earnings is important. “A college graduate may not start out with a particularly high salary, but over a lifetime will earn well more than the cost of higher education,” she says. “Schools like Harvard or Stanford are sure to pay off during graduates’ lifetimes, and Whitewater is definitely worth it.”
Smith cites a report from the UW-Whitewater Fiscal and Economic Research Center that examines the value of undergraduate and graduate UW-Whitewater business degrees. In it, education costs are divided into two categories—tuition, and forgone income—with the latter being the amount of money a student could have earned during the years he or she attended college.
According to the report, a UW-Whitewater undergraduate business student currently pays roughly $25,984 in tuition over the course of four years. The forgone income is $70,796 over that same time, for a total expenditure by the student of $96,780. The report’s survey of 2,000 Whitewater graduates shows that after 4.89 years of employment, they “broke even,” having earned as much as they paid for tuition plus forgone income. And they had surpassed the cumulative earnings of a high school graduate.
Next, says the report, assume that a UW-Whitewater business student enters the university’s Master’s of Business Administration program directly after graduation: For the next two years that student will pay a total of $15,012 in tuition for an on-campus degree or $19,800 for an online program, and the forgone income will be $96,895.
The result? In just 5.03 years for an on-campus MBA graduate degree or 5.19 years for an online one, the MBA-holders break even, and their cumulative earnings are greater than those of people with undergraduate degrees. If you look at graduate business school as an investment, the report shows a rate of return of more than nineteen percent, which is higher than most other investments. If employers contribute to MBA costs, of course, the payback time is even shorter and the returns higher.
The rate of return is one of the primary things parents look for when helping their high school students choose colleges, says Seandra Mitchell, director of admissions at Milwaukee School of Engineering. Mitchell reports that her school offers students an average of $19,000 in scholarships and loans to strengthen that return-on-investment calculation. She’s also proud to say that MSOE achieves a ninety-six percent success rate at placing students in jobs in their fields of study. And, she notes, the school’s graduates are among the highest wage earners in the Midwest.
UW-Whitewater’s Smith also has advice for parents concerned about ROI. The University of Wisconsin System, she says, provides real value compared to neighboring states. “We’re very competitive with Illinois at the undergrad level in terms of the full package we offer,” she says.
Smith urges parents to compare the final costs of a degree across schools. “Some schools offer very large scholarships that look very appealing,” she says, “but if you look at the total rates and fees, our costs are still substantially lower.”
Concordia’s Cario notes that, along with getting value for their money, parents want their grown children to enter professions that will make it possible for them to live independently after graduation. Few parents want the proverbial unemployed or underemployed adult offspring living in their basements.
“Probably because of the costs of higher education and changes in the [national] economy, there’s more interest among students—especially traditional undergraduates—and parents, that when students finish college they have a profession to enter,” says Cario. “There’s increasing pressure on students to have careers where they can make a living wage and get healthcare after graduation.”
In the world of work, employers want graduates ready to work in their professions on Day One. “They prefer not to have any training done on the job,” Cario says. “Across the board, there’s more use of internships as opportunities to get students work-world experience more quickly, so they understand the expectations of businesses.”
Mitchell notes that MSOE students are admitted into their majors right away, which enables them to take advantage of internships earlier. “This gives them outstanding opportunities after graduation,” she explains. “They’re equipped to compete in the job market at graduation, and they’re often hired by the companies where they’ve worked as interns.”
Especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, higher-education administrators say students need hands-on experience during their undergraduate years. “Employers don’t want students who’ve learned through observation and books alone. Our students average six hundred hours of lab time,” Mitchell says. “With our nursing students, for example, they get clinical experience beginning in their sophomore years.”
As globalization increases, administrators have seen a growing number of employers who want students to have had some type of international experience. “Study abroad and international internships are more common,” says Mitchell. “We have a group of students, including nurses and engineers, going to Cameroon for a project, for instance.”
Employers say college graduates shouldn’t expect to stay in one career. “They have to stay fluid, be able to shift careers, continue learning, and be flexible in how they approach employment,” Smith says. “We try to give students the skills to be successful in their first fields and also to navigate their careers over their lifetimes. You have to understand many different things to work in this world; things like communication, critical thinking, and an international understanding are key.”
MSOE, too, prepares students for employment by imparting broad-based skills in addition to the technical skills unique to each major. “As a small, private institution, we have high faculty-student ratios and small classes, all of which are taught by faculty, so there’s a lot of direct interaction,” says Mitchell. “With our international focus, our students graduate ready to compete in a global workplace.”
Cario is seeing fewer people pursue pure liberal arts degrees, such as English or history. “Those who do often pair it with business or a language or some academic program that gives the graduate an edge in getting a job,” he says.
That said, Concordia balances a strong liberal arts base with professional emphases. “We believe that’s very important,” Cario says. “You’re preparing students not just for their first jobs, but for life. On average, Americans go through three career changes. College provides transferable skills that will also help with other jobs.”
Cario cites the benefits of studying the liberal arts: “A good liberal arts base gives a broader understanding of the world, which helps when you confront big decisions in life,” he says. “At Concordia, our goal is to provide opportunities for looking at the world holistically. Our mission is about growing in mind, body and spirit. That might not have hard economic value, but it does provide a life that has a sense of value and worth.”
Graduate school and second careers
Some students enroll in graduate school directly after earning an undergraduate degree. At MSOE, that means they’re often awarded a grant to help pay tuition. “Regardless of their majors, they’re looking for the same advanced style of learning they grew accustomed to in their undergraduate programs,” says Mitchell.
These days, Cario notes, many people are looking at health care as an opportunity for a second—or third—career, at the graduate or undergraduate levels. “We offer a medical assistant program at the pre-bachelor’s level and a physician’s assistant program at the master’s level—there are a number of second-career students at both levels.”
Smith is involved with UW-Whitewater’s College of Business and Economics, which comprises over four thousand students, or about one-third of the entire campus. She’s finding that for MBA programs, specialization is becoming more important.
“That’s why we have a new Master’s of Science in Economics, among other programs,” she says. “An MBA was long considered a generalist degree, with foundation knowledge in a broad group of functional areas. But now students appear to be looking for specialization, and we have nine different programs, including IT, finance, and human resources. Computer science and IT programs are increasingly popular.”
Certificate programs in areas such as marketing are also sought-after. “A student might not want to get a full MBA, but this is a credential showing some expertise in that area,” says Smith. “The programs usually require fifteen to eighteen credits, and most people take them while employed. In some cases employers offer partial tuition reimbursement, although it’s less common today than in the past.”
Students returning to college often want a flexible schedule so they can remain employed, and MSOE has launched online graduate programs to accommodate them. “People were asking for online options at the graduate level,” Mitchell says.
Online delivery has become a bigger part of the MBA marketplace, Smith notes. “We’ve offered online MBA programs for over a decade—and our program is internationally recognized—but there’s more competition now,” she says. “Most students have been in the workforce and want to move up in their careers or want the business side of a career—a lot of engineers want to become managers.”
UW–Whitewater’s online undergraduate business program is newer, and serves mostly returning-adult students who are completing degrees started elsewhere. “We have very large enrollments in summer,” notes Smith. “Geographically, the students can be located anywhere.”
Concordia is also seeing more students, especially non-traditional undergraduate and graduate students, ask for online options. “At any one time, of 8,500 students, about 2,500 are taking online classes,” Cario says. “A significant minority does the whole program online. A larger group appreciates the ability to blend face-to-face and online classes.”
Cario says these programs help students get the type of education they seek while managing the time crunch of adult life.
“My sense is that many students who have jobs and families would prefer to have face-to-face classes, at least in the beginning, because that’s what they’re used to,” says Cario. “Because of time constraints and commitments, they’re willing to continue online. Many do blended learning, in which they do some work online but also come to campus for long weekends to practice skills.”
As online programs become more prevalent, Smith says it’s important to ensure you pick a high-quality program. First, she advises, make sure the program is accredited. For example, UW-Whitewater’s program has Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation—which has very stringent standards.
“Ask if the faculty are full-time,” she says. “Many schools subcontract classes out and the faculty come and go. They may be anywhere in the world with no connection to the campus or any oversight. Ours are all full-time and teach the same courses face-to-face. We also have very sophisticated systems, with videos of classes students can watch any time, discussion forums, and the ability to mix and match online and face-to-face classes.”
Online, face-to-face, or both, Mitchell is pleased that MSOE programs help students expand their natural talents and use them in an educational setting. “We send out graduates ready for what the world expects, wherever they choose to go,” she says. “They help keep the world functional.”
UW-Whitewater is also looking globally, with a new master’s program in international safety and health. The college is also launching its first doctoral program this fall, a Ph.D. in Business Administration with a cohort of twenty candidates.
And Concordia continues to serve its three distinct student populations: traditional undergraduates ages 18 to 22, with over fifty majors to choose
from; adult learners in its accelerated undergraduate program; and the largest segment, graduate students in master’s or clinical doctorate programs.