Making education worth it

Mark Rom, associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University, has devoted an increasing amount of research to figuring out how to make graduate school a worthwhile experience.

According to Rom, the cost issue is the single most important challenge facing graduate education today. “It’s not clear to me that there often is [an economic return to grad school]. Would I want to go into $100,000 of debt to go into political science? No, because the chances of getting a political science teaching job are not very good,” he explains bluntly, although he identifies medical degrees and certain high-return programs as exceptions.

As Rom sees it, this is a question of whether grad programs are providing skills to go along with the credential implied by a degree. “I think many grad programs may fulfill that one valuable aspect of providing the credential. But do they provide skills that are valuable in the marketplace? I’m less convinced of that.”

So how can graduate school faculties ensure that they are providing valuable skills to go along with the degrees they offer?

Rom suggests that new methods of teaching could greatly increase graduate programs’ effectiveness. “If I was in most of my colleagues’ classes here or at other schools, the classes themselves would feel very similar to 30 years ago,” he explains. But today’s graduate school students are hungry for a new kind of learning experience, one that is compatible with the modern “what I want, when I want it” attitude of the Internet age.

For example, he claims that his students expect him to be regularly accessible via email to answer questions and provide guidance. That kind of constant communication between students and teachers would not have been expected or even possible for professors in the past. And it’s just a small rumbling of what could be a major shift in the way students use technology to relate to educators.

When professors fail to make the most of the resources and technology available to them, students become annoyed. That annoyance is justified, according to Rom.

The perception of unfair grading can also be an impediment to a graduate education. Students rely on grading as an objective test of their mastery of skills, and unreliable grades can make it difficult for students to assess whether they are getting all that they paid for out of their educations. According to Rom, “It’s hard for you to tell” if your grades are unfair, because on most assignments, “all you can see is your grade.”

In order to address these issues, Rom has supplemented his own grading process with peer assessments, which often give new insights into the effort students put into coursework, resulting in fairer grades. To minimize political bias in grading, he advocates designing assignments that ask the student to argue both sides of an issue in turn.

But looming over the future of continuing education is a source of change from another direction altogether: the rise of global competition. “U.S. higher education has been dominating for a long time, but that’s probably going to crumble” as the quality of foreign institutions grows and price undercuts American universities, Rom predicts. “You can get a degree here for X dollars, or you can go to Mumbai, India, and get a degree for half of X dollars — and be in India.”

But Rom is optimistic about this new global future. He predicts that globalization and increased competition will improve the quality of higher education, make it accessible to more people and drive down the cost of American institutions. The expansion of education, in turn, will produce worldwide benefits. It holds the promise to change the equation and make more students feel that, indeed, grad school is worth it.

His only reservation about this brave new world of continuing education? “I hope I can adapt to it.”