FINDING THE NICHE IN HIGHER EDUCATION

08/24/2015
HIGHER EDUCATION
By Kathy Ermler

According to experts, by 2022, one-third of all degrees awarded will be master’s degrees. However, this does not mean there is enormous growth occurring in graduate programs. In fact, based on the Council of Graduate Studies’ (CGS) most recent graduate enrollment survey, graduate enrollment is decreasing, particularly in the large, mainstay graduate programs of Education and Business. 

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Growth opportunities in graduate programs in the future will occur in programs and areas outside the currently dominate fields of Education and Business. The best opportunities for growth within these dominate fields will occur in specialty and/or niche programs, which attract new populations of students needing assistance with career development and advancement and make use of the resources already in place for traditional graduate degree programs (e.g., equipment, facilities, and faculty). 

Specialty and niche programs are integrally tied to professional and career opportunities, which promote the various stages of career and professional growth (e.g. starting a career, advancing a career, changing or crossing a career). While undergraduate programs typically focus on career starts, graduate programs appeal to students looking for ways to advance, change or cross careers. New graduate programs need to adapt to the changing needs of the professional job market and the changing roles graduates are expected to assume in their professional duties. 

Career Starters

A person interested in teaching may initially focus on the assurance of a job after the investment of a substantial financial investment. According to the U.S. Department of Education report on teacher shortages, the teaching areas with the consistent shortage noted nationwide are Special Education, Mathematics, Science and English as a Second Language (ESL). An individual looking to enter the education field might want to give serious thought to majoring or minoring in one of these areas. The national trends in each of these areas are:

  1. Special Education — Ninety-eight percent of all school districts in the United States report a shortage of special education teachers and, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, the demand for this area is expected to increase by 17 percent through 2018.
  2. STEM Education — According to the U.S. Department of Education report on teacher shortage, STEM Education are consistently reported as high need fields in every state. 
  3. English as a Second Language Education — according to a report by the Florida Department of Education, 17 percent of teachers teaching ESL classes are not appropriately credentialed. 

A person beginning his or her career would be well served to look into a graduate program with a specialty area in a high need area. With this knowledge, graduate programs in education need to become more focused on offering specialty graduate programs that address these needs, promote these teaching areas and recruit teachers in other content areas to these areas. For example, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) areas are in need of highly qualified elementary, middle and secondary teachers. Too often graduate programs separate and segment these areas rather than offering a coherent STEM graduate specialty program that provides a unified and specialized curriculum focusing on all four areas.

Career Advancers

In order to advance a career in Education, teachers should look for a graduate program to provide the opportunity to advance in their chosen profession; either through an increase in salary or through a position of increased responsibility and challenge. In exploring graduate programs for career advancement, a person should look for graduate programs that have customized offerings featuring flexible delivery, stackable credentials, practical experience, and/or accelerated format. While these considerations may not represent “specialization,” they do offer specialized delivery options, especially suited for the individuals looking to advance their career. 

  1. Stackable credentials may take the form of specialized certifications (e.g. certification in severely disabled or autism spectrum disorders) or other types of sequential credentials that accumulate over time (e.g. fitness technology). Students would be able to develop specialized skills in areas related to their professional interest in a shorter time, for lesser cost and have a clear market value and relation to a professional position.
  2. Micro-credentials provide students with a specific set of skills and receive some form of recognition for acquiring these skills. An example of micro-credential in education is through a group called Digital Promise, an independent nonprofit organization that offers education micro-credentials for teachers. 
  3. Flexible online or hybrid degrees allow individuals to maintain their current professional position and also work toward an advanced degree. Students returning for their master’s degree are more likely to be employed and want to maintain their current professional position instead of returning to school full-time. As a result, graduate programs offering great flexibility in delivery — online, hybrid, intense weekends, or evenings — are more attractive to this population.
  4. Accelerated degree options permit students to obtain their degree in a short time frame. This shortened time may be the result of either an integrated undergraduate/graduate degree or a redefinition of an academic term. For example, a typical course is built around a semester or 16 week term. In an accelerated program, a course may be built around an eight week term. 

Career Changers

As teachers mature into their professional role of teacher, new challenges, new opportunities and new professional avenues begin to appear.Often, these new opportunities require a new set of skills the person did not develop in their undergraduate or graduate program or in their teaching role.In fact, some of the fastest growth can be found in “niche” graduate programs, which cross disciplinary fields and are, according to Education Advisory Board (EAB), tied closely to professional opportunities. Examples of these types of graduate programs include English as a Second Language, cyber security/data analytics, or social media and mobile technology.

Final Thoughts

Experts indicate that 60 percent of the jobs that will exist in the next 10 years have not been invented yet. As a result of this rapid change, education, business and industry will require a new set of professional skills every two or three years. The “shelf-life” of educational degrees and certificates has become very short and higher education must be able to respond more quickly to these changes and provide the requisite educational changes to handle these needs.

Historically, institutions of higher education have approached change and innovation slowly and cautiously. Often, the process of developing a new degree program is an intensive process; a process, which may take one to two years for, a new degree program to be approved and begin accepting students. With the “shelf-life” of degrees shortening and the demand for new skills with establish professional positions, institutions of higher education need to become more agile and accelerate their ability to modify, add and delete programs that meet the needs of the changing professional job market. Specialty graduate programs, niche graduate programs, stackable graduate certificates and micro-credentialing can be used by institutions of higher education to respond more quickly and efficiently to the rapidly changing educational landscape. 

Kathy Ermler, Ed.D. is Dean of the Graduate School and Distance Education at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas.
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