June 17, 2008

Relevance is Key for Grad School

KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ Narrower. Deeper.

That seems to be the trend in continuing education for many professionals who are returning to school for graduate degrees.

Dennis Gagnon always wanted to go back to grad school _ probably to get an MBA. But when the right time came to enroll, he changed his mind.

"Every profession has its niche knowledge," said Gagnon, the public relations officer for the Kansas City Public Works Department. "I thought it was much more beneficial to explore my niche deeper. This is what I like and what I think I was meant to do."

The words "strategic value" come up a lot when I talk to educators and midcareer professionals. The focus is on obtaining credentials considered to have immediate professional relevance.

Joshua Vaughn, who works in the marketing department at Perceptive Software, took a college quarter's worth of MBA classes before learning that his employer would reimburse his tuition only if he took classes deemed more specifically relevant to his work.

"So, given that I enjoy working here at Perceptive and want to add value and open doors to my employment here, and since higher value is placed on a more targeted degree ... and since the tuition reimbursement program was going to make this program more feasible for me, my decision was easy," Vaughn said.

Like Gagnon, Vaughn became a student at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus, aiming for a master's degree in marketing communications.

Kelly Crane, coordinator of that program, said enrollment statistics confirm that more adult learners are enrolling in classes more specific to their jobs.

The bloom isn't off the MBA rose, she said, but enrollment at the Edwards campus doubled in the last year in the marketing communications program.

"We even have students who already have their MBAs but are coming back to add a master's in marketing communications," Crane said.

Gagnon said he learned as much from his fellow classmates _ most of whom work in marketing _ as he learned from the curriculum.

"They brought wide perspectives and bounced real workplace ideas off each other," Gagnon said. "We dealt with direct applications in the real world instead of just theory. It was very much applied learning."

Crane said students question what kind of graduate degree would best help them reach specific career goals.

In response, for example, the KU Business School has set up a Web site with a comparison chart to help people compare the curriculum differences between the MBA and marketing communications programs.

Recently I heard from some MBA graduates who were having trouble finding work. Judged "overqualified" or having experience in a different industry from the one they were trying to enter, they asked what good their advanced degree was.

MBA degrees, of course, continue to have value. They still represent one of the top rungs in business education.

But as the cost of education rises and workers try to balance their work/life time commitments, people want to get the best professional bang for their education buck.


(Diane Stafford is the workplace and careers columnist at The Kansas City Star. Her blog, workspacekc.typepad.com, includes daily posts about job-related issues of wide interest. She can be reached at [email protected])


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