Improving Access to Advanced Degrees
Brian Gongol

The wisest state in the Union will be the one that most quickly realizes that its best investment in economic development is not in incentive packages, tourism campaigns, or special tax breaks -- but in a solid investment in its post-secondary education system.

A solid investment in post-secondary education must take a four-pronged approach: The first three are easy to justify: Increasing competition due to free trade and the natural progression of the economy have made the conventional bachelor's degree essential to most workers' ability to earn a comfortable living. But for some, a conventional degree isn't the answer; they, too, need better technical training, usually via community colleges, especially as even yesterday's low-tech jobs become increasingly technical. And any free-trade advocate with even a modicum of humanity or sense about them understands the need for a comprehensive system to help the workers displaced by trade and technology to get adjusted to the macro-scale changes around them.

But the fourth requirement is a challenge that isn't widely discussed. Higher levels of education are strongly correlated with higher personal incomes and faster rates of economic growth. For now, the US has a comfortable lead over the rest of the world in the overall quality of our higher-ed system. But many of the self-appointed intellectuals running the academy are hostile to anyone else getting in...which is why most workers can't get most advanced degrees while still working.

The problems of wider access to advanced degrees are mostly logistical: Most classes are offered during business hours, oftentimes on campuses some distance from major population centers, and often at a cost that can be prohibitive for anyone paying out-of-pocket. The current system for advanced degrees usually requires that people pursue those degrees full-time, funded by teaching assistantships or combinations of loans, grants, and scholarships. Except for some limited offerings (usually "Executive MBA" programs and intensive weekend and summer programs), most advanced degrees are simply not accessible to adults working full-time jobs. There are very few adults earning advanced degrees in critical areas like math, science, engineering, and economics who also work full-time jobs.

Naturally, this is unfortunate on a personal level for many people who are perfectly good candidates for higher degrees. Advanced degrees can lead to higher incomes, expose the candidate to new ideas and improve their performance in the workplace, and create opportunities for entrepreneurial success. But there is a significant opportunity cost for society, as well. First, it's widely recognized but rarely addressed that the United States needs more well-educated workers in order to keep our strategic advantages in the world economy, especially one in which potential rivals like China have placed a premium on technical education.

Yet there is a second very serious opportunity cost as well: Many of the likely candidates for flexible programs leading to advanced degrees could be contributing to a vital two-way transfer of knowledge between industry and the academic universe. Because the current environment mostly isolates them from the opportunity to do so, academic research ends up more and more isolated from what the "real world" really cares about, and the "real world" doesn't get to benefit from exposing its workers to the latest research.

It's not an isolated lamentation. In private, some academics will admit that they feel isolated from the real environment in which their research is used, especially if the subject is funded by grants from large companies. Private-sector partnerships with university research can be good and useful unto themselves -- but they shouldn't be limited to funding and large-scale research projects. The best partnerships may very well arise simply out of collaboration between individuals in the private sector and individuals in the university environment, pure, unvarnished, and untainted by questions of ulterior motives and influence. There may be no better way to make these informal relationships possible than to put more working adults into the university setting.

It might be argued that a more flexible approach to advanced degrees would taint the system. But imagine a world in which someone working full-time could spend two or three hours a week going after an upper-level degree in whatever field they're good at. At that rate, even a master's degree might take a very long time -- much longer than the conventional thinking would allow. But at the rate of just one night class a week, people could undertake those degree programs without without completely disrupting everything else in their lives. The country ends up with more well-educated people, businesses get higher-skilled employees, universities get knowledge transfer back from the private sector, the quantity of potential research that can be done increases exponentially, and the economy grows.

And what of the argument that a five-year master's or twelve-year Ph.D. program would take too long? Only if we're bound by fabricated constraints. In the 1940s, only 3.4 million adults out of an adult population of 74.8 million had even four years of college education -- just 4.5%, compared to today's 30.8%. Traditional constraints are really just excuses.

It shouldn't be overlooked that some of the potential candidates for non-conventional programs are already performing new and innovative work in their own fields, whether out of job necessity or for personal satisfaction. But because they are outside the perimeter of traditional academic research, their work is not formally integrated into the canon of knowledge in their particular field. It remains unpublished or informally published but un-refereed. Furthermore, the amateurs have little access to the academic journals that would help them in return. Thus, the cycle of knowledge transfer between the academic community and the private sector breaks down once again.

This argument is framed as a question of economic development because cities and states spend huge sums of money trying to influence the plans of businesses to expand or re-locate. The amount spent on preferential subsidies and incentives is surely in the billions of dollars each year, yet there is simply no net gain to the country as a whole. What one state wins, another loses, and taxpayers end up footing the bill in the meantime. It seems intuitively satisfying that governments obsessed with economic development could make a better investment by helping their citizens improve their own human capital with better access to higher education. The taxpayers themselves would then at least have the opportunity to recapture their own investment, rather than being forced to subsidize their competitors.