Selecting a Graduate Program in Education

04/11/2014  |  By Dennis L. McElhoe, Ph.D.

For anyone working full-time and balancing family responsibilities, the thought of returning to college for a master degree can be very daunting — even intimidating. 

Unfortunately, it seems that nearly every week another state legislature or school district takes action to eliminate incentive pay for teachers completing a graduate degree in education as well as tuition reimbursement for continuing their professional development, thereby creating a potential disincentive for some to pursue a master’s.

However, for the majority of us who undertook the challenge of pursuing and completing a Master’s degree, the effort represented a personal achievement as well as a professional accomplishment. For me it began over 20 years ago, when I transitioned into higher education at the completion of a career in public safety.

When I received an appointment to lead a continuing education program at a community college in 1993, the position I accepted didn’t require an education beyond my bachelor in Business Administration. However, I believed undertaking the challenge of completing a graduate degree would provide me with a better understanding of my newly chosen second career, as well as help to prepare me for future opportunities.

The decision to pursue a M.S. in Education with a specialization in adult learning, then, was fairly simple for me as it coincided not only with my personal interests, but with the chosen path of my second career. However, those of you who have worked in elementary, middle and secondary education since completion of your bachelor programs perhaps are experiencing some level of burnout in your current position. Similar to a number of our current graduate students, you likely have a desire to remain in the field, but are unsure where to begin or what opportunities are available beyond your current area of expertise.

The pursuit of a Master of Science or Master of Arts in Education would seem to be the logical next step in your career path. When considering the challenge of completing a graduate degree you will not only have to determine your area of specialization, but how and where you will complete your program of study. The choices for each are numerous requiring a significant amount of time and research to arrive at the correct decision that will determine the next steps in your career. The purpose of this article then, is to provide those of you considering a graduate program with some basic information from which to begin consideration of pursuing and completing your learning objectives.

Over the next six years, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that overall employment opportunities for individuals holding a Master of Education will grow by 14 percent . When looking at the data more closely, however, employment opportunities vary by specialization.

For example, recent research published by the Center for Disease Control unfortunately found that the prevalence of children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder was one in 88 in 2008, an increase of 26 percent over a similar study conducted in 2006 and 78 percent when compared to data collected in 2002. As a result, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that demand for K-12 teachers with training in Autism Spectrum Disorders will continue to increase at a rate of six percent annually through the year 2022. Although graduate programs in this field are still emerging, a number of institutions such as UNC Charlotte have well established programs with nationally recognized faculty, providing excellent learning opportunities.

Instructional Technologist, also known as Instructional Coordinator, is another specialization experiencing significant demand within the K-12 community and post-secondary education as well as business and industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduates of Master programs with a specialization in this field can expect demand exceeding 10 percent annually through 2022.

For those teachers interested in pursuing K-12 leadership opportunities, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that demand for individuals completing a M.Ed. in Administration or School Leadership, credentials often required for principalships, will grow by 10 percent over the next six years. In comparison, the Bureau projects that demand for school and career counselors will be even larger, growing by 19 percent through 2020.

Current K-12 educators considering a transition into a career in post-secondary education will be interested to learn that demand for higher ed. administrators will also grow by 19 percent over the next six years. Mid-level to senior leadership positions in higher education typically require at least a Master’s in an appropriate field. Specializations relevant to administrative positions include Higher Education Administration, Adult and Continuing Education, Distance Learning, Educational Technology and Student Affairs among others.

Non-teaching positions in higher education can be challenging, fulfilling and from my own career experiences, those interested in such positions will find that opportunities abound for one to make a truly positive impact on the lives of others. Such positions have often been responsible for the development of new initiatives and policies intended to better serve an institution’s current and potential student population.

Typically, most administrative positions at colleges and universities do not hold a faculty appointment with the exception of senior leadership positions such as Provost, Associate Provost, Dean and Associate Dean. However, if interest exists, temporary or adjunct teaching assignments are occasionally available.

For those of you interested in transitioning into teaching full-time at the college or university level, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that opportunities at two and four year institutions will increase by 17 percent over the next six years. While teaching at or above the Master level obviously requires a doctorate in an appropriate, opportunities and demand do exist at community and junior colleges as well as senior institutions for faculty holding a M.Ed. or M.A.T.

Concurrent with your research into what will ultimately be your field of specialization should be an investigation of the type of program in which you intend to invest your time and money. This investigation should begin with a self-evaluation of your own learning preference and the compatibility of that preference with the delivery options and the institutions that offer the program that will provide you the best opportunity to successfully complete your learning objectives.

Public institutions such as UNC Charlotte offer potential graduate students the choices of completing their learning objectives in a traditional on-campus format, via hybrid delivery at a site close to one’s place of employment or residence, or completely online. Although programs offered by private and for-profit institutions offer selected graduate programs in all three modes of instruction, several only offer their graduate programs completely online.

Determining the mode of instruction that best matches your learning preference is a vital component to a successful graduate experience. However, the regional and national reputation of the institution, the program being considered and the quality and reputation of the program’s faculty should also be closely evaluated and compared with other institutions offering similar programs. Individuals exploring a graduate program from the same institution where they received their bachelor degree should still investigate thoroughly the quality of the specific program in which they’re interested as occasionally one will find that the graduate program of their alma mater unfortunately may not match the quality of their completed baccalaureate program.

Research and my own experience of over 20 years in the field suggests that the quality of services available to potential and current graduate students and administrative responsiveness to inquiries before and after admission are as important as the reputation of the institution and the quality of instruction when determining which program to seek admission. As you conduct your research, it’s important to include an evaluation of the critical second component to a successful graduate experience — the non-instructional services of the institution or institutions you may be considering for your graduate program.

The overall cost for completion of a master degree comprises a critical third component to a successful graduate experience. Obviously costs vary widely between public, private and for-profit institutions and will undoubtedly be a determining factor in your choice of program.

Ideally, cost should be evaluated in concert with your research on the quality of the programs and institutions under consideration to determine a potential return on your investment. Does the reputation of the institution and program justify the overall cost? Is the institution and program being considered viewed as reputable by one’s current or future employers? What is the promotion or employment potential for graduates of a particular program? These are questions you should consider when exploring the various opportunities for completing a graduate program in Education.

To assist you with your consideration, highly reputable resources for comparing programs and institutions are readily available online. However, as you might guess, graduates themselves often represent the best resource when evaluating the efficacy of an institution and program and you may find that several of your colleagues who have completed a graduate program may be willing to share their experiences and provide recommendations. In addition, social media provides opportunities for you to review positive or negative comments of current or former students of various institutions and programs.

The process of investigating and finally determining the best graduate program and specialization can be quite time-consuming. However, as I indicated at the outset of this article, the rewards in terms of personal and professional can be very satisfying, so don’t delay. Begin your journey today.




Dennis L. McElhoe, Ph.D. is Director of Credit Programs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
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