Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Choosing a Graduate School

[Johnathan Clayborn]
Now that I am in the home stretch for my undergraduate degree I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to which graduate school I would like to attend. The school that I am at currently does offer degrees in the field I wish to study, so I’ll consider them as a last resort, but I’m very fed up with the administration and support teams at the school, so it’s time to shop around. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to write about my methodology.
Choosing a graduate school is no simple task, and certainly not one that you should make impulsively. Graduate degrees can be lengthy programs and they can be quite expensive. You could easily buy a house (in some parts of the country) for what you will spend on schooling. And the last thing that you want is to end up with a degree that will be laughed at or disregarded by potential employers. So how does one go about choosing a school?
There are literally dozens and dozens of schools that offer Masters and Doctorate degrees. One of the first questions that I start with is “what is my schedule like?” Can I physically be present in a class on-campus? Or are the constraints of work and family life going to make that scenario an impossibility? Also, are you expecting any significant life-changes in the next few years? If you are moving, starting a new job, getting married or divorced, etc., then you may want to give consideration to your schooling. If you are in the job market it might not be a good idea to commit to a program that requires you to be present during the day, especially if you are trying to make a good impression on your new boss.
In this particular case, like so many millions of other working adults, I find that attending a ground campus is not a pragmatic choice at this point in my life. So, that narrows my search parameters to an online school. But there are still quite a few online schools to pick from. Now, searching and comparing all of those schools would not be a pragmatic way to spend your time, so you will need to narrow your search parameter even further. For me, this was by selecting only schools that offered a degree that specialized in my area of study. For example, there are quite literally dozens of schools that offer doctorate degrees in psychology, but there is only a handful that offers a specialized doctorate in educational psychology specifically. By focusing on my degree specialization this made my particular list of potential schools much more manageable.
So, for me the next step was probably one of the most obvious; Cost analysis. How much is it going to cost me for this degree? Pretty much everyone takes a look at the cost per credit hour, but for many graduate degrees there are other costs as well, especially at the doctoral level. There are often residencies, seminars, colloquia, or in some cases, certification testing that may be required. These costs are often not included in the tuition quote that you receive. Many of these require travel expenses on top of the fee to attend. Find out from the schools that you are interested in; how much they cost, where they are at, how many you are required to attend, and how often they occur. This will give you a much more realistic idea of cost as well preventing any unpleasant surprises.
Next, also consider the length of the program. How many credits do you need? What is the average time to complete the program? Knowing this information will give you a much more realistic sense of what you are in for in terms of length of time before your graduation.
Another thing to consider, start at the end and work backward. What I mean by that is this; plan to where you want to end up academically and work your where back to where you are now. For example; I plan on pursuing a doctorate of educational psychology. So, when deciding which grad school I wanted to attend I started by researching the doctoral programs. From there I knew which master’s level programs would feed into that doctoral program. In my particular case the school that I’m leaning towards also offers a specialized master’s degree in educational psychology as well. This can streamline your length of time in your graduate studies by keeping you from taking any unnecessary classes. Additionally if you can find a school that offers both the masters and the doctoral degree that you want, then it will make transitioning from one degree to another much easier.
By this point you still probably have about a half-dozen schools to consider. The next logical step is to check their accreditation. This is a very important step and will keep you from falling into the “degree mill” trap. Degree mills, for those of you who are not aware, operate much like the so-called “bucket-shops” in the genealogy field. With a degree mill you simply mail them a check, in some cases you’ll do some fictitious coursework and then a very short time later they mail you the degree that you want. The biggest problem with these degree mills are the fact that the degrees are not worth the paper that they are printed on. No employer will take them seriously and you will have wasted a considerable amount of money for the degree. If you find yourself saying “this seems too good to be true!” then it probably is.
So, how do you tell if a graduate school is accredited? First, check their website. See what institutions they list as being accredited by. Trust me, every college will have this. If you can’t find it on their web page, resort to Google. Type the school’s name and then accreditation. This will almost always pull up exactly what you are looking for. The trick here is not to take this information at face value. Some degree mills list accreditations that they do not actually have. Other degree mills are more ambitious and will make up a fake accreditation institution that sounds legitimate in order to trick you. If you want to know for sure if a school is accredited or not, check here: http://www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/Search.aspx  If the school is not listed then I would strongly encourage you to look at another school, no matter how enticing they sound. After all, that’s kind of the point of a scam.
Okay, so now you have a half-dozen legitimate, accredited schools on your list. Another thing I like to do is take a look at the reviews. I typically start with www.ripoffreport.com .  This is a website that people  go to when they believe that they are being scammed by a business or institution. In my particular case, the school that I am currently going to had three dozen entries, all of them recent (which would explain why I’m fed up with them). The two graduate schools that I am considering, one of them had 12 entries, the other one had 4. This gives me an idea of the credibility of the school in the eyes of the public. But don’t stop there. If the school has a page on Facebook (or whatever social networking site you use) hit it up and ask people what they think of the school, good, bad, or otherwise. I also head over to http://www.studentsreview.com/ and see what other students have had to say.  On this site students can rate the school in a number of areas. If you go here I strongly encourage you to go into the detailed reviews left by students for your degree level and take notes on some of the comments that people are complaining about. Jot these notes down and hold onto them.
After that, let’s see what the business world thinks of the schools. I like to evaluate where the school stands on certain rankings. There dozens of rankings out there, so pick carefully. One that is widely respected is the US News Ranking. The biggest drawback to this site is that they typically do not rank any of the “for-profit” colleges, so most of your online-based schools will not be listed by default.  Another excellent source of information is the Online Education Database. (http://oedb.org) . This site is independently run and provides a fairly accurate portrayal of the overall school based on different areas. The “for-profit” colleges are listed and ranked on this site so it may give you a better idea of where they stack up when compared to each other.  Follow that up with a trip over to the National Center for Education Statistics (http://nces.ed.gov/). This is a site run by the US Department of Education.  This site does not rank the schools, but it does give you a general idea of some of the cold, hard facts about the school. You can see what the school’s acceptance rate is, what their graduation rate is, etc. You should note however that some of this data may be skewed. For example, if you are trying to see how many people graduate out of a specific program, this is not the place to do it. This just gives your overall information for the school as a whole.

With regards to business, also look into any professional organizations in the field that you are studying. Do they recommend any one school over the others? Do they have a list of schools that they endorse? etc. This can be a crucial piece of information for you.
One tip; something to avoid: do not search “top online colleges” or something like that in Google. You will get a plethora of sites that return matches, however these are decidedly less than useful. Some of these sites are false-fronts run by the parent corporations of the schools that they represent.  Others are marketing sites that get paid by the schools each time a student fills out a “request more info” thing. They are not interested in providing you with actual, useful data, instead they just want to sell you the school. The Apollo Group is one large company that owns several online colleges including the University of Phoenix, Western International University and others. The Career Education Corporation is also a huge conglomerate company that operates more than 80 online schools. These companies both make use of sites like these to garner admissions for their schools.
Next, contact the Better Business Bureau of the state that these schools are headquartered in and see how many complaints have been filed against the school. After that, contact the accreditation agencies that the school is registered with and do the same. No school is perfect so expect to find some complaints. But, what you should be looking for is the overall number of claims as well as the time period of those claims. If they are recent it may be a sign that the school has some issues. If they are all older claims it’s possible that the school has resolved whatever issues were generating those claims in the first place.
Now, you’re probably down to two or three schools. Contact an enrollment advisor for each school, but do not give them your social security number! (Some over-zealous enrollment counselors will start signing you up and will being processing your FAFSA for their school. If you decide to go elsewhere it may create extra hoops to jump through in order to get this reversed).  And certainly do not let them pressure you into enrolling right now.  Ask them questions about the program, listen to their spiel. Bear this in mind however, 90% of these online schools are classified by the Department of Education as a “for-profit” school. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the degree is any less valid than a “public school” as the school is accredited, however it means that the school has one goal in mind: to make money. The bottom line for these schools is the bottom dollar, preferably your dollar. Understand that these “enrollment advisors” are also wearing another hat; “sales agent”. Their job is to convince you to enroll in their school. Remember that list of questions you jotted down earlier from Student Review? This is the perfect time to bring those up. Many of these sales reps are trained to go over specific information with you. When you start asking questions that they aren’t expecting it throws them off of their game and you are far more likely to get truthful answers (but still take them with a grain of salt nonetheless). Also be sure to ask about those extra costs, such as the seminars, residencies, etc. Ask about perks, too. One school that I talked to gives students a discount automatically if they are alumni of the school and taking additional classes or pursuing a higher degree.  
Next, more and more colleges are offering a “free online course”. Take advantage of this. It’s usually some bullshit course about how to be good college student, or some other garbage, and they’ll usually apply it to your degree if you go to that school. But, it will give you an idea of how their online portal works, what bugs there may be, etc. Also, be sure to ask questions of the teacher in order to gauge teacher response time. Do this for each school that you are considering attending. It doesn’t cost you anything but time.
Finally, as a last step, go into the ProQuest database. If you are a current undergrad student you should have free access to this through your school library. If not, many public libraries have access to this. Select the Dissertations and Thesis Database. Find dissertations in your field of study (by entering the text into the “keyword search”) and then also filter those results to the specific school that you are interested in. Download some of these (they are .pdf files). Read through them. This will give you a very good idea of what is expected of you in order to complete your thesis or dissertation. And, since you searched for something that was relevant to your area of study, you may even be able to use that data in your own dissertation as well, so in essence you are killing two birds with one stone.
 Is this a lot of work? Yes, of course. But it’s worth it in the end. Your choice of Graduate school will follow you for the rest of your life. If you are going to spend the time and money and energy to go that far with your education at least be sure that you are getting what you pay for and not ending up with a worthless degree. And, be sure that your school administration is competent enough to get you through the program without any academic or financial snafus. If you drop the program or get kicked out because you lose your funding the lenders will not care. You are still obligated to pay that loan pay (unless you can convince a judge to wipe it out in a bankruptcy. Despite popular misconception it is possible in theory it’s just extremely difficult to do). In the end you are the one who is responsible for your education. You will certainly have others to help you along the way, but if you rush into that kind of decision and it doesn’t turn out well, then ultimately the blame falls back on you for not doing your due diligence.
I hope that you have found this particular article useful. I felt compelled to write about this instead of my other topic I had planned because this was so fresh in my mind and I often get questions about this. There are also some other useful sites in the references as well. Enjoy!

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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.