Over the years, many future Student Affairs (SA) practitioners have asked me for recommendations on how to select a Masters program in Higher Education or SA. Below are a collection of the elements of advice I have received along with the outstanding feedback of colleagues who provided insight into the selection of a Masters program:
- Faculty – Consistency & Variety.
First on the list for a SA program would be to explore the faculty of the program. How many faculty are there? How many are tenure or tenure-track faculty? The number of faculty and the number of tenure/track faculty have a direct impact on the overall quality of the program. It is a sign of program stability and alludes to the number and variety of courses and co-curricular opportunities which may be experienced.
Ask if your potential program requires a culminating research-based experience. If you are interested in doctoral programs, you will want a program with a mandatory experience writing a thesis or conducting a research-based capstone. These experiences are valuable both as academic exercises and as experiential opportunities to develop as a professional.
- Faculty Experience
Do at least some of your faculty have experience outside of being faculty or researchers? Not many students in SA programs are going to become researchers or tenured faculty themselves. Most are looking for experience and credentials. The faculty instructing and mentoring you should have some practical experience in the profession themselves.
You need experience as a young professional or as a seasoned professional looking to add to your credentials. A good program will offer you the opportunity to do real-world work in the profession.
- Curriculum – Foundations
There are many courses out there in higher education. Some are more universal and fundamental to the field, and others are elective. Courses like student development theory, history of higher education, and student services in higher education are typically required for any program. How many courses are offered in non-traditional formats, and do they offer hybrid, evening, online, weekend, or other structured courses? Programs that offer only day-time, in-person coursework are more likely to be traditional research-focused programs. Those who offer evening courses make the experience more accessible to working professionals. Online and hybrid courses can be mixed; being necessary for distance faculty, needed to accommodate large class sizes, and/or they may be signs of innovation in course design.
- Curriculum – Electives
Are there variety of non-foundation courses, electives, and the ability to customize your plan of study? From my experience, the following courses can add a wealth of knowledge to a future professional and have long-term benefits: higher education law, SA administration, the community college, advanced or applied student development theory, career counseling, academic advising, budget and finance of higher education, technology in higher education, leadership, and counseling skills.
Funding is certainly a major factor for most students. We do not work in a highly compensated profession and we want to get a good value for our investments. Employee tuition reduction plans are a great option for those working at their institution. Graduate Assistant (GA), Teaching Assistant (TA), and Research Assistant (RA) positions are great avenues for learning and getting financial benefits toward program costs.
- Student Handbooks
Student handbooks are the most ignored element of program selection. If you are investing in a program, they should reciprocate and have transparent expectations and policies. Accessible student handbooks which are regularly updated are an indication of this commitment and consistency. They can be indicators of how a program treats its students, the level of expectations placed upon students, and/or how much investment the faculty/staff have in the program. Some programs may supplement with a high quality, informative website and others may cover this in orientations.
- Cohort Size
The larger the cohort, the less likely students are to receive quality one-on-one attention. If your program is small (less than 25), you are likely to get more personalized attention. If you are looking at larger programs (50 or more), you may need to be prepared for self-sufficiency and receipt of minimal assistance from faculty and staff. Do the math and get feedback from professionals and students about their experiences and opinions.
Many people will indicate rankings do or do not matter. When choosing a program, rankings can be very informative to prospective students looking to online evaluations and ratings before deciding. I would urge students to use rankings to find options, but not to make a final choice based solely on rankings. Ranking methodologies are extremely complex and often not reflective of the student experience. Listen to what other professionals say about a program, seek advice from professionals you trust about different programs, and make an informed decision.
This article is an edited version of the original published at A Career in College.