It’s the time of year where prospective students from around the US and beyond are looking at the graduate schools where they can pursue a master’s degree in higher education or student affairs. Choosing a master’s degree, however, is not an easy task. There are many criteria to consider. Here are a few of the criteria that can be overlooked:
Broaden your search
It can be tempting to only look at “master’s in higher education and student affairs.” The reality is that there are different degree titles that would be equally interesting. For instance:
M.Ed. Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration (HESA), University of Vermont
M.Ed. / M.A. Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis – Higher Education (ELPA), University of Missouri
M.Ed. Higher Education Management, University of Pittsburgh
M.A. Student Affairs in Higher Education (SAHE), Colorado State University
M.S.Ed. in Educational Leadership – Higher Education, Old Dominion University
M.S. Student Affairs & Higher Education (SAHE), Indiana State University
Several programs also allow students to specialize in a specific area or offer multiple tracks. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a master’s degree in Global Higher Education. The University of Pittsburgh offers two specializations: Student Services or Management. Good resources to look at most programs available in the US are the NASPA Graduate Program Directory and the ACPA Program Directory.
The cohort model is not necessarily better
When I was looking at graduate schools, most programs put a lot of emphasis on their cohort model. They made it sound like something universally desirable. While I have had positive experiences in both cohort-based programs and non-cohort programs, I would argue that cohort-based programs are not intrinsically better. They might be a better fit for some people, but ultimately I decided it was not the best fit for me. I am glad I did.
In my program, I get to have class with a diverse group of people ranging from professionals in the field, PhD students, full-time faculty members, a state representative, international students, etc. The breadth of knowledge and experiences available in a class setting has been invaluable in my learning journey. I get to take classes in other departments and even at a different university within the University of Missouri system. My educational experience is rich and diverse and I have been able to network with researchers, professionals and faculty members throughout the campus and beyond in my classes. These many connections are extremely beneficial.
Not all institutions will provide the same opportunities
When choosing a graduate school, it’s important to look at the full package. Here are some questions you should be asking program directors:
– What kind of assistantships are available?
– Is it possible to change assistantship after a year?
– Are there assistantships available off-campus?
– What is the full remuneration for an assistantship? Is health insurance provided? Are professional development opportunities available? Will funding be available to present at or to attend conferences? Do they fully waive tuition? Is tuition also waived for summer classes? How many months are assistantships? Is that flexible?
– What are the opportunities for practical training? Are there internships or practica available?
– Is there a culminating project, a comprehensive exam or a thesis?
– Are research opportunities available?
– What kind of resources and facilities are available through the department, college and on a campus level?
The institutional type of the school and program delivery mode make a difference
You may want to ask yourself what kind of institution you ultimately want to work for and try to apply to programs at similar institutions in terms of mission and size. If you are not sure yet, consider the following. If’ interested in research, you may want to look at research intensive universities including AAU institutions.
On the other hand, if you are interested in student development and working in student affairs, you may look at smaller campuses that often allow more one-on-one interactions with students. Ivy League universities don’t tend to offer many programs in student affairs, but they are well known for offering outstanding student support. Public Ivies, however, are more prone to offer student affairs graduate degrees.
Some programs are offered online, while others are hybrid and many are traditionally programs that require residency and in-seat classes. That is something else to consider when looking at what kind of schools you want to apply to.
Finally, you may not be ready to undertake a graduate degree just yet, but be interested in learning more about the field. I chose to complete a certificate in Student Affairs and Services at a community college which could be completed online. I have met several students in my department that started as non-degree seeking or as graduate certificate students. Free MOOCs offered online can serve as good introductions to the field, such as Exploring the Student Affairs in Higher Education Profession.
You don’t have to limit your search to American institutions
Research shows that American higher education and student affairs programs tend to do a poor job in preparing graduates to engage on the global scene. So it’s becoming increasingly important to understand international dynamics and to foster transnational collaboration. No American institution made the world’s top 100 of most international universities. Therefore, getting credentials abroad is a great way to stand out on the job market. Here are a few programs to consider:
M.Ed. Higher Education, University of Toronto
M.Ed. Post-Secondary Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland
M.Ed. / M.A. Higher Education, University of British Columbia
M.A. Higher Education Administration and Leadership, Royal Roads University
M.A. Student Affairs in Higher Education, Anglia Ruskin University
M.A. Research and Practice in Higher Education, Kingston University London
If you have any other tips for choosing a master’s degree, comment below!
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Podcast With Stacy Oliver-Sikorski on Professional Development