California sees profit in solely student-funded master’s degrees

UC system looks to job-focused courses to ease budget woes, but critics see erosion of HE as public good

July 15, 2019
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The University of California is seeing early success in its bid to expand privately-funded versions of master’s degrees – controversial in the eyes of some for being paid for entirely by students without public subsidy – to help it cope with declining state budgetary support and pressure to cut back on out-of-state and foreign students.

The idea grows out of the longstanding concept of professional master’s degrees, which prepare students for specific industry positions rather than academic careers.

As that approach grows in popularity, the 10-campus University of California system is working to better monetise the model by giving departments more direct budgetary incentives to expand them.

UC calls them “self-supporting master’s programmes”, Carol T. Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley campus, said in an interview. “It just means that you can charge whatever the degree costs to deliver.”

UC officials are confident that faculty commitment to quality education will counter any temptations to exploit students who may see master’s degrees in particular fields as a pathway to higher corporate salaries.

The guardrails, said Robin L. Garrell, dean of graduate education at the University of California at Los Angeles, include extensive internal systems for vetting new proposals for self-supporting master’s programmes. Given the layers of faculty oversight, “it’s really hard to overcharge, even in a self-sustaining world”, she added.

Others are less sure. Creating master’s degrees targeted to specific career outcomes is an exercise in “inventing new revenue streams”, said Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University. “You’re creating master’s students out of nothing.”

Either way, amid sustained nationwide public pressure to cut government spending, the need to tackle budgetary shortfalls has become clear at the University of California and across much of US public higher education.

Professor Christ took over at Berkeley in 2017 from Nicholas Dirks as he was trying to tackle a $110 million (£88 million) deficit by merging academic departments and cutting hundreds of jobs. She instead proposed growing revenues, and suggested methods that include the self-supporting master’s programmes, increased levels of non-degree enrolment and a much more aggressive pursuit of philanthropy.

In traditional budgeting for degree programmes, tuition money flows to the central University of California system, which then finances the necessary educational resources on individual campuses. For the self-supporting master’s programmes, individual departments or schools keep the tuition and cover all costs.

Berkeley’s offerings include courses in high-paying occupations such as business administration and cybersecurity, Professor Christ said.

Such “self-supporting” master’s programmes have three years from the time of their creation to either break even or face cancellation, Professor Garrell said. UCLA and other campuses currently have about five to 10 such programmes, she added.

But Professor Cassuto described the marketing of master’s programmes as aggressive, and pernicious, because it further emphasises the idea of higher education as a personal job-based investment rather than a broad public good.

“That ultimately I think leads down a materialistic alley that doesn’t help society except in some very obvious material ways,” he said.

Professor Garrell said she recognised concerns about the potential misuse of profession-specific master’s degrees as a means of bridging public demands for both local student access and lower government spending. But, done well, she said, job-specific master’s programmes can help generate resources to preserve parts of the university with less economic opportunity.

“It's very flexible money,” she said. “And it’s used for good stuff.”

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