Degree Inflation: 4 Ways It Impacts Your Applications

degree inflation and graduate school applications



 

Mo Degrees, Mo Problems? In some ways, yes.
Degree inflation (or credential inflation) is an interesting phenomenon. Just 50 years ago, the concept of a civilized society was synonymous with an educated one. The quirk is that to some extent, for many millennials at least, this ideal actually came to fruition. Now people are concerned that it may not have been the utopia they once thought.
This is a gross over simplification to be sure, and even delving into the complex details doesn’t offer up a concrete solution. Some people believe pushing for more education, even for entry level positions, is detrimental to the poorest segments of society. There are citations of the “student as a consumer” push at many institutions of higher education. On the other side of the table, it has been argued that this is simply a symptom of progress–just as the high school diploma became standard in the twentieth century. And since the days of Socrates, some have always seen education as a source of personal enrichment more than a tool in the job market, one that should be encouraged regardless of employment standards.
All these opinions are become even more convoluted when you add in the complex systems of university finances, politics, cultural shifts, and economic fluctuations.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what your opinion is on the subject–if you’re interested in graduate school degree inflation impacts you, and that’s the only aspect of this controversial topic that we’ll discuss here.

 

 

(1) Degree Inflation = More Programs

The most obvious impact degree inflation has on your grad school applications is all the options that are now available. As more students want higher degrees, universities struggle to expand and meet the needs of students. What has happened across the country, is a new breed of alternative programs, structures, and institutions have cropped up to fill this economic need.
Everything from online masters degrees to highly specialized degree programs have emerged in the last decade. All other things being equal, having more choices is generally a good thing. That said, it can make the application process even more daunting. Is it smarter to do an online degree and keep my job? If I want to start my own business should I get an MBA, an economics masters, a PhD in accounting and management, or a masters degree in entrepreneurship? Even previously straightforward fields like physics have become branched out and become more interdisciplinary–and this comes with the responsibility of pinpointing more specifically what you want out of your degree. Do you apply to a biophysics, engineering physics, computer science, applied mathematics, econometrics, or materials engineering program? Each of these has potentially sizable overlap with your core field.
In this regard, it’s necessary to define what you want and need from a graduate degree. Each department can have dozens of off shoot programs and joint institutions. Knowing what your options are and, most importantly, knowing what you want to do afterward–is more important than ever before.
The core take away here is that you need to research your options, reflect, outline your goals, and repeat until you’ve whittled your application list down to nothing of great matches.

 

(2) Degree Inflation = More Applicants

The aspect of degree inflation most likely to catch the attention of grad school applicants is the competition factor. Degree inflation, like most types of inflation, goes hand in hand with increased competition. More people are competing for (roughly) the same amount of seats at Harvard. More people are also competing for the same amount of seats at University of North Dakota. This impacts everyone–not just those interested in top universities. This means that every program can afford to be slightly more picky as time goes by, or put another way, it means they have to be picky in order to mill through an enormous pile of applications.
In the tradition of meritocracy, admissions committees try to handle this the most fair way they know how–by giving slightly “better” students a slightly better admission rate. The persistent quirk of course, is figuring out what the heck they define as “better” in this regard. If you’ve done your homework on your intended program, you should be able to glean what it is they’re looking for, and hopefully tailor your application to meet that expectation as much as possible. Some programs want research experience (or even publications), others want top GRE scores. Be prepared to put a lot of work into the application process.

 

(3) Degree Inflation = Applying For Different Reasons

For most of history, getting an education was a perk of already being wealthy. It wasn’t a means to gain employment, it was for personal enrichment and status. The PhD was generally intended for individuals who wanted to become scientists and researchers and genuinely contribute and add to humanity’s body of knowledge. That held true until about 10-15 years ago, when degree inflation really took off. Now a PhD is sought for any number of reasons. A consultant at McKinsey, often has a PhD in Biochemistry or Physics. In a lot of ways the job market is “asking” for more people to get their PhD. On the supply side, more applicants are seeking PhD degrees for status reasons. A lot of millennials see earning a PhD as synonymous with being “intelligent” or being “an expert” rather than path for working exclusively in research.
This is a difficult position for universities. On the one hand, they have a responsibility and desire to educate individuals who truly want to do research and who are capable of contributing to complex fields (all for relatively little pay). On the other hand, many students need PhDs for their career goals, even if those goals have nothing to do with research long term. What does this mean for applicants? It means you need to be honest about what you want to do in the long term. If your aspirations are outside academic research long term, you should say that. The important thing is that you have direction and know why you’re seeking a graduate degree.
We reiterate (again) that it’s important that you apply to the right program. If your goal is to eventually start your own solar cell company, apply to engineering or joint engineering/business PhD programs not a physics program. If you’re interested in public policy long term, earn an economics degree instead of a business degree. Beyond the department, even your choice of school can be important. In 2020 Harvard School of Science and Engineering is moving to Allston and intends to develop a substantial joint venture with the Harvard Business School. If your goal is a biotech start up, that may be a perfect program for you. The schools you apply to should fit your goals from top to bottom.
**This type of restriction may seem like it limits your options, but convincing an admissions committee that you’re a perfect fit is much easier when you apply to the right program for your goals. Ultimately, you’ll end up with a higher percentage of acceptances if you target programs correctly.

 

(4) Degree Inflation = Grade Inflation

There is no consensus on the causal direction of grade inflation vs degree inflation, but most experts agree they are correlated. This means that what was good enough for graduate school in 1980 (3.3 GPA for example), is now considered to be a huge liability.
This is a different issue from increased competition. When the bar gets raised, more is expected of you in general. That is not only common knowledge, but it’s also something you have complete control over. Grades can be a little more wishy washy. Some professors grade on a curve, and always fail some segments of students. Some schools have taken a tough stance on grade inflation across the board. Grading guidelines vary dramatically from department to department. The problem is that with all these variations grade inflation, and consequently higher graduate admission GPA standards, still exists across the board. If your GPA isn’t great in general, this can make getting into graduate school difficult (but not impossible). If your GPA is lower than average because of a school or departmental reason, you need to mitigate this potential issue immediately. Put your class rank or percentile next to your GPA on your CV and make note of it in your statement of purpose.

 


There is a theme that runs through all of these facts, and it’s the main take away for grad school applicants:
Fit matters more now than it ever has before.
You need to be a good fit for your proposed program, department, and university. This means fitting core statistics (GPA, GRE scores, experience) in addition to fitting well with potential advisors (research interests, technical skills) and long term career aspirations. Your statement of purpose is hugely important to ensure you outline and highlight all the ways in which you fit that program. The days of generic “I’d like to go to graduate school” statement of purpose are dead. But don’t fret, this can actually be a good thing in the long run–it will force you to evaluate your options as critically as possible and hopefully, ensure you are happy at your future job.

 

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Degree Inflation: 4 Ways It Impacts Your Applications

degree inflation and graduate school applications May 7th, 2016



 

Mo Degrees, Mo Problems? In some ways, yes.
Degree inflation (or credential inflation) is an interesting phenomenon. Just 50 years ago, the concept of a civilized society was synonymous with an educated one. The quirk is that to some extent, for many millennials at least, this ideal actually came to fruition. Now people are concerned that it may not have been the utopia they once thought.
This is a gross over simplification to be sure, and even delving into the complex details doesn’t offer up a concrete solution. Some people believe pushing for more education, even for entry level positions, is detrimental to the poorest segments of society. There are citations of the “student as a consumer” push at many institutions of higher education. On the other side of the table, it has been argued that this is simply a symptom of progress–just as the high school diploma became standard in the twentieth century. And since the days of Socrates, some have always seen education as a source of personal enrichment more than a tool in the job market, one that should be encouraged regardless of employment standards.
All these opinions are become even more convoluted when you add in the complex systems of university finances, politics, cultural shifts, and economic fluctuations.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what your opinion is on the subject–if you’re interested in graduate school degree inflation impacts you, and that’s the only aspect of this controversial topic that we’ll discuss here.

 

 

(1) Degree Inflation = More Programs

The most obvious impact degree inflation has on your grad school applications is all the options that are now available. As more students want higher degrees, universities struggle to expand and meet the needs of students. What has happened across the country, is a new breed of alternative programs, structures, and institutions have cropped up to fill this economic need.
Everything from online masters degrees to highly specialized degree programs have emerged in the last decade. All other things being equal, having more choices is generally a good thing. That said, it can make the application process even more daunting. Is it smarter to do an online degree and keep my job? If I want to start my own business should I get an MBA, an economics masters, a PhD in accounting and management, or a masters degree in entrepreneurship? Even previously straightforward fields like physics have become branched out and become more interdisciplinary–and this comes with the responsibility of pinpointing more specifically what you want out of your degree. Do you apply to a biophysics, engineering physics, computer science, applied mathematics, econometrics, or materials engineering program? Each of these has potentially sizable overlap with your core field.
In this regard, it’s necessary to define what you want and need from a graduate degree. Each department can have dozens of off shoot programs and joint institutions. Knowing what your options are and, most importantly, knowing what you want to do afterward–is more important than ever before.
The core take away here is that you need to research your options, reflect, outline your goals, and repeat until you’ve whittled your application list down to nothing of great matches.

 

(2) Degree Inflation = More Applicants

The aspect of degree inflation most likely to catch the attention of grad school applicants is the competition factor. Degree inflation, like most types of inflation, goes hand in hand with increased competition. More people are competing for (roughly) the same amount of seats at Harvard. More people are also competing for the same amount of seats at University of North Dakota. This impacts everyone–not just those interested in top universities. This means that every program can afford to be slightly more picky as time goes by, or put another way, it means they have to be picky in order to mill through an enormous pile of applications.
In the tradition of meritocracy, admissions committees try to handle this the most fair way they know how–by giving slightly “better” students a slightly better admission rate. The persistent quirk of course, is figuring out what the heck they define as “better” in this regard. If you’ve done your homework on your intended program, you should be able to glean what it is they’re looking for, and hopefully tailor your application to meet that expectation as much as possible. Some programs want research experience (or even publications), others want top GRE scores. Be prepared to put a lot of work into the application process.

 

(3) Degree Inflation = Applying For Different Reasons

For most of history, getting an education was a perk of already being wealthy. It wasn’t a means to gain employment, it was for personal enrichment and status. The PhD was generally intended for individuals who wanted to become scientists and researchers and genuinely contribute and add to humanity’s body of knowledge. That held true until about 10-15 years ago, when degree inflation really took off. Now a PhD is sought for any number of reasons. A consultant at McKinsey, often has a PhD in Biochemistry or Physics. In a lot of ways the job market is “asking” for more people to get their PhD. On the supply side, more applicants are seeking PhD degrees for status reasons. A lot of millennials see earning a PhD as synonymous with being “intelligent” or being “an expert” rather than path for working exclusively in research.
This is a difficult position for universities. On the one hand, they have a responsibility and desire to educate individuals who truly want to do research and who are capable of contributing to complex fields (all for relatively little pay). On the other hand, many students need PhDs for their career goals, even if those goals have nothing to do with research long term. What does this mean for applicants? It means you need to be honest about what you want to do in the long term. If your aspirations are outside academic research long term, you should say that. The important thing is that you have direction and know why you’re seeking a graduate degree.
We reiterate (again) that it’s important that you apply to the right program. If your goal is to eventually start your own solar cell company, apply to engineering or joint engineering/business PhD programs not a physics program. If you’re interested in public policy long term, earn an economics degree instead of a business degree. Beyond the department, even your choice of school can be important. In 2020 Harvard School of Science and Engineering is moving to Allston and intends to develop a substantial joint venture with the Harvard Business School. If your goal is a biotech start up, that may be a perfect program for you. The schools you apply to should fit your goals from top to bottom.
**This type of restriction may seem like it limits your options, but convincing an admissions committee that you’re a perfect fit is much easier when you apply to the right program for your goals. Ultimately, you’ll end up with a higher percentage of acceptances if you target programs correctly.

 

(4) Degree Inflation = Grade Inflation

There is no consensus on the causal direction of grade inflation vs degree inflation, but most experts agree they are correlated. This means that what was good enough for graduate school in 1980 (3.3 GPA for example), is now considered to be a huge liability.
This is a different issue from increased competition. When the bar gets raised, more is expected of you in general. That is not only common knowledge, but it’s also something you have complete control over. Grades can be a little more wishy washy. Some professors grade on a curve, and always fail some segments of students. Some schools have taken a tough stance on grade inflation across the board. Grading guidelines vary dramatically from department to department. The problem is that with all these variations grade inflation, and consequently higher graduate admission GPA standards, still exists across the board. If your GPA isn’t great in general, this can make getting into graduate school difficult (but not impossible). If your GPA is lower than average because of a school or departmental reason, you need to mitigate this potential issue immediately. Put your class rank or percentile next to your GPA on your CV and make note of it in your statement of purpose.

 


There is a theme that runs through all of these facts, and it’s the main take away for grad school applicants:
Fit matters more now than it ever has before.
You need to be a good fit for your proposed program, department, and university. This means fitting core statistics (GPA, GRE scores, experience) in addition to fitting well with potential advisors (research interests, technical skills) and long term career aspirations. Your statement of purpose is hugely important to ensure you outline and highlight all the ways in which you fit that program. The days of generic “I’d like to go to graduate school” statement of purpose are dead. But don’t fret, this can actually be a good thing in the long run–it will force you to evaluate your options as critically as possible and hopefully, ensure you are happy at your future job.

 

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