SJR Column, Graduate Education, July 2013

Chancellor Susan J. Koch
Sunday, July 14, 2013

A view from the podium at any commencement is a glorious sight and, if you had been standing beside me on the UIS commencement stage this past May, you would have noticed an important new trend in higher education. The number of people earning graduate degrees has significantly increased.  In fact, federal data show the annual production of master’s degrees in the U.S. jumped 63% between 2000 and 2012.  That trend is clear at the University of Illinois at Springfield where 675 – about 40% – of the 1,416 degrees awarded this year were graduate degrees.

What is driving the increased demand for graduate credentials? What are the benefits of earning a master’s degree? I recently asked several UIS graduates to answer these questions and got some informative responses.

Jack Reynolds is a member of the management team at Horace Mann Insurance, the national multiline insurance company headquartered in Springfield.  According to Jack, earning his master’s degree in Computer Science from UIS was one of the best career decisions he has made.  “A master’s degree differentiates you as a candidate for promotion,” he says,  “and helps to develop critical thinking, problem solving and leadership skills.”  Jack recalls from his graduate experience the exceptional mentoring provided by Dr. Ted Mims, UIS Department Head in Computer Science, as well as the team-based nature of the graduate curriculum that mirrored so effectively the IT environment that he experiences every day.

Like so many other UIS graduates, Nina Harris earned her master’s degree in Public Administration (MPA) as a working adult – balancing graduate courses with a fulltime job.  Ms. Harris is now a highly respected community leader and President and CEO of the Springfield Urban League, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides services for thousands of families each year.  Nina credits her master’s degree as being essential for advancement to the top leadership position in her organization.   She sees a graduate degree as a “sign of determination” and, among the benefits of her graduate experience, recalls the use of relevant, real-world case studies, as well as courses that increased her knowledge of organizational dynamics, crisis management and team-building techniques – all of which have contributed to her effectiveness in leadership roles.

UIS graduate Ann Schneider is Secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, leading a complex organization with thousands of employees and billions of dollars in projects that span the entire state.  Ann participated in the Graduate Public Service Internship Program (GPSI) while studying for her master’s degree at UIS and says her career in public service has been a “direct result” of earning her graduate degree.  “Graduate school is where I developed proficiency in public speaking,” says Ann,  “and where I gained the analytical tools and decision-making skills necessary for success in a public sector job.” She credits Professor Beverly Bunch with teaching, by example, the importance of being respectful of every point of view and with providing the people skills so important in management and leadership.

The Masters in Business Administration is one of the most sought-after degrees in the U.S. and is, perhaps, the most versatile graduate degree in the world.  According to UIS Business Dean Ron McNeil,  “Earning an MBA from an AACSB accredited college, like the UIS College of Business and Management, is an important career-building step, providing a competitive edge for more advanced positions in today’s work environment.”  UIS MBA grads hold management positions in many companies and organizations across the region and beyond, including at Bunn-O-Matic, Caterpillar, Memorial Health Systems, State Farm Insurance, Archer Daniels Midland Company, Illinois National Bank, and the State of Illinois – to name a few.

Though it varies widely by the degree earned, educational attainment is strongly correlated with income across every discipline.  In general, a graduate degree is well worth the investment, with lifetime earnings being significantly higher when compared with bachelor’s degree holders.  Studies also show that the unemployment rate for people with master’s degrees is lower than that of individuals with a bachelor’s degree or less.

Just a few days ago, UIS hosted a reception honoring Springfield’s 2013 “Forty under 40,” a group of 40 young professionals who are among our community’s best and brightest.  Forty-five percent of this year’s class have at least one advanced degree and several others are currently attending graduate school.  It seems clear that earning a graduate credential is a worthwhile effort.  With over 30 graduate degrees and certificates offered on the Springfield campus, in Peoria and online, UIS provides an important pathway to advancement for area professionals, strengthening leadership throughout the central Illinois region.