Report Recommends More Support for Master's Degree Services and Oversight

Master's enrollment has increased by half over the past decade

The number of Duke master's degree students has grown by 51 percent over the past decade, with half of that growth coming from international students, and the university should allocate additional resources to service this growth, says a new report directed by Graduate School Dean Paula D. McClain. 

The total number of graduate and professional students now tops the number of undergraduate students at Duke, McClain said. The report recommends Duke better integrate the consideration of master's degree program growth into strategic and budget planning; develop improved processes to evaluate new and existing programs and discontinue unnecessary degree programs; and offer greater support for student services.

But McClain added that these recommendations may just be the beginning of a university-wide conversation about master's degree programs and their role in Duke academics.

"Our hope is the report will serve as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion on master's degree," McClain said.

The growth of new master's degree programs – six in 2013-14 and three more last year – prompted faculty concerns about how these programs were changing the academic dynamics at Duke and whether the programs were being used as revenue sources.

McClain's report showed a more complicated picture. The new master's programs are coming out of growing and interesting new fields being driven by faculty initiatives. None are revenue "cash cows," although all programs must be financially viable. McClain said departments can't count on master's revenue for the long-term because "students won't always be there."

The number of master's programs and enrollment at Duke is in line with those at peer institutions, although McClain said, "We are adding new master's programs faster than others, but it's not clear why."

McClain added there's little evidence to show that the additional master's students are changing the academic environment at Duke. "In general faculty think master's students are good, but there are concerns about constraints on increased faculty time and strain." 

The report's concerns, instead, point to Duke's need to improve oversight on existing programs and a need to incorporate master's programs into strategic planning.

McClain said the Graduate School, which supervises the reviews of graduate programs, needs more resources to accommodate the growth. "All new programs must be reviewed every three years," she said. "We're going to do it, but we're doing it with the same staff that we did before the increase."

Master's students had their own set of concerns.  Many are international students – overwhelmingly the growth has come from just two countries, India and China. Integrating master's students, who are in Durham for only two years, into campus life poses enough challenges, but international students have their own particular needs.

Most master's students don't receive financial aid and most take on significant debt to receive their degree and depend on gaining jobs out of the degrees. McClain said departments need to work more closely with career services to assist the student in finding post-graduate job opportunities in the degree field.

There's no current consideration for a moratorium on new program, but McClain said the university must ensure proper review of existing programs and should have a conversation on what limits it might impose on master's enrollments.

"These students took on a lot of debt and we don't want them being back where they were as undergraduates,” she said. “We want the degree to be valuable for them. We have a responsibility to think about that."