How Graduate Education Serves the Public Good

Laura Miller
Oct 22, 2020

In light of the significant disruptions to graduate education imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and other recent game-changing trends in our culture and economy, it is now more important than ever for people who advocate on behalf of graduate education to make the case for its importance to society as a whole.

“Historically, advocates of graduate education have emphasized the personal advantages individuals derive from it, such as greater income potential, improved employment prospects and better physical and mental health compared with those who have lesser levels of education,” said Michael T. Nietzel, Ph.D., President Emeritus of Missouri State University.

“Yet in order to effectively engage and win the support of other key stakeholders — including policymakers — educators also need to emphasize the invaluable benefits that graduate education can bring to everyone: professional expertise, valuable discoveries, secondary economic effects and the fact that having a higher proportion of people with graduate degrees makes communities stronger.”

Making connections

Among policymakers, Dr. Nietzel said, there tends to be a perception that graduate education is a luxury that some people have the privilege to pursue. Policymakers don’t always see it as a necessity, even though graduate degrees are becoming increasingly important in a large number of fields. As a result, there’s a preference among them for graduate education to be supported with tuition rather than public subsidies.

He believes that’s why it’s crucial for graduate educators to tie funding requests not just to specific graduate education initiatives at their institutions but also to the overarching benefits they bring to communities.

“In Missouri, the legislature and governor approved appropriations to expand capacity in existing healthcare programs several years ago,” he said. “That was tied to an agreement that existing healthcare programs in the state’s public universities would increase their output of nurses, physician assistants and other in-demand graduates. The increased funding also went toward adding faculty and, in some cases, adding stipend support for graduate students to enroll in those programs.

“The appeal to the legislature and to the governor was, ‘You don’t have to invest in startups. We have programs here that are already accredited and successful.’ So, from their point of view, it was money well spent, or what some refer to as ‘efficient money.’ Efficient money is very important to policymakers because it minimizes the risks to them.”

All policy is local

Policymakers also love being able to connect valuable discoveries and innovations to the people, institutions and areas they represent. According to Dr. Nietzel, more than 800 new consumer products derived from academic research came onto the market in 2018, as did more than 7,600 new patents. Over 1,000 new startups formed, and 70% of those new businesses stayed in the home state where the founder’s educational institution was located.

“Every institution has a compelling story to tell, even if it might not be quite as exciting as Stanford’s Google story. The important thing is to find your institution’s story and tell it in a way that makes a significant impression on public policymakers.

“Remember, too, that graduate education also creates economic spillovers. That happens when financial benefits related to an individual’s education are realized by a third party who didn’t directly participate in that education. Among other things, individuals with a graduate education generally pay more taxes during their lifetimes, require less public assistance and raise children who are more likely to achieve higher levels of post-secondary education. There is also convincing data showing that they drive economic opportunities for less educated workers through job creation and spending in service and retail industries.”

In addition, Dr. Nietzel said, their greater-than-average tendency to participate in philanthropy, volunteering and civic activities such as voting means that individuals who hold graduate degrees are typically more involved with their communities and, in turn, make them better for everyone.

That’s exactly what the goal of graduate education should be. Spread the word.

This article was based on comments made by Dr. Nietzel during the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) Fall Signature Event, which is available for on-demand viewing now.

Laura Miller

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