By Hilary Flanagan
First we should look at a typical 5th year program for planning purposes. Some colleges have recognized they could offer a quicker path to the completion of an advanced degree by allowing students to start taking some graduate coursework during their junior or senior years as an undergraduate. As a student, you have the opportunity, to plan your undergraduate courses in a way that would allow you to get a jump start on your graduate coursework. Those graduate level courses would then show up on your graduate transcript. Generally, master level degrees would take approximately 2-3 years to complete, but with the 5th year option, you are just tacking on an additional 3 semesters.
Since you would just keep going with graduate coursework during the summer after you would otherwise have graduated with your undergraduate degree, you will only be in “graduate school” for one additional year – hence the name “5th year program.” If you are familiar with how AP courses worked in a high school setting, think of how they would allow you to basically skip some basic undergraduate courses and count toward your undergraduate credit load. The major difference here is formal 5th year programs have very specific courses you must take, you likely need to go through a selection process to get into the program (typically in your sophomore or junior year), and there will most likely be other program-specific rules you might have to follow (like programs, speakers, or other meetings you have to attend) to remain a member of the cohort.
5 year master's program enable universities to capture students interested in advanced degrees early, and these programs may be a great marketing tool for the institution. 5th year programs are available at universities across the country, from large state institutions to small private colleges. The variety of programs using the 5th year option is also varied: MBA, Education, Criminal Justice, Pastoral Ministry, Nonprofit Management, Counseling, Visual Art, Biology and more.
The popularity of the 5th year program seems to be on the rise with graduate schools around the country. In the case of MBA programs, in particular, this is a huge departure from past admission practices. Those programs had almost prided themselves on the fact that their students came from having a few years of business experience under their belts before coming back into the classroom. But students are drawn, not only to the shortened time it takes to earn the degree, but to the actual and perceived financial benefits of attending a 5th year program. So, let us take a look into those for a bit.
Benefits of a 5th Year Program
There are a few major financial implications of an advanced degree: tuition costs, loan deferment, and salary/potential worth upon completion of the program. The university offering a 5th year program makes it attractive to current students by reducing tuition costs typically associated with a graduate program. Institutions may offer the graduate courses at undergraduate tuition levels for courses taken during the undergraduate years. There may not even be as many credit hours required overall, resulting in a net tuition drop. They may also offer the graduate courses at a reduced rate for those continuing on from their undergraduate programs.
The third factor is quite interesting to consider – the impact your 5th year degree has on your potential salary earnings or perceived value upon completing the program and looking for work. Though earnings will vary depending on the specific student (that’s right, depending on the student, not the program or the institution) and employer need, we can still take a look at some general assumptions. Consider again a 5th year MBA program, one I have a lot of experience working with in terms of both students and employers. Students might look upon having earned the MBA as a guarantee for a higher “MBA-worthy” salary upon graduation. However, employer feedback shows that they will consider the 5th year graduate for the same salary they probably would have considered a year ago had that same student applied as a graduating college senior. The actual benefit, they have shared (and graduates have confirmed) comes from the fact that you can generally promote faster to a higher level of salary. Let me restate. You may not get paid more right away, but you have the chance to get paid a greater salary at a faster rate in the future due to potentially faster promotions. Of course, you could have been an outstanding undergraduate degree earner who also promotes quickly to a higher salary.
So, are things starting to seem a bit murkier without a guaranteed higher starting salary? That is ok. You need to really do some soul searching to determine if a 5th year program is right for you. They are right for some people, but only you can figure out whether you are a part of that group or not. Remember, just like any good job or graduate program search, you really need to figure out if the program is the right fit for you. But feel free to check in with your own undergraduate career services office, trusted faculty advisors, and your personal support network to bounce off ideas, too. You may be attracted to finishing in a quick time-frame. You may be attracted to paying less for graduate school tuition. You might be thinking it would be great to get paid more, since you will have a more advanced degree when you finish. But have you even really checked out the academics? What courses are you going to be taking? Who are the professors and what are their areas of expertise, research interests, and publications? What kinds of opportunities exist for students in that program for internships, research, or professional development? Do you have a plan for using that degree? If you got some work experience and perspective first, might you change your mind on the kind of program that would be a good fit for you? Could an employer pay for you to go back to get your advanced degree? Could you get a graduate assistantship to pay for graduate school, negating the tuition decrease altogether? There are a lot of things to consider beyond the timeline and tuition of a 5th year program. Unfortunately, most students forget to really insert themselves into that process to make the best informed decision.
If you do decide a 5 year master's program is for you, then make sure you gather all of the admissions criteria and start working with your academic advisor early on during your undergraduate program. This way, you will be sure to stay on top of all program requirements and have your academic coursework line up within the program parameters. Doing this will allow you to make the most of the opportunity to take advantage of the unique 5th year program path and earn your advanced degree.
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Hilary Flanagan, M.Ed., GCDF, is a higher education career services expert, author, triathlete, certified career coach and certified etiquette consultant who is currently Director of the Center for Career Services at John Carroll University.