Graduate Degrees and Lifelong Learning: New Perspectives

The way the world looks at graduate degrees and education has changed drastically in the past few years. Gone is the idea that once students finish school their days in the classroom are over and it’s time to spend the rest of their lives working. Now that the baby boomer generation is preparing for retirement and the country is in need of a more skilled workforce, the benefits of lifelong learning have never been more laudable. In addition, many are finding that in order to land the job of their dreams, they must have a masters or PhD degree.

Going back to school to earn a graduate degree is becoming more common among those who have been a part of the workplace for years since last setting foot in a classroom. From the business world to the federal government, lifelong learning has become a necessary practice. This goes for teachers who are expected to constantly attend classes and seminars to advance their knowledge, and it also means that, around the world, graduate degrees are quickly becoming a requirement in many fields. 

According to the 2007 QS International Recruiter Survey, global recruiters are now making graduate degrees a deciding factor when hiring. Advanced degrees are especially coveted in the high-tech, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. The survey also indicated that the research background of those with graduate degrees, particularly PhDs, is extremely beneficial, and that these degree holders can be characterized as motivated, creative and original.

The New Face of the Graduate Student

These days, graduate students cannot be stereotyped as twenty-somethings who seem to make earning a degree a career in itself. In hindsight, maybe those kids had it right all along—perhaps we should all become “professional students.” In fact, perhaps we all already have: the average age of college students falls within the 30s, and it is estimated that one-third of U.S. students enrolled in higher education are 25 years-old or more. By 2012, students 25 and over could represent half of the U.S. student population.

Because graduate degrees are becoming requisite in the professional world, graduate students come in all ages and backgrounds. They bring knowledge from a diverse array of past experiences, which just sweetens the deal for the graduate students themselves, as well as the classmates who can learn from them. The range of ages that can be found in today’s graduate classrooms may come to as a surprise to many. And before you say you don’t have the time, there are many opportunities through which you can fit going to graduate school into your already busy schedule.

Graduate students engage in lifelong learning at all hours of the day and night. Some enroll in accelerated graduate programs in order to complete their degree as soon as possible (and perhaps move on to the next one). Others enroll in evening classes or even take weekend classes. Graduate students can also choose to attend school part-time. One of the most popular new educational trends that works very much in the favor of those going back to school is online, or distance, education. It is now possible for students to go to graduate school without leaving their homes. This means there’s no reason to ever stop learning and bettering yourself. It will lead to higher salaries, more job opportunities and much, much more.

What’s in it for You

The thought of going back to school can be a daunting one, especially when your life is full to begin with (do you already work full-time or have a family, or both?). But before you dismiss going to graduate school as an impossibility, take a look at these statistics:

  • An adult with an undergraduate degree will make at least $1 million more in his or her lifetime than an adult with only a high school diploma;
  • An adult with a graduate degree will make at least $2 million more in his or her lifetime than an adult with only a high school diploma;
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 70 percent of adults in continuing education believe they will increase their salaries and job positions—and most of them are right!

Going back to school can indeed lead you to promotion, salary increases and even changing careers. And besides the financial benefits, a participating in lifelong learning can help boost your job satisfaction and improve your life overall. You will be much more marketable when it comes time to apply for jobs and it is common for companies to help fund advanced degrees for their employers. Even if you don’t get financial aid from your employer, there is plenty available through other resources and many schools help you tremendously through the transition.

But most importantly – you’ll be better at what you do. Those teachers mentioned above have to continuously educate themselves because common teaching practices change all the time, technology gets updated so quickly, children’s mentalities adjust at the snap of a chalk-covered finger (rarely do chalkboards exist in today’s classrooms, by the way – ever hear of a smart board?). But it’s the same in your field. People change, technology changes, business changes, and you need to change right along with it. You need to continuously educate yourself so that you don’t fall too far behind.

Employers are Getting it

Employers are seeing the benefits of graduate school quite clearly. They can save money on training, increase productivity and reap financial rewards when they employ those who hold graduate degrees. Many employers have established programs that lend financial support to employees interested in earning a graduate degree. In some professions, lifelong learning education is part of the job and employees are expected to keep their skills current. This is the case with those teachers, as well as the medical and technology sectors—these professionals cannot do their jobs without engaging in a cycle of constant learning.

Now that employers and the world in general have realized all that graduate degree holders have to offer, people are looking for ways to make going back to school happen. One helpful way in which to do this is through what the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning calls “Lifelong Learning Accounts (LiLAs).” These LiLAs were established to promote “long-term employability” for America’s workers. The LiLA program entails:

  • Employee-owned accounts to help finance education and training of their choice;
  • An employer-matched account that can supplement any employer-sponsored tuition programs;
  • Giving employees the chance to earn higher salaries and land higher positions.

The LiLA program allows employees to take their accounts with them should they switch jobs or industries, so the accounts are portable. These accounts give you a chance to put some money away (much like a 401k) that can help secure a financial future. Should you lose your job or decide to re-up your skills, you can use your LiLA to get that valuable graduate degree. LiLAs are an excellent way in which employees can invest in themselves.

No matter where you can find the funding, going to graduate school could be the wisest decision you ever make. Investing time in education is never a waste, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 75 percent of the responding adults in continuing education reported that getting a degree enhanced their lives in general. In addition, 58 percent indicated that they feel like better role models for their children.

And in case you’re wondering how difficult it is to complete a degree when going back to school, it is manageable for an overwhelming majority: According to the BLS, 80 percent of adults going back to school complete their degree. That’s a lot more than the 50 percent that complete their degree program when entering a graduate program directly from high school or college! With those odds, coupled with the benefits of and need for graduate degrees, lifelong learning education is the way to go. Besides, pretty soon it just may be mandatory.

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