Honors Students and the Lure of Graduate Education

by Dr. Christopher Corley

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Our Spring 2015 Graduates at the 2015 Spring Honors Convocation.

Haley Doran, Lisa Miller, Abrar Zawed, Alex Sorenson, Marin Beck, Kristi Paulsen, Annie Humphers-Ginther, Tia Jacoby 

As April and May roll in and warmer weather marks its promise of renewal for our region of the world, the Minnesota State Mankato campus community takes time to reflect on students’ successes through assemblies, convocations, honorary meetings, and ultimately our commencement ceremonies.

The Honors Program recently celebrated the success of its graduates at our annual convocation. The convocation was nicely organized by our staff, and over one hundred people attended, including faculty, advisors, administrators, and family and friends of our graduates. We recognized the great work of the faculty and students, and Haley Doran gave the senior address to the community. After having worked with the students for several years, it is extremely satisfying to use the convocation, in part, to see the students off onto their next journey in life.

Springtime and convocation provide an opportunity to reflect upon the students’ journeys. What has surprised me the most over the last few years is how many of our students choose to further their education in graduate school rather than enter the job market after graduation. I understand how this would have been a good decision for several years after the economic crisis of 2008-2009, but in an era where seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for Minnesota are below 4%, it seems strange that more students aren’t directly entering the labor market.

But maybe it isn’t so strange? Might it be the case that our honors students, as a group, are making really good decisions concerning their future?

On the one hand, we might look at the economic incentives to attend graduate school. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides some context. Nationally, unemployment rates for those aged 20-25 are hovering around 10%, more than double the average for all those seeking work. Unemployment rates for those in the next age segment (at approximately the same time one might complete a master’s degree) fall to 4.4%. In 2014, the unemployment rate for those with a Master’s degree was .7% less than those with a Bachelor’s degree (2.8% for Master’s, 3.5% for Bachelor’s). Moreover, median weekly earnings rose over 25%, from $792 to $1102, for those with a Master’s. While we do hear media horror stories about law school graduates who can’t find work after taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans, unemployment and salary statistics indicate that students who choose to attend graduate school in financially responsible ways are indeed making rational decisions about their future. They are further developing their skills and experiences in ways that potentially create more demand for themselves after graduate school.

On the other hand, we also could look at the emotional pull of graduate school. All of our honors students work one-on-one with faculty to develop a research project, and they present their work at local, regional and national conferences. Honors students have the opportunity to present their work at the Upper Midwest Regional Honors Conference, or at the Annual Conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council. In some cases, the projects mature for over a year. The students develop their ideas, learn how to ask questions according to their own disciplinary approaches, devise hypotheses and methodologies for solving the problems, and present their findings to the public. During this process, students see faculty work from another perspective. They become immersed in a body of knowledge organized by a community of scholars, and they see the links between their findings and their application to social problems. They transition, in other words, from recipients of knowledge to creators of knowledge, from students to professionals, a process that is tremendously empowering and has rich personal rewards. In this context, graduate school pulls them to develop greater opportunities to conduct investigations, to solve problems, and to investigate the human condition.

When you add this deep experience in research to the daily interactions our students have with faculty and staff throughout the University, you can better understand why our students choose to attend graduate school. Our graduate students, as GA’s, provide incredible role-models for the honors students. Our administrative and service faculty – our advisors; our Institutional Diversity staff; our student life and residence hall staff; our student activities and student union staff – all of them will or have earned graduate degrees and they are responsible for many of the excellent learning experiences our students have at Minnesota State Mankato. Daily life brings the students into contact with those whose lives have been impacted by graduate school. It is no surprise that the students increasingly consider the option as they grow and learn.

In the past few years, faculty have invited our graduates to study with them at the University of California-Irvine, Indiana University, the University of Minnesota, West Chester University, the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, Minnesota State Mankato, the University of South Dakota, the University of Wisconsin, Geneva College, Penn State University, the University of Iowa, the University of Washington, the London School of Economics, and the University of Manchester. These are just examples of the wide range of graduate schools which have opened their doors to Honors Program students.

Maybe it isn’t so strange that so many of our honors students choose to attend graduate school, after all.

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