A New Normal 3: Values changing in higher education
Ross Rhodes started at the Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas as a summer intern in 2016, working at the pool.
The country club is home to tennis and golf professionals, Fortune 500 businessmen and businesswomen and former Dallas mayors, among other Dallasites.
After climbing a bit up the ladder, Rhodes now has a salaried job that will allow him to pay off his $10,000 in student loans soon after graduating this coming December.
“I’m comfortable, if you know what I mean,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes will make it through school with well-below the national average of student loan debt, which Student Loan Hero reported at around $37,172 per student for class of 2016 graduates.
He’ll be graduating soon and jump directly into his field of choice: hospitality.Nearing the end of his college years with a bright future in sight, he is even graduating early in three years after taking extra classes each summer to get ahead.
However, not everyone’s path through college looks like Rhodes’. Different academic programs at the university yield less open doors than others, as is seen in the university’s Academic Program Review.
The University of North Texas Academic Program Review
Every seven years, individual academic programs within every college at UNT are up for academic program reviews, at both undergraduate and graduate levels, by external sources from different universities and institutions.
The Academic Program Review in its entirety can be viewed here.
Conducted by the department of Data, Analytics and Institutional Research, the most recent reviews submitted in 2015-2016 are for the colleges of Computer Science and Engineering, Physics, Interdisciplinary Studies at the Toulouse Graduate School, Information Technology and Decision Sciences, the Linguistics program and Management.
All university programs are assessed by their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the importance and rigor of the curriculum and capacity of the classes.
The program reviews can be compared inter-departmentally, showing strengths and weaknesses within the same college. After going through three different stages of review, the program reports can be used by college deans and department chairs to structure and restructure certain aspects of each program.
For example, the College of Business contains both the department of Information Technology and Decision Sciences with 216 students enrolled in the Fall 2016 semester as well as the Management department with 236 enrolled in the same semester. While both programs are in the same college with similar enrollments, they have notably different strengths and weaknesses, which could change the value of investing in a certain College of Business degree.
The ITDS department offers more aid in finding jobs and the management department shows a lack of student awareness in job placement, according to the each program’s reports.
The program review for the ITDS department shows strengths where “the graduate school and the department both offer professional development workshops and seminars for graduate students,” and “has good connections with local companies and an involved advisory board,” who observes the students and is “actively hiring ITDS graduate students.” The program review also notes the “significant industry demand for students with those skills.”
Per the report, there is a potential loss of external funding due to “lack of STEM designation for Master’s programs” and “losing faculty members with key expertise is in the near future.” There could also be “lack of sufficient funding for graduate students, resulting in lower enrollment numbers.”
Comparably, the review of the management department said the program has a “dedicated and well-informed faculty,” “outstanding facility,” “sound curriculum that offers value to students,” a “tier-one research university status” and an “accelerated online MBA program.”
However, these strengths paired with the reported weaknesses of the program may be troubling for students spending upwards of $20,000 a year to attend the university, hoping to find a job after they graduate.
Notable weaknesses in this program include “curricular inconsistencies,” and “lack of student awareness about placement resources,” meaning reviews found students could be less aptly aware of opportunities in job placement resources, as opposed to the ITDS students finding successful placement in their fields of study.
The weaknesses found included a “lack of STEM designation for Master’s programs having a negative impact on the ability to get external funding by faculty and in the department’s ability to recruit quality international students.” An “uneven faculty seniority is spread,” “the financial package for doctoral students currently offered is not very competitive,” and “there is minimal to no funding for Master’s students.”
Interpreting this data suggests that while both programs hold opportunities in future careers from the College of Business, a degree in ITDS could be more specialized and well-connected than a broader degree in management. One could argue that there is more value and better chances of a more promising future in one degree program than the other.
Even still, students like Rhodes are able to find jobs they might like in their field, despite working 40-50 hours a week on top of school. It’s just a matter of getting there that poses trivial for many.
For example, added pressures such as working in or out of one’s field while in school could affect the duration of one’s education and prolong graduation, according to Dr. Gul Seckin, an associate professor in the department of sociology at UNT.
In for the long[er] haul
With working in order to go to school full-time becoming the new normal for students in 2017, Seckin asserts that having to work while in school can directly affect a student’s time in at UNT. Working especially close with graduate students in the sociology department over the years, she notices that students having to work to cover rising living and educational expenses find issues in graduating in the time they thought they would, especially when the job getting them through school has nothing to do with their field of study.
“It tends to prolong their graduation,” Seckin said. “It’s like a double-edged sword.”
She adds that it is likely advantageous for students to have work skills while going to school. However, if such skills don’t transfer over to the students’ field of study, then such a job could do little more than take away from moving towards a field of their choice. Similarly, financial pressures of working a job that pays little add chronic stress to meet financial pressures and living expenses, thus taking away focus from a student’s education.
All of these factors combined could lead to fewer opportunities and limited options for graduating on time and getting into a field of one’s choice at a reasonable time, all while students are working to better their chances of a fruitful future career. Put simply, many students now find themselves in a catch-22, working to get through school while, at the same time, staying in school longer because of work.
This is especially true for students without cars and international students, who find themselves working campus jobs. According to the career center, in mid-December the university employed around 5,300 hourly-paid students with ranging rates of pay between $7.25-$20 an hour. Most averaged between $7.25 and $12 an hour.
However, all student workers at the university during the fall and spring semesters are limited to just 20 hours-per-week because of a law prohibiting students from working more hours.
“If they are working at the university, they are not making a lot of money,” she said. “I was getting support from my family [when I was in school]. I don’t know what I would have done without it.”
Making it, despite the new normal
Rhodes’ story mirrors that of many Americans: his parents were financially able to help him pay for school, he found a career he wanted to pursue and now, where his parents aren’t able to help as much, he’s picked up the slack, working hard at what he wants to do.
Things were not easy, getting to the position he’s in now, but that’s the point.
“Honestly, I love it,” Rhodes said. “I don’t sleep too much, I don’t really have a social life. But it’s what I’ve got to do.”
Though nights are long, stress runs deep and his friends might see less of him, he’s living a life of hard work to better himself and fight for the future he desires. He’s doing what any student might dream of doing — graduating and getting a job the job he wants.
On top of that, he’ll be using what he learned in school, as a hospitality management student, in his chosen career.
“It’s the exact same thing,” Rhodes said. “The stuff I’m being tested on is what I’m using in my job. I look forward to coming to work every day. I love talking to people and making people happy.”
Julia Falcon Contributed to this report.
The last edition of ‘A New Normal’ will look into how students’ lives and finances have changed due to rising higher education costs, specifically at UNT. If you have thoughts or comments on the reporting in this article, or would like to share your own story, please contact reporters Kyle Martin (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or Julia Falcon (email@example.com).
Read more of this series here