No-frills graduate programs fill growing need for working adults

By Susan C. Thomson St. Louis Post-Dispatch (KRT) ST. LOUIS _ Graduate school is looking less and less like a musty library or cluttered laboratory and more and more like no-frills space in a suburban office building. No quad. No dorms. No student union. Just classrooms, teachers and perhaps a small support staff. This is graduate school University of Phoenix- and Webster University-style. Since its founding just 27 years ago, Phoenix has risen rapidly and now awards by far more master’s degrees than any other college or university in the United States. St. Louis-based Webster comes in third nationally in the number of master’s degrees granted. In the master’s sweepstakes, these two nimble, entrepreneurial universities leave in their dust such household-word universities as Harvard, Columbia and Michigan. The high volume comes largely from multiple, far-flung sites. Webster, which began in 1915 as a traditional bricks-and-mortar, four-year college, has remained one of those while evolving into a global system with 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia. Phoenix, named for the city where its main “campus” is a cluster of three office buildings, has blossomed into a network of 125 locations in 25 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and Canada, including three in the St. Louis area. Their market _ for both their graduate and undergraduate degrees _ is working adults over age 25. There are thousands of learners like Bob Huffman of Orlando, Fla., and Roger Windell of St. Louis. Both were looking for advanced degrees they could put to work _ Huffman as customer service manager for the national AAA, Windell as assistant administrator at the Salvation Army’s Hope Center for Children. In a credentials-conscious age, master’s degrees have become a growth industry. Between 1989-90 and 1999-2000, the number awarded nationally ballooned 41 percent to 457,056, the fastest rate of increase for any kind of college degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The most popular master’s were in education and business, which together accounted for slightly more than half the total. Health professions, with a little less than one-tenth, came in third. Public appetite for advanced career-enhancing, postgraduate education in these disciplines has grown faster than the capacity of campus-bound, traditional universities to satisfy it. Enter Webster and Phoenix. They’re not graduate school at, say, Washington University. They’re graduate school for people who, says Phoenix provost Craig Swenson, don’t want a liberal arts education. They want relevance, says Webster provost Neil George. And Robert Thach, dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Washington University, is all for such students and the schools that serve them. “I think we can’t have too many well-educated people, and the Webster and Phoenix universities of this world are doing an excellent job of increasing the number of master’s degree holders,” Thach said. “It’s good for the country. It’s good for St. Louis. It’s good for society in general, and I applaud it.” Washington University or any other traditional graduate school would have been almost impossible for Huffman or Windell, each with a job, a wife, children and so many commitments already. They needed part-time study, evening classes and no runaround _ exactly what customer-oriented Webster and Phoenix provide. When he got interested in a master’s, Windell called Phoenix and another St. Louis-area university, seeking details about their programs. The other university never called back. Phoenix put him right through to a counselor who invited him to an informational meeting that very night. He arrived with all of his transcripts, ready to apply. “That was on Monday, and I started class on Thursday,” he said. No standardized tests such as the Graduate Record Examination or Graduate Management Aptitude Test are required for admission to Phoenix and Webster graduate programs. Webster requires only a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Beyond that, Phoenix insists that students have a 2.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and three years of “significant” work experience, and that they be employed. Graduate courses at both universities cost about $400 a credit hour-about twice as much as at a state school and anywhere from two-thirds to less than half the cost of graduate courses at an elite private university. Huffman chose Webster partly on price. Other universities in the Orlando area, he said, were either too expensive or too far away. Subscribing to that basic real estate principle of “location, location, location,” Webster and Phoenix pointedly set up in places easy for students to get to _ suburban office buildings, often near major highways, with ample parking right outside the door. By leasing the space, they stay flexible. Webster, for example, moved an Orlando site away from an intersection where traffic was so thick at rush hour that students had a difficult time getting to class. Huffman is closing in on a master’s in business administration at Webster in Orlando, Windell on one in organization management at Phoenix in St. Louis. Both have nothing but praise for their classes and their teachers. “Some of the best professors I’ve ever run across,” said Huffman. “The best teaching I’ve ever had,” said Windell. Almost exclusively, Webster and Phoenix use teachers who, like their students, come to school in the evening, not from any ivory tower but from real-world day jobs. The traditional academic world calls such part-time faculty “adjuncts.” Because they work in the fields they teach, Phoenix and Webster call them “practitioners.” One of Huffman’s teachers built swimming pools, a special bonus for Huffman, who runs a pool service and repair company on the side. As a result of his studies, he’s developing a plan to expand his business. A career Salvation Army officer, Windell says he’s pursued his master’s more for personal satisfaction than job advancement. But, he notes, the extra degree might make him eligible for jobs the charity sometimes has to fill from outside. “Whatever I can do to help the Salvation Army out, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. Similarities aside, Phoenix differs from Webster in being entirely a product of higher education’s new age. Though accredited, it is run for profit as a unit of publicly traded Apollo Group Inc. Phoenix is nationally known as a mass degree-producer, said a St. Louis-area executive recruiter. But, otherwise, “Once you’re out of the top 20 (business schools) a degree is a degree is a degree.” Barbara Carnes, a human resources consultant, said: “I think there are distinctions even beyond the top 20 schools. All education isn’t equal.” Phoenix also raises eyebrows in some higher education circles, but the students keep coming. Phoenix expanded into the St. Louis area in the fall of 2000 and now can claim more than 450 students, including undergraduates, here. The university is looking for a fourth St. Louis location and is seeking approvals from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut to move into those states. Webster, also expanding, is opening a center in Arizona near Luke Air Force Base and is exploring possibilities in the Washington area. Both universities are beginning to offer career-oriented doctoral degrees, also tailored to working students. Windell says he’s seriously interested, but Huffman says he’s ready to take some time off from school. TOP 10 GRANTERS OF MASTER’S DEGREES (1999-2000 school year) University of Phoenix, 7,813 New York University, 4,959 Webster University, 4,136 Columbia University, 3,914 Boston University, 3,063 Harvard University, 2,852 University of Southern California, 2,841 University of Minnesota, 2,814 University of Michigan, 2,783 Johns Hopkins Unviersity, 2,774 ___ ‘copy 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Visit the Post-Dispatch on the World Wide Web at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.