Lessons I learned from graduate school

On Saturday morning, I will finish a journey that started 39 months ago.

I will walk the stage at Boise State University’s Taco Bell Arena, when I graduate with a master’s degree in public administration.

Grad school has been an education, on many levels. Obviously, I have had the great opportunity to learn about public policy from the perspective of academics and practitioners. In the process, I feel like I’ve learned to report more thoughtfully and intelligently about politics and government. I believe I’m a better journalist than I was when I started grad school.

Meanwhile, I have also had a chance to learn about the college experience, in a state at a critical juncture.

We don’t cover higher education much here at Idaho Education News; our focus is K-12. But it is impossible to discuss K-12 policy in Idaho without considering the state’s college attendance and college completion challenges. Idaho’s education debate is framed against the “60 percent goal” — Idaho’s ambitious and seemingly unattainable goal of seeing 60 percent of its 25- to 34-year-olds hold some postsecondary degree or certificate by 2020.

Going back to school has given me a different perspective on these issues.

By no means do I hold myself up as a “typical” grad student. I’m a middle-aged professional. Far removed from my undergrad days, my old student loans have been long since paid off. My wife and I are empty nesters, so I’ve never had to balance my studies against the demands of raising a young child.

I’ve also enjoyed another huge advantage. As a BSU employee, I was able to get my master’s for a mere $5 per credit hour. This was pivotal in my decision to join Idaho Education News for its launch in 2013; I knew the BSU employee discount would allow me to continue my education for, basically, the price of the textbooks.

In the debate over college attendance rates, some policymakers tend to downplay questions of affordability. I don’t presume to know the optimum price point for a college education. I know this much, from firsthand experience. When it comes down to weighing the pros and cons of college, cost is always going to be a factor. Don’t believe otherwise.

And keep in mind, access is also an important factor.

BSU gears the master’s program in public administration toward working professionals. Classes are held at night — and to their great credit, the professors juggle their schedules to make that work. BSU offers some hybrid classes with an online component, and some compressed summer classes that allow students to collect three credits in three weeks. The more options, the better.

Access to classes — the degree requirements you need, when you need them — is a big deal. And not just for undergrads who are hoping to graduate on time with a minimum of student loan debt. For a grad student, juggling school with work and family commitments, access may be even more important than out-of-pocket cost.

I caught a lot of breaks once I decided to go back to school. Perhaps my biggest obstacle was reengaging my old brain after a 30-year summer vacation.

My wife Chris supported this adventure with more grace than any husband could ask for. The BSU employee discount made my master’s absurdly inexpensive. The university’s course schedule made it possible to pursue a degree at night. My boss and my co-workers were always willing to adjust workloads to accommodate my class commitments.

So, yes, I was lucky. For many of my classmates, things weren’t nearly so simple.

As Idaho continues to focus on its college attendance and completion statistics, we cannot afford to ignore the cost and access issues that directly affect those numbers. These are serious issues that deserve serious discussion. We owe that to our current and prospective college students.

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