Graduate School and a Recession

When the economy heads south, the time may be right for completing an unfinished undergraduate degree or working on a graduate degree either online or on campus. There are a number of reasons that such action makes sense. For recent graduates, entry into the marketplace during a recession is challenging, and economists show starting salaries are low. To be clear, COVID-19 will result in a recession.

In a commentary published in early January of this year, Katherine J. Igoe made prophetic pre-pandemic propositions regarding graduate study that are especially worth noting. The bright light of post COVID-19’s kaleidoscopic realities requires a close look. The highest priority suggestion is to make a plan that works for you no matter what the economy is doing and don’t be persuaded to dump it. For example, a generalized graduate degree in a field like business may provide special opportunities when it comes on top of a specialized undergraduate degree. Excellent graduate programs offered online have great power for the returning student or recent bachelor’s graduate and allow a combination of working and studying simultaneously.

During the recession of 2008, college enrollments increased dramatically. Many of those enrolling were older adults working toward better employment potential according to the Hechinger Report, and many of those attended for-profit institutions. Since then a number of traditional universities have beefed up online offerings to become major forces in the marketplace. These include Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State University and, more recently, Purdue University.

At West Texas A&M University, prior to the pandemic about 35% of our students were enrolled in online coursework. Additionally, last year our summer enrollments were 85% online. Our five-year goal is to be 50% on campus and 50% online. A corresponding commitment is that any faculty member who teaches online must also teach on campus. Creation of additional powerful online offerings will ensure the highest quality instruction in both settings—on campus and online—at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

West Texas A&M University has highly regarded online graduate programs in business that are in the third decade of evolution and recognized by U.S. News and World Report as among the best in the nation. Any potential graduate student should look carefully at programs that have appeared as-if-by-magic or are mirages of marketing machismo response to a microscopic virus. Better to go with a proven entity that has a record of excellence than a new idea from inexperienced organizations fueled on steroids of opportunism.

For-profit institutions should be very carefully reviewed. Indebtedness at for-profits is high, and default rates even higher. In 2015, 30% of for-profit degree holders were in loan default. The warning here is applicable at both the undergraduate and graduate level, but particularly important when graduate education, intended to create advancement and growth opportunities, could become an anchor of over-indebtedness rather than a leg up in the marketplace.

For many students who may have stopped out of study at either the undergraduate or graduate level, the near future may be an excellent time to reconsider completion of a degree. West Texas A&M University’s It’s Never Too Late (INTL) program has allowed 140 graduates to re-enroll and complete undergraduate studies with special counsel and advice for those who may have family and work commitments. INTL was originally designed for those students who had ninety or more hours of credit and lived within 100 miles of Canyon. That group numbered over 1,100 members. Because of the significant number of high-quality online offerings available, INTL has been expanded to include other students who may have fewer hours completed and live more distant from Canyon.

Similarly, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Compliance and Dean of Graduate School at WTAMU will assist those new to graduate study or those who want to return to an unfinished course of study with the best means available to complete their degrees and prepare for post-pandemic employment. Every college offers at least one graduate degree program online, and many offer multiple opportunities that are recognized for academic excellence and cost effectiveness by various ranking agencies around the nation.

History demonstrates that challenging economic times present excellent opportunities to complete, enhance or further develop skills, insights and capabilities that have value in the marketplace.

To that end, I would urge caution and thoughtful investigation of those opportunities currently available either on campus or online. COVID-19 creates challenges economically and emotionally for many students and their loved ones. No time is more important than right now for a university to place the needs of students before institutional needs.

WT stands ready to do just that. Thankfully, it always has.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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