Inequality in Graduate and Adult Education in Franklin County

Inequalities in education persist at all levels in Franklin County including graduate and adult education. Of all the non-profit higher education institutions in Franklin County, all but two (Columbus State and Pontifical College Josephinium) offer graduate programs. The Ohio State University provides significant graduate offerings, with over 200 graduate and professional specialties. Other institutions, including various for-profit institutions in Franklin County, focus on providing access to adult learners. This population of students is defined as people over 25 years old, financially independent, non-traditional, might have their own dependents, and are employed full-time (Ross-Gordon, 2011).

In exploring issues related to inequality in graduate and adult education in Franklin County, four themes emerged. First, we define diversity and discuss the importance of diversity in graduate education. Next, we describe inequalities in funding at the graduate level and examine the disparities in borrowing across student and institution type. We move on to provide information regarding for-profit programs and share enrollment and graduation statistics. Finally, we offer information regarding workforce development and certificate programs operating within the county. Looking to the future, we conclude by providing recommendations for further investigation.

Woman outside in sunshine smilingDiversity in Graduate Education

The Council of Graduate School’s (2009) resolution on building an inclusive graduate community states “seeking students from groups historically underrepresented in graduate education and encouraging these individuals to pursue advanced degrees serves the best interests of higher education and the nation at large.” This sentiment resonates within Franklin County. In The Ohio State University’s 2017 Campus Conversations, the Graduate School identified diversity and inclusion as one of the strategic planning priorities stating that, “diversity of experiences and perspectives is fundamental to graduate education and the high-quality research, scholarship, and advanced practice that is expected of graduate degree holders” (Office of Academic Affairs from The Ohio State University, 2017, p.4).

While there is support for diversity in graduate education, defining diversity has proven challenging. Schlemper & Monk (2011) conducted a qualitative study and explored the interpretation of diversity by graduate students and faculty across the nation. Their definition includes a broad range of categories: gender, race and ethnicity, age, discipline, family status, sexual orientation, and disability. However, an open definition of diversity can make it challenging to operationalize. Scholars have proposed ideas for mentorship (Hughes-Oliver, 2017), incorporating diversity into the curriculum (Gayles & Kelly, 2007), allowing for self-identification in recruitment (Ralston, Cloud & Bell, 2005), and globalizing higher education (Kienle & Loyd, 2005).

When attempting to compare Franklin County’s diversity with the national statistics, the U.S. Department of Education (2016) issued a report on advancing diversity and inclusion in higher education; however, graduate education is not found in the discussion. Within Franklin County, diversity is not an easily found keyword on institutional websites. For example, while searching diversity in the graduate programs at Otterbein University only two results appeared, and neither had any clear diversity-related keywords or phrases. On the other end, a search for undergraduate diversity returned 275 results. In Otterbein’s case, one university has different approaches by the levels of education. Some other schools reflect their diversity by demonstrating their enrollment numbers by race and ethnicity. For example, Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD) displayed their commitment to diversity using a web page of enrolled students’ demographics. Several universities made an effort to provide their diversity statements explicitly, including Capital University, CCAD, and Ohio State. Due to differences in institutions, the definition of diversity varies even within the same county.

Financing Graduate School             Close up of a person's hands using a calculator and spreadsheets

In the current national climate of rising tuition costs and decreasing public funding, loans for graduate education have increased dramatically in recent years, rising to 45% of all student borrowing in 2012 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). One contributing factor is the limited amount of federal aid for graduate education when compared to undergraduate studies. Graduate students do not have access to federal Pell grants, with the exception of a limited number of students in graduate teacher certification programs (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). The Federal Work-Study Program is available but has restrictions at the graduate level making it far less available for graduate students than for undergraduates. The U.S. Department of Education’s own brochure on graduate student aid is largely filled with information on loans—unsubsidized federal loans such as the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and private loans. As opposed to grants, loans require repayment of the amount borrowed, and unsubsidized and private loans typically have higher interest rates than subsidized loans, potentially leading to further inequalities in financing patterns.

Despite the magnitude of graduate student borrowing, there has been little research on the topic, although some (Niu, 2016) suggest that an examination of borrowing patterns reveals numerous inequalities. Inequalities in borrowing patterns matter because student debt is shown to be tied to a host of negative outcomes. Student debt increases time to degree, decreases probability of graduation, decreases pursuit of higher degrees, and also affects career decisions and job performance after graduation (Niu, 2016).

Inequalities in borrowing patterns are evident at both the individual and the institutional level (Niu, 2016). At the individual level, Black and Hispanic students are more likely to borrow for graduate school than their White or Asian peers. Additionally, students in the fields of education, the humanities, and the social sciences are more likely to take out student loans than those in STEM fields. Students with parents of lower education levels are also more likely to borrow. At the institutional level, Niu (2016) found that graduate students at large institutions were less likely to borrow than those at smaller (defined as fewer than 5,000 students) institutions. In addition, graduate students at institutions with larger underrepresented minority student populations were more likely to borrow, even after controlling for their own race.

Data on borrowing rates of graduate students in Franklin County is not available. However, if the results of Niu’s study hold true, the same patterns of inequality may exist in Franklin County.

For-Profit Institutions

Across the United States, the population of adult learners has steadily increased and educators have recognized a need for widespread access to various types of education. To meet the flexibility and access needs of the adult learner returning to school, for-profit enrollments grew by 236 percent from 1998-2008 (Richards, 2010). According to the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE; 2018), Franklin County currently has 4 schools operating as for-profit colleges, including the American Institute of Alternative Medicine, Bradford School, Fortis College, and Hondros College of Nursing. Focusing on a variety of fields from Alternative Medicine to Veterinary Technology and Culinary Arts, these schools advertise the opportunity to start a new career, with built-in flexibility and a short time to degree completion, which is ideal for the adult learner.

Across the state of Ohio, for-profit institutions are growing faster than other types of colleges and the costs are outweighing the benefits, with students paying high prices for their education and frequently not completing a degree. According to Richards (2010), “Among first-time, full-time students at for-profit colleges, 22 percent earn bachelor’s degrees within six years…with 55 percent at public universities and 65 percent at private non-profits” (p. 1). Further, out-of-pocket expenses at for-profit institutions are sizeable, as financial aid is limited and fewer grants are offered. Adult learners, specifically minority, low-income, and veteran student populations are targeted using aggressive marketing strategies, offering a variety of “convenience-centered” student services and resources, sharing readily available information on financial aid, and focusing very little on professional training (Farrell, 2003). For many students who complete degree programs, their debt is so overwhelming that they cannot make enough in their field to earn a decent living, eliminate debt, and (in some cases) purchase enough food to feed a family of three (Halbert, 2017).

Two men working together and discussing a building and design projectWorkforce Training and Certificate Programs

Franklin County provides a number of continuing and vocational education offerings for working adults to meet the needs of citizens and employers. Those seeking additional training may consider certificates offered through local universities, such as the Ohio State University or Columbus State Community College, or they may find resources through vocation-specific training centers. Ohio’s State Board of Career Colleges and Schools provides a searchable list of schools within the state. As of October 2016, Franklin County had 20 operating career colleges or schools (Ohio Career Colleges and Schools Search, 2016). These programs have the potential to enhance a region’s economic capacity. A Milken Institute (2013) report indicated that an increase of one year in the average education of a population can improve that region’s GDP by 17.4%. The majority of students pursuing career and technical education in central Ohio are economically disadvantaged, defined either by qualifying for need-based aid or having an income below the poverty level (Central Ohio Compact, n.d.)

While workforce development education programs serve important functions to meet various economic needs, current structures may potentially contribute to educational inequality. The Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE) (2018) estimates that career and technical education programs take between 3-18 months to complete. Some programs may provide viable transfer credit that can be applied to an associates or bachelors level program; however, that is not guaranteed. ODHE recommends that students completing such programs check with an academic advisor. Failure for these credits to transfer can cause downstream inequities for these students. Individuals uninformed of these potential consequences not only pay for credits that do not advance their educational goals but possibly lose the opportunity to generate income while pursuing these studies. Additionally, some continuing education programs are eligible for federal financial aid while others are not. Requiring students to self pay for programs increases the financial burden of these programs. This brings up concerns of inequality considering that the majority of these students are economically disadvantaged.

One program seeking to move the needle on adult education in Franklin and surrounding counties is the Central Ohio Compact. According to their statistics, only 46% of adults in Franklin County ages 25 to 64 have at least an associate degree (Central Ohio Compact, n.d.). The goal of the Compact is to increase this number to 65% by 2025. Relying on a network of community providers and educational organizations, the Compact has seen modest success in improving career and technical program completion (Central Ohio Compact, n.d.).

Conclusion and Future Directions

Inequality exists in graduate education in many forms although four primary themes emerged through our analysis. We started by sharing the definition and importance of diversity in higher education. We discussed the growth of for-profit institutions to support the adult learner. We offered details regarding the inequalities in funding at the graduate level. We concluded by mentioning the inconsistencies with regard to the management and resources offered to support students in workforce development and certificate programs. Diversity in graduate education is clearly supported through the literature (Gayles & Kelly, 2007; Ralston et al., 2005; Kienle & Loyd, 2005); however, there is not universal agreement as to what the term “diversity” means. Development of unity around a shared definition of this term would help move additional resources towards increasing diversity in graduate and adult education. Additionally, graduate students lack the same level of access to federal financial aid compared to their undergraduate peers. One of the institutional types targeting adult learners for their limited funds are for-profit institutions. Considering that for-profit schools are more widespread than other types of institutions across the state of Ohio, greater support and resources need to be provided for students pursuing education at these institutions. Further, more time and effort needs to be spent explaining the costs of this education compared to its outcomes, especially when financial aid options are limited. An additional sector where more student and institutional support is needed is workforce development and continuing education. One group working to increase support in this area is the Central Ohio Compact.

In order to increase the number of adults in Franklin County obtaining university education and credentials, we propose the following recommendations. To address inequalities in graduate and adult education, institutions need a multi-pronged approach. Increasing diversity through curriculum, recruitment, and internationalization across institutional types will enlarge the platform and increase the visibility for fair participation in graduate education. Providing financial literacy training and financial aid consultations to prospective and current graduate students may help them make informed decisions about borrowing. Paying special attention to students at risk for borrowing large amounts to ensure that they have the information and support they need to finance their graduate degree is critical. Institutions can also consider increasing aid to students at risk for borrowing large amounts, such as underrepresented minority students, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and students in fields such as education, the humanities, and the social sciences.

In addition, greater support is needed for adult education within Franklin County. More effort and resources need to be provided to retain this population of students. While for-profit institutions catering to working adults may provide flexible programs, these institutions often struggle with retention. Considering the high rate of borrowing for these programs, going into debt without ever graduating can actually increase inequities. The Central Ohio Compact has made retention one of its goals in increasing educational attainment for adults within central Ohio. To strengthen these efforts, more institutions should sign onto the Compact and additional financial support for this program should be provided by local government.