Korede Ajumobi and Celeste Bremmer are set to receive graduate degrees from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in May, but first, there’s history to be made.
Ajumobi, a Nigerian completing a master’s degree in math, and Bremmer, an Indiana native pursuing a master’s degree in industrial-organizational psychology, will be among the first UTC students ever to participate when the national Council of Graduate Schools, or CGS, convenes in April in Washington, D.C., for its annual advocacy day.
CGS describes itself as the nation’s “voice for graduate education” and, today and Thursday, it is being represented by 40 college deans and graduate students from across the country to champion grad school with federal policymakers. While deans and other academic administrators have long joined the annual pilgrimage to Washington, this is the first year that actual graduate students are participating.
UTC is a CGS member institution and Joanne Romagni, UTC vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate school, is on CGS’ national board of directors. She said students are being included this year because they can best articulate the value of their graduate education to the lawmakers. Romagni said there also are two key points to make.
“First, the value of a master’s degree—in terms of the economy, the workforce, what it does for the community—can’t be overstated,” she said. “Graduate students come to the community and, in countless cases, they end up a part of the community. They become employed in jobs that require advanced degrees. They are part of an enhanced workforce. They pay taxes. They buy stuff.”
CGS has data to help make its case. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18 percent of all jobs will require a master’s degree by 2022, and the agency predicts a 14 percent increase in jobs requiring a master’s degree from now to 2024.
“Second, there’s the value of the availability of federally funded grad student loans at low interest rates,” Romagni said. “One of the things that’s disappointing is that Congress finds it easy to cut funding to graduate loan programs when, in reality, graduate students pay back their loans at something greater than 90 percent.”
She said many lawmakers also don’t realize the difference between graduate education—master’s and doctoral programs—and professional school, which has substantially higher tuition and prepares students for careers in specific fields such as law, pharmacy and medicine.
“They hear about graduate students leaving school with six-figure debt, and they tend to assume it’s because of runaway cost,” Romagni said. “We work to make them understand that earning a master’s degree at a state institution is not the same, and certainly does not cost the same, as pursuing a medical, dental or law degree.”
As a matter of fact, a 2012 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found almost 60 percent of professional degree recipients had borrowed more than $100,000 to fund their education, compared to only 10 percent of advanced degree recipients overall.
Ajumobi, whose bachelor’s degree in math is from Southern Adventist University, said he looks forward to attending the CGS event so he can advocate for graduate education from his “unique perspective.”
“As an international student, I do think I have a unique perspective. For example, 40 percent of international students at UTC are on graduate assistantships and have some kind of stipend,” he said. “That, to me, speaks to the value of graduate school, that you have a lot of people coming here to get a good education and one that’s affordable. Then they are staying here, getting jobs and contributing in many ways to the economy, the workforce and society. It also says a lot about local citizens who are part of a welcoming environment.”
Romagni said continued access for international students is critical.
“That part is important because of issues with barriers against international students,” she said. “Without them, we can’t fill our labs and we can’t fill our graduate student posts. It’s a small investment with huge returns for the country in intellectual capital.”
Bremmer, who earned double degrees in psychology and biology from Indiana University, said her experience working for two years after graduation showed the need for her graduate program. She chose UTC on the basis of its highly regarded industrial-organizational psychology program.
“I’ve already seen the value to a small extent, too, in that we have to do a practicum and, for that, I’m currently in an internship at Erlanger Health System. With the education I have now and how I apply that in my internship, I already see that my knowledge level is much greater than before I entered graduate school, and it’s highly relevant,” Bremmer said. “That’s been cool to see, and I know that I can continue to grow and apply what I’ve been learning to help a workplace.”
In addition to their counterparts from universities on the west coast, northeast and institutions in between, Romagni said she, Ajumobi and Bremmer will be joined in Washington by Ernest Brothers, associate dean of the UT Knoxville graduate school, and two students he will bring.
“Dr. Brothers is now in my former place on the CGS Advocacy Committee, and we are coordinating with him and his two students so that all of us meet with the members of the House of Representatives from our campus districts,” Romagni said, “and then we are going to double team Tennessee’s two U.S. senators.”