Jump to content

What are the warning signs for a "cash cow" graduate program?


Recommended Posts

I was accepted to an M.A. program at Columbia University for fall 2018, but was granted a deferral to next fall. While I was initially overjoyed, I've been reading online that Columbia has a notorious reputation for "cash cow" masters programs. What are the red flags that a grad program is a "cash cow"?

FWIW, the program I got into is partially funded, requires a thesis, and is quite small. I was told by the M.A. coordinator that the acceptance rate is about 50%, so it's not like they accept everyone. I'm just hoping that this is a good return on investment. I've reached out to alums on LinkedIn, but they have not been responsive, which doesn't help as I'm looking for an insider perspective. The M.A. coordinator vaguely said that 50% of the program's grads go on to get PhDs, and the rest seek jobs at NGOs, nonprofits, the UN, etc. I think grad schools should be required to publish detailed employment stats, the way law schools have to.

Any perspective would be appreciated!

Link to post
Share on other sites

I personally wouldn't call a program that accepts 50% of applicants as very selective either. 

To start, I would maybe look at the cost of similar programs at other universities (state schools of varying sizes for instance). Is this program giving you $10k in funding but costing $30k more than a similar program at a reputable school without the ivy league name?

Also, you mentioned LinkedIn. Can you search the other way? Look for people with a similar job you wish to hold and see where they got their degrees? Are a lot of them saying Columbia? Are other schools popping up more frequently?

Lastly, to me, if admin is being purposefully cagey about requests for alumni data, that would be a big red flag to me. If the program is truly sending out people to successful paths, they should be willing to share specifics about their alumni network in terms of type of jobs or PhD programs. Obviously, they shouldn't give names, but they should be able to say "oh about 20% end up here, and we've had x number of graduates attend doctoral programs in y." 

Link to post
Share on other sites
5 minutes ago, Hk328 said:

I personally wouldn't call a program that accepts 50% of applicants as very selective either. 

To start, I would maybe look at the cost of similar programs at other universities (state schools of varying sizes for instance). Is this program giving you $10k in funding but costing $30k more than a similar program at a reputable school without the ivy league name?

Also, you mentioned LinkedIn. Can you search the other way? Look for people with a similar job you wish to hold and see where they got their degrees? Are a lot of them saying Columbia? Are other schools popping up more frequently?

Lastly, to me, if admin is being purposefully cagey about requests for alumni data, that would be a big red flag to me. If the program is truly sending out people to successful paths, they should be willing to share specifics about their alumni network in terms of type of jobs or PhD programs. Obviously, they shouldn't give names, but they should be able to say "oh about 20% end up here, and we've had x number of graduates attend doctoral programs in y." 

There are same programs at public schools in other states (U of Washington, U of Michigan, etc.) but I'd have to pay non-resident tuition, so the cost would be comparable to Columbia.  

I do know that Columbia has a good track record of sending grads to the UN, which is what interests me.  I'm also interested in NGO work and a grad of this particular program is an Executive Director of a domestic violence nonprofits.  The two people on Linkedin who didn't respond to me were in PhD programs. 

I don't think that the MA coordinator was being purposefully cagey-I didn't really push for detailed jobs stats, but I could follow up with him.  The website says, "Recent graduates of our MA program have been accepted to competitive doctoral programs at Columbia, Cornell, McGill, NYU, and the University of Cambridge.  Graduates are working in the fields of Journalism, the non-profit and NGO sector, and at the United Nations."

Link to post
Share on other sites

Remember, anecdote =/= data.

The surest sign of a "cash cow" program (professional degree programs notwithstanding) is that less than 50% of the enrolling students have full funding (tuition waiver + stipend). 

An equally good sign is getting into a brand name school with subpar credentials and experience.

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 3 weeks later...

To be clear, a program being a 'cash cow' doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad or useless program. Cash cow, IMO, just means that the program is a significant source of income to the university. For example, Columbia's MBA program could be considered a cash cow program - they don't really award scholarships for it and it costs a whole lot of money. However, a Columbia MBA is pretty valuable and is quite likely to result in a high-paying salary after graduation. There may also be some academic/non-professional programs that are cash cows but also have good career prospects for students. Full funding for academic MA programs in many fields is pretty uncommon or even rare, and those programs may well be cash cows, but that doesn't mean they're entirely useless.

So it may be with your program. It's possible that the program is a cash cow, meaning it generates a lot of revenue for Columbia. But what you should worry about primarily is the cost-benefit analysis to you. You're getting funding to attend, which offsets the cost; the next step is doing what you are doing - finding out post-graduation outcomes for students. Follow up with the coordinator and ask about job placement. You can tell him your career aspirations and see what their response is.

Also, I'm not trying to be pedantic but anecdotes are, indeed, data. They're just data that you have to consider within context, since there are lots of factors that could influence a person's eventual career journey. My point is that you don't need to disregard anecdotes or individual people's outcomes; you do need to seek out a variety, though, so you can learn what's out there.

Link to post
Share on other sites
On 10/20/2018 at 6:08 PM, juilletmercredi said:

To be clear, a program being a 'cash cow' doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad or useless program. Cash cow, IMO, just means that the program is a significant source of income to the university. 

Eh - that is not generally how cash cow is used in higher education.  Cash cow programs use the prestige of the university to generate student demand, have non-selective admission requirements so they let most people in, and then do not offer grants/scholarships to these students so that they need to pay the full sticker price of tuition and fees.  In order to not water down the quality of the core program (usually a PhD but it could be another master's program), they may offer a separate curriculum for the cash cow program compared to the core program and sometimes these courses are not taught by the core faculty, but by adjuncts.  So the end result is the cash cow program adds substantial amount of money to the department - but it takes little effort for the program to maintain because they farm out most of the teaching and advising to non core faculty members (who they usually don't tend to pay well).  This would be the true model of a cash cow program.  It gets a bit murkier when programs have some of these characteristics but not all. 

I do agree that some cash cow graduates do wind up with good career prospects depending on how they took advantage of their time in the program - but the only characteristic of a cash cow program is not that it is expensive.  There are a lot of graduate programs that students are not funded well (medicine, law, dentistry, vet, etc.) - but aren't considered cash cow programs because the assumption is the salaries for those professions should be high enough to pay back the student debt.  (You can argue that this is not the case for some fields now.)

 

 

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 2 weeks later...
On 10/24/2018 at 3:16 AM, ZeChocMoose said:

Eh - that is not generally how cash cow is used in higher education.  Cash cow programs use the prestige of the university to generate student demand, have non-selective admission requirements so they let most people in, and then do not offer grants/scholarships to these students so that they need to pay the full sticker price of tuition and fees.  In order to not water down the quality of the core program (usually a PhD but it could be another master's program), they may offer a separate curriculum for the cash cow program compared to the core program and sometimes these courses are not taught by the core faculty, but by adjuncts.  So the end result is the cash cow program adds substantial amount of money to the department - but it takes little effort for the program to maintain because they farm out most of the teaching and advising to non core faculty members (who they usually don't tend to pay well).  This would be the true model of a cash cow program.  It gets a bit murkier when programs have some of these characteristics but not all. 

I do agree that some cash cow graduates do wind up with good career prospects depending on how they took advantage of their time in the program - but the only characteristic of a cash cow program is not that it is expensive.  There are a lot of graduate programs that students are not funded well (medicine, law, dentistry, vet, etc.) - but aren't considered cash cow programs because the assumption is the salaries for those professions should be high enough to pay back the student debt.  (You can argue that this is not the case for some fields now.)

 

 

I looked at the course list for the MA program I got into and it looks like most are taught by tenured faculty as opposed to adjuncts-hoping that's a good sign? 

What do you consider "non-selective"?  Admissions rate above 50%?

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.