NACOGDOCHES, Texas — A new tuition funding opportunity as well as modernized application requirements are just two of several reasons officials believe Stephen F. Austin State University graduate enrollment increased by more than 10% this fall, despite bleak educational forecasts based on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A third major contributing factor was the transition of hundreds of courses to distance formats as the university sought to evolve its fall semester to meet physical-distancing challenges.
“Collaboration between the Office of Research and Graduate Studies staff members and program coordinators in all six colleges has led to truly innovative initiatives aimed at program enhancement and meeting students’ unique circumstances,” said Dr. Pauline M. Sampson, dean of SFA’s research and graduate studies. “Our office has worked very hard on recruitment strategies, and we see that students understand the many benefits of graduate-level educational pursuits at any time, but especially during an economic downturn.”
SFA’s College of Liberal and Applied Arts experienced the largest enrollment increase at 22.1%. The college’s Department of Mass Communication and School of Social Work comprised the two biggest portions of this growth.
“Since our Master of Art in mass communication is 100% online and was even prior to the pandemic, it meets students where they are,” said Dr. John Allen Hendricks, chair and professor in the Department of Mass Communication. “The online aspect is very attractive to working professionals who want to pursue an advanced degree at their own rhythm as well as work from the safety of their homes during the pandemic.”
School of Social Work officials echoed the contributions of flexible learning on enrollment.
“Virtual learning has offered students flexibility in juggling family and job responsibilities with career opportunities,” said Dr. Freddie Avant, School of Social Work director and associate dean in the College of Liberal and Applied Arts. “Also, the reputation of our faculty, staff and internship programs create unique experiences that prepare students for their career journey.”
The College of Fine Arts experienced the second largest graduate enrollment increase at 19.7%, with the School of Music comprising the largest portion of growth.
“We have several fully online graduate degrees that have become very attractive thanks to the dedication and hard work of faculty members who oversee them,” said Dr. Gary Wurtz, director of the School of Music. “Our online Master of Music in theory/composition, in particular, has gotten to the point where there are more applicants than we can accept. Our success is entirely attributable to the quality and dedication of our faculty.”
SFA’s James I. Perkins College of Education comprises the largest graduate enrollment of the university’s six colleges at 874 students for fall 2020, which is an increase from 808 in fall 2019.
Creation of LEAP
University administrators also attribute a portion of the increase to the creation of the Lumberjack Education Assistance Program, which SFA’s Board of Regents approved in April.
For SFA employees, their spouses and dependents, the LEAP program exempts mandatory tuition and fees except statutory tuition, which is $50 per semester credit hours for undergraduate classes or $80 for graduate-level courses. Employees who enroll in classes receive scholarship support to cover the statutory tuition costs, and there is no cap on the number of courses eligible participants may take with the LEAP benefit.
LEAP replaced SFA’s previous employee scholarship program, which offered a maximum of $3,000 per academic year.
“We have 259 graduate students taking advantage of the LEAP program this fall. Of those, 131 are teaching or research assistants and 65 are first-time enrollees in graduate programs at SFA,” Sampson said. “We also had 128 faculty and staff take advantage of LEAP for graduate courses.”
Modernizing application processes
In addition to LEAP funding and the perks of virtual learning, key changes to application requirements have modernized the application process, making it easier for students to apply to SFA’s graduate school while retaining the university’s high academic standard.
Significant changes include only requiring applicants to submit their bachelor’s degree transcript rather than transcripts from all previous institutions and removing the requirement for GRE submission in several programs.
“Many universities, including Ivy League institutions, have removed the GRE requirement because it tends to restrict access to graduate study,” Sampson explained. “There is a substantial cost not only to take the GRE, but also to access study resources, take the GRE multiple times if a higher score is desired, purchase tutor materials or hire tutors. For many prospective students, these are undue burdens.”
Research and graduate studies officials also opted to extend a graduate application’s active period to one calendar year. This reduces application costs for prospective students who may apply then experience a life change that sets their enrollment back by a semester.
“All of these changes allow us to recruit a more diverse graduate student body while reducing obstacles to potential students,” Sampson said. “We want our academic programs to be rigorous, but we want access to those programs to meet the unique circumstances each future Lumberjack faces.”
SFA’s graduate programs each have unique deadlines and application requirements. Information for each program can be found on the ORGS website at sfasu.edu/graduate by selecting “Areas of Study” under the Graduate Admissions tab.