Graduate students are now outpacing undergraduates in the number of degrees conferred at Brenau University.
A total of 463 students enrolled in Brenau graduate programs received degrees during the 2016-17 fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017, according to a document provided by school officials. The school awarded 350 undergraduate degrees during the same time period.
This year marked the third consecutive year more graduate degrees were awarded than undergraduate degrees at Brenau. In 2014-15, the school awarded 370 graduate and 345 undergraduate degrees and grew to 512 degrees for graduates and 345 for undergraduates in 2015-16.
“This will continue to grow because we’ve added graduate programs,” Brenau President Ed Schrader said. “The first graduating class of physical therapy doctoral students will graduate next year, so we’ll add 40 graduates (from physical therapy) this year.”
He added that some did not realize the shift to more graduate degrees began with the 2014-15 fiscal year because graduate students often do not come in person to receive their degrees.
“A lot of them are professionals and you mail their degrees,” Schrader said. “This year we had more graduate students walking (at graduation ceremonies), so it became obvious by sight that we had more graduate students walking and receiving degrees.”
The increase in graduate degrees did not occur by accident.
“That’s what we wanted to do; that was the plan,” Schrader said. “We’re happy that it worked. It’s an investment. We invested about $6 million in the physical therapy program before we had a single student and before it was accredited. That wasn’t a bet the farm deal, but it certainly was a big risk to take.”
One of the most significant ways Brenau has sought to attract more graduate-level students has been through the school’s online program. Schrader said about 1,000 students — 25-30 percent of the total Brenau enrollment are taking their courses online.
“The university has intentionally spent time growing our online population,” said Christina White, who oversees Brenau’s adult and graduate programs. “In doing that, we are seeing that there are many people who already have some education, be that an undergraduate degree in most cases, but are looking to further their education.
“They primarily have families,” she added. “They need a little bit of help. Online makes that easier because they’re able to do that at a time and location that works for them. Whether that is taking an hour at lunch or doing it once the kids are asleep, they have the ability to make that choice. It is no easier, but it fits into their life at a time that they can choose.”
White added that all online programs at Brenau can be done completely online. Other programs such as occupational therapy and physical therapy are not available online because the clinical work in those programs require “face-to-face classroom environments,” White said.
Schrader said offering the online classes at Brenau and other schools is essential in reaching students today.
“It does not matter how much I love to sit in the classroom; it does not matter how much traditional learners and traditional educators value face-to-face learning over various technologies of distance learning,” he said. “The current generation of learners have already chosen that the majority wish alternative methods of teaching and credentialing.”
Schrader said Brenau caps online classes at 20-25 students so that professors can get to know the students even in an electronic setting.
The increase in graduate degrees does not mean the university is moving away from its undergraduate programs.
“We are strongly committed to undergraduates,” Schrader said. “For one thing, undergraduate programs feed the graduate programs. We have seen a shift in undergrad majors from liberal arts to more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and business majors.”
Undergraduate business degrees feed into Brenau’s Master of Business Administration program, which has about 500-600 students. In addition, Schrader said the university is working on certification of an exercise science major he said is a leading undergraduate program for those interested in a graduate degree in occupational therapy or physical therapy. He said majors like those would allow more students to do all their university work at Brenau.
“Our goal would be to keep them eight years,” he said. “With the physical therapy (graduate program), we would have them seven years, four as an undergraduate and three as a graduate student.”