In the 1970s and 1980s, a bachelor’s degree was considered a sure ticket to a job in a professional field. However, since college graduation has become more of a rule than an exception in the business world, standing out among one’s peers is often increasingly dependant on a higher level of education.

“The value of a master’s degree today is about what a bachelor’s degree was 15 years ago,” said Ernie Edwards, director of operations for the southern Colorado campuses of the University of Phoenix. “Businesses are requiring people to have a better depth of knowledge in that company’s core enterprise.”

But despite the advantages that advanced degrees bring, downturns in the economy often translate into declining enrollment figures for post-graduate studies.

The volume of applicants taking the Graduate Management Admission Test in the United States in January declined 12.38 percent from the first month of 2003. Outside the United States, the decline in testing volume was 25.67 percent.

“A clear majority of schools in our survey are reporting decreases in application volume,” said David A. Wilson, president and chief executive officer with the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Local postgraduate programs haven’t seen such a marked decrease in the number of applicants or students, though administrators have reported decreases in some programs.

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“When the economy hit the wall, the number of applicants to our postgraduate programs stabilized,” said Michael Goess, chairman of the national master’s of business administration program at Regis University.

“We generally see about 7 percent growth a year overall and we did see a slight drop in Colorado Springs. As of the middle of last summer, enrollment had picked up, especially in Colorado Springs.”

Part of the nationwide decrease in number of people seeking postgraduate degrees can be attributed to a decrease in the number of companies offering tuition assistance, Goess said. “In the business postgraduate programs, 85 percent of our people receive tuition reimbursement from their employers. However, many companies have either eliminated it or put a cap on it, which has led to the slight decrease in enrollment.”

There also are few scholarships at the graduate level, Goess said. “Many people use government student loans, but in a bad economy, people are less able to afford to do that.”

Steve Berkshire, associate dean of the school for professional studies and graduate studies, said master’s programs at Regis have had continuous growth since 2000, except in science and computer information technology. “This is a reflection of the number of dot-com layoffs and the businesses in the technology sector going under,” Berkshire said.

Goess said the master’s of business administration programs have seen an increase in finance and accounting. The figures show 40 to 45 percent of the university’s MBA students are part of those programs.

During the past year, Edwards said the University of Phoenix has seen a net increase of approximately 200 students in postgraduate studies.

“Our most popular program is a master’s degree in education,” Edwards said. “As part of this program, we take students with a bachelor’s degree in any field and give them a master’s degree in education and qualify them for a teaching certificate in the state of Colorado. Another popular area is our master’s of community counseling. Enrollment counselors here say these programs are popular because people are reengineering their careers to get into areas that aren’t as dependent on corporate operations.”

Education is often the choice of people who find themselves suddenly shut out of the work force. “More people who’ve been laid off are going back to school to explore other careers,” Edwards said. “They (the students) are looking for careers that are less dependent on the economy – jobs they can do independently.”

Locally, having a post-graduate degree would seem to make sense. University representatives said Colorado Springs has a highly educated labor force because of defense-associated businesses and high-tech firms.

“The implications of Colorado Springs’ fast growth means people are finding out they need an advanced education to compete in the marketplace,” Edwards said. “People are doing everything possible to make themselves more marketable.”