Grad school with no undergrad?
November 25, 2008 9:33 AM   Subscribe

My sister would like to go to grad school, but didn't finish her undergrad. Impossible?

She doesn't have a degree because, like me, she's an experiential learner, and we both hated college. That having been said, she's finally decided what she really wants to do with her life, and is jazzed about the idea of grad school. She'd like to study international relations, or something similar, and is hoping to end up working for some sort of NGO.

Factors that might apply:

-- She's 30
-- She's had plenty of real-life experience. (lack of a degree hasn't held either of us back)
-- She's uber smart and way more motivated than anyone I know
-- She's currently in the Peace Corps

Any thoughts?

(Bonus points for thoughts about schools in NYC.)
posted by crickets to Education (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have a thought that might not make her very happy. Has she considered what grad school will be like? It may contain extra large concentrations of all of the things that she hated about undergrad work. Is her motivation strong enough to get her through years and years of work?
posted by oddman at 9:40 AM on November 25, 2008 [4 favorites]

I agree with oddman. There is a lot of work and a lot of bureaucracy she will encounter. Granted, the work is a different kind of work than in undergrad, but if she "hates college", she will probably hate grad school.
posted by King Bee at 9:44 AM on November 25, 2008

Regionally accredited schools (the kind you want) require a bachelor's degree to enter into a graduate school. I work in higher education.

I also agree with oddman. If she didn't like undergrad, she is really going to hate graduate. It's still going to require lots of reading, attending lectures, writing papers, and taking exams.
posted by desjardins at 9:46 AM on November 25, 2008

Like many other answers to questions like this the answer will very likely depend on the individual program. I think nearly every graduate program at nearly every university has an adviser whose job is to answer questions just like this and help people decide if whatever program is really for them. Make a list of schools in New York and start emailing or phoning. It's not like they make a blacklist of people who ask questions. In my experience these people are very helpful and are usually more than willing to offer other suggestions if their program wouldn't work for your sister.
posted by sevenless at 9:47 AM on November 25, 2008

No accredited graduate program will accept a student who has not finished undergraduate. Cart-before-the-horse kind of deal.

She needs to finish her undergraduate degree first.

If she has credits to transfer, that will help. She can take CLEP exams to get further credits. Some schools accept "life experience" credits and Peace Corps would almost certainly count.
posted by charmcityblues at 9:48 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

If she wants this new job enough to be willing to go to grad school (which, as everyone has said, will be pretty miserable for her), then why can't she also force herself to finish the undergrad degree first? She can think of it as practice for grad school.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:48 AM on November 25, 2008

lack of a degree hasn't held either of us back

If her goal is graduate school, the lack of an undergrad degress is going to hold her back.
posted by Nelson at 9:51 AM on November 25, 2008 [6 favorites]

She should be very wary of any graduate school that offers to accept her without an undergraduate degree.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:52 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Years ago my father applied for a masters program without ever obtaining a bachelor's degree. He actually got pretty far into the application process before someone stopped him and asked him why they didn't have a copy of his college transcript.

So if your sister is applying to Suffolk University, you might be able to slide it by them.
posted by giraffe at 9:52 AM on November 25, 2008

she's an experiential learner, and we both hated college

Like Oddman, my first thought is that she is going to find that grad school is just like undergrad, but faster-paced and with longer essays to write. Unless she is in a hands-on discipline (where you spend your time in the studio, lab, or field), grad classes are the same "read an article and sit around talking about it" that you do in undergrad.

But would there be a middle-ground, of some sort of professional / technical course that was less abstract and academic, and might not care at all about her previous educational background? Look at the list of international relief and development training programs here, for example. I clicked on a few, and although some want you to have a BA, not all require it, and others (like this masters program) will selectively waive that requirement:

In special cases, candidates age 25 or more, although lacking the above mentioned pre-university qualifications (school leaving certificate), may be admitted if their training and work experience, proved by a dossier enclosed with their application, is deemed to be sufficient and relevant.

The BA is a requirement for so many jobs, though, that she might be better off just finishing up the degree and being done with it.
posted by Forktine at 9:53 AM on November 25, 2008

Not having a degree and wanting to go to grad school is a bit like asking the bank for a mortgage on the property that you're renting. Of course you can do well in the outside world without a degree, but in academia that's like thumbing your nose at the whole thing - you're trying to circumvent the system. Grad School is different to Undergrad but it is still school and there's a huge amount of bureaucracy, bullshit and general grind. If she has truly found out what she wants to do then it should be no problem for her to finish her undergrad. You have to be very driven and to love your subject to make it through Grad School, so getting the Bachelor's in order to do this shouldn't be a problem. It'll stand her in good stead for the 5+ years that she'll take at Grad School before she gets her PhD.
posted by ob at 9:54 AM on November 25, 2008

Most schools require undergrad degrees, but I think profs are always on the look out for exceptional students and if they find one who doesn't fit one of the requirements they will fight for them. Is your sister exceptional? Maybe. She has great experience and it seems like she's really driven (both of which are huge plusses). But one of the key determinants to how well someone is going to do in grad school is their previous academic performance. Without such a record your sister represents a significant risk to the department and the advisor -- a risk that she will be unable to keep up with the load, will lose interest in the coursework, and in general will not rise to the level that is expected of her.

If your sister wants to give this a shot she is going to need to convince people that she can succeed academically. Short of actually achieving an undergraduate degree, perhaps she could arrange to attend a program for one year, take some needed senior-level courses, and then apply? Without at least some reason to suspect she will excel I can't see any grad program justifying the risk in admitting her.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:55 AM on November 25, 2008

This is the type of question that isn't really suited for AskMe because the answer can be easily discovered by simply making a few phone calls or going to a few meetings with admissions and department advisers. So, tell her to get on the web, figure out what colleges she is interested in, and what departments and fields of study - then it's just a matter of identifying the gatekeepers, setting up appointments, and feeling out for options.

That said here are some thoughts:

- Your sister can make her case for admission. She will be rejected by a vast majority of schools simply because graduate programs are limited in size and she will be competing with other people who have degrees and good GPAs and the like. Not saying it can't happen, but as a plan, it's a long shot.

- A better solution would be to gain admission to a school as a "student at large" in order to take prerequisites for her chosen program, and to finish up her undergrad. Colleges and departments will usually work with non-traditional students (remember, they want her money) and it's possible to pave the way to grad school admission by demonstrating an ability to perform. My own department will allow students to take graduate courses, with the credit applying to a masters or phd later on, after admission to the graduate college, and for some this is an easier back door into the program than standard admissions.

- Fact is your sister has a proven record of not following through with education. Her first step should be overcoming that set back. Maybe that means she finishes up her undergrad at night will working during the day. If she is unwilling or unable to do that, then perhaps grad school isn't right for her.
posted by wfrgms at 10:06 AM on November 25, 2008

I think she should try to go back to undergrad and get a BA in IR Political Science. It'll offer her a bunch of chances to test out the water, not only in classes, but in internships for NGOs as well. At that point, she may not need an MA to get into the field she wants (because I'm assuming the career in that field is more important to her than the actual diploma.)

I'd have her look into possible help funding undergrad from the Peace Corps when she gets back. (Trust me, at the close of her service they will hand her a huge stack of info about services offered to Returned Volunteers) Although, most of their programs for financial aid are for the Grad level. That is due to the fact that a vast majority of PCVs already have and AA or a BA.
posted by piratebowling at 10:08 AM on November 25, 2008

You sister may be able to finagle her way into some sort of grad school without a BA, BUT:

The area of international relations is very competitive. A graduate degree will help her get a job, but really, your sister wants to go to the best school possible to improve her odds. If she's going to go spend all that time and money to back to school, why not do it right? It sounds like she's got some undergraduate credits - what about trying to finish that degree up and then going on to grad school?
posted by lunasol at 10:11 AM on November 25, 2008

"She'd like to study international relations, or something similar, and is hoping to end up working for some sort of NGO."

First of all, while this may sound to an ordinary person like the words of a woman who knows what she wants to do with herself, they are not the words of someone who should attend graduate school. Graduate school is all about intense focus, and "some sort of NGO"/"international relations or something similar" approaches a real lack of focus. Does she know what international relations is really all about? Does she realize how multifarious the stock of NGOs is?

Also seconding everyone above who has said "if she hated college, she's really going to hate graduate school." The learning experience in graduate school is even less experiential than the undergraduate learning experience. You LITERALLY do nothing but read books and articles, discuss them, and write very long papers about them.

That said, kudos to both of you for doing well without bachelors degrees. If she really thinks she wants to attend graduate school, despite the above seasoned advice, she's MUST first complete a bachelors degree. It simply cannot be worked around if she wants a MA or PhD that actually has value beyond the paper its printed on.
posted by yurodivy at 10:12 AM on November 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

If she's serious, I'd say to finish an undergrad degree in the IR field. I know the undergrad institution I went to had an IR degree, and I'm sure there are others. CLEP is a good idea. Yes it will take more time, but she'll also be more prepared for grad school. I say "more prepared" because I don't think you can ever really be "prepared" for grad school. I attended undergrad at a very high-end school, and the level of difficulty was nothing compared to the grad program I'm in now -- at a large public university that people don't usually associate with the term "academic rigor."

I liked undergrad, I like a lot of things about the graduate work I'm doing, and on the whole I still don't like graduate school. I'm doing it because it's necessary for the kind of work I want to do with my life, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who is not fully committed to the end goal -- it will suck in a lot of ways. She will spend a lot of time doing writing, reading, composing, discussing, rewriting. If she wants to do it because of the hands-on work, be advised that for every minute of hands-on work you do, there's probably five or ten minutes of writing about it, talking about it, schmoozing about it with people who might hire you or fund your work, etc, etc.
posted by Alterscape at 10:23 AM on November 25, 2008

The way it works at my university (as far as I can tell) is that the graduate college has specific requirements that apply regardless of what field you want to be in (then the individual fields have their own requirements on top of that). For example, that minimum requirements page at my school says you must have a Bachelor's Degree with at least a 3.0 gpa. I think most reputable universities will have similar requirements.

What I would recommend, however, is getting in contact with people at the university's she's interested in. I'm not sure what field exactly would cover international relations, but my guess would be political science. Find the PoliSci webpage for those universities and see if you can find out who to contact. I'd probably start with the department Secretary, who may refer you to someone on the admissions committee.

All that being said, I might have to second oddman's thought that she might not enjoy this experience. Maybe I'm just biased because I'm at a research university, but I can't imagine a political science grad program that isn't heavy on research. That's going to involve lots of research and studying (and a couple stats classes) and writing and not much getting out there and helping people (which I take it is what she's looking for).

I am not a political scientist, but I imagine PoliSci grad school, with an emphasis on international relations, as spending a lot of time reading various theories of international relation and writing lots of papers about which theories work and which theories don't. This is certainly an area where her experience will count for something, but I just get the impression from your post that this isn't what she's looking for.

I'm not trying to discourage her or anyone from going to grad school - I think it's great. It's just not clear in your question what, exactly, she wants to do. In my field (philosophy) we grad students practically live on philosophy. We take or teach philosophy classes several hours a day. When we're not doing that, we're grading* philosophy or researching it or writing about it or thinking about it. We discuss it at dinner and at the bars (much to the chagrin of our spouses).

I greatly enjoy grad school, but I also greatly enjoyed undergrad. Oddman has it exactly right, depending on what she hated about undergrad, grad school could be a higher concentration of exactly what she hated in undergrad -- if she goes into a field like Political Science.

Another option to consider is a grad school program that's more hands on. In a field like social work, there's going to still be research and paper writing, but there's also a lot more hands on helping people too.

To conclude this post that's now much longer than I intended, I would start by contacting several different departments and several different schools to get a feel for what grad school would be like. Again, I'd probably start with the department secretary and just say "I'm interested in attending grad school in this field - is there someone I can call/email with a few questions?" Once she's figured out what field she wants to be in, she can work with that department to actually get in. If she's very close to having her bachelor's, they might be able to work out a deal with the university where you can finish up your requirements before starting the grad program. Or they might tell you have to finish up somewhere else first, but they'd probably be happy to offer some advice on what you could do during that time to prepare for grad school.

*sometimes we read askme when we should be grading
posted by chndrcks at 10:25 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Again, I work in higher education. What I would advise her to do is to look for an undergraduate program in a school that has a Prior Learning Assessment department. She may get credit for some of her experiences, which will speed up the process of getting her bachelor's degree. She is highly unlikely to be able to use this experience for credit at the graduate level.

From the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning:
If you are an individual looking to further your education, we recommend that you seek out higher education institutions that offer “Prior Learning Assessment (PLA),” giving you college credit for your lifetime accomplishments. To help you evaluate your own experiences, we recommend reading the book, Earn College Credit for What You Know.
posted by desjardins at 10:29 AM on November 25, 2008

Two suggestions in NYC:

CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies
SUNY Empire State

Both are geared towards adult learners, and grant credits for life experience. I imagine time in the Peace Corps should count towards an undergraduate degree. You mentioned that she never finished her undergrad degree - these programs are geared towards people in similar situations and will work to transfer existing credits into a custom program.

At the CUNY program, students work with a mentor to create a program of study in the interdisciplinary topic of their choice (say, International Relations) can enroll at any CUNY campus.

The New School, NYU Gallatin and Columbia School of General Studies have similar programs at five times the cost. If I were in her shoes, I would go the CUNY route and then take classes with David Harvey and the other stars of the CUNY galaxy.
posted by abirae at 10:37 AM on November 25, 2008

Graduate school takes over your life. You spend years doing nothing but reading every available minute and then writing papers about all the things you've read. Read, read, read, read. Write, write, write, write.

Many times these papers, up to sixty or seventy pages long, are not about things you find fascinating, but about things you have to learn in order to learn other things. No one is going to hold your hand and make you do it. No one is going to manage it for you.

I enjoyed it and I would be the first to say that it is hard and frequently boring and painfully isolating. Graduate school instills a creeping dread of not being productive unlike anything I have ever experienced in school or work before. It requires an extremely high level of commitment. Please ask your sister to think about why she didn't graduate from undergraduate and evaluate whether that would come into play in graduate school as well.

Everything chndrcks said should be looked at, too.
posted by winna at 10:45 AM on November 25, 2008

It is called graduate school for a reason. That reason is that it is school for college graduates. If a person wants to go to grad school, graduating from college first is necessary.

Everyone else who said that grad school is pretty much everything that you hated about college, times ten, is right on, by the way.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:49 AM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to say I know someone who got a PhD from a top-ranked program in a top-ten university who had no college degree (and a GED for high school). How she did it, though, was that she first contacted the professors involved in running the terminal M.A. program, which is handled separately from the PhD student crew. She impressed the professors with her life experiences, her knowledge of the literature in the field, and presumably her writing skills. She got admitted. She then spent a year (or two? it's a one year program but she may have taken longer) doing vastly impressive work, and also pursuing relationships with the professors associated with the doctoral program. when it came time to discuss future plans, all of these people went to bat for her and she was admitted to the PhD program.

I should add, though, that while she is working in academia, she is not a tenure-track professor, and never pursued such jobs. Ironically, I suspect that this option was closed to her because of her lack of a BA, despite the fact that she does now hold a PhD from one of the most elite programs in the country.
posted by artemisia at 12:04 PM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh -- one more thing. She, too, had been in the Peace Corps. Be warned, though -- in some social science disciplines, this experience can work against you, for reasons I've never understood!
posted by artemisia at 12:06 PM on November 25, 2008

I know only one person who was offered some graduate student position without any undergrad degree. He was literally an open source celebrity who'd written one incredibly widely used piece of software, the post was in the academic area most related to his expertise, an honorary degree might have been involved, and he might even have been bringing in venture capital funding. So no your sister has no chance without first completing some undergraduate degree, such as those suggested by desjardins and abirae.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:48 PM on November 25, 2008

What about a BS/MS program? How available this option will be to her depends upon the area of study she wants to pursue. I'm aware of several in the NYC area, including prestigious colleges such as Columbia, Fordham and NYU. Check out any online list of nyc colleges and you will find several options.
posted by thenewyawkah at 12:35 PM on March 3, 2009

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