Letter: The Value of a Pharmacy Degree

Delayed or failed degree completion is associated with much higher economic consequences for advanced-degree as compared to baccalaureate-degree programs.

The lay press recently has seen an increase in the number of commentaries suggesting that pursuing a college degree no longer makes economic sense for many students. This thesis runs counter to long-standing research that documents the value, in terms of lifetime earning potential, of higher education.

The crux of the “college education is not worth much anymore” argument seems to be this: a large proportion of students who start college, and incur education-related debt, never complete the degree. Although from the standpoint of lifetime earning potential some college is better than none, the economic benefits for students who fail to progress to the degree are marginal.

This marginal benefit for a large segment of matriculated students (according to the National Center for Education Statistics more than 40 percent of students who enter four-year degree programs now fail to earn the degree within six years) influences the estimated economic impact of college education when all students are averaged (which, by itself, is a questionable approach in treating this type of data, one that can lead to significant misinterpretation). Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic factors covary with degree completion rates.

Why is this issue important for postgraduate or advanced degrees, such as the PharmD, MS, and PhD programs that compose “academic pharmacy”? Delayed degree completion, or failure to complete the degree at all, is associated with much higher economic consequences (loss of the tuition investment; lost earning potential) for advanced-degree as compared to baccalaureate-degree programs.

Addressing the causes of attrition in a meaningful way is at the center of assuring that students gain the maximum economic benefit of their educational endeavors.

The WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences aspires to help students become professionals of consequence. Consistent with the values and mission of the university itself, our college seeks to improve the lives of students with challenging economic backgrounds, from families who have not previously produced college graduates, and for whom life in the United States might be a relatively new experience.

Student cohorts with this profile often have relatively weak public school preparation, are economically insecure and so must work to support themselves or their families while pursuing a degree, and are less than fluent in our language of instruction. In short, these students, who are bright, talented, and focused, often require a different pedagogical approach, and a different menu of support options, to achieve their potential.

One initiative our college has pursued is adopting a competency-based approach to curricular delivery in the PharmD program. Over the five years of experience we have with this approach, the effect on attrition (falling behind the matriculated cohort or failing the program) has been profound.

Attrition during the first professional year, for example, has been less than one percent (compared to approximately 10 percent prior to making this change). For the two cohorts of students who have completed their degree under the competency-based model, four-year attrition has been approximately three percent, nearly four-fold lower than the national average in academic pharmacy.

There are, of course, other things that we can and must do to ensure that all of our students have an adequate opportunity to succeed. Perhaps the most important is for faculty to recognize, and indeed to celebrate, the fact that today’s students are different from our former-student selves.

They have been prepared differently, they learn and communicate differently, and in many cases they face different challenges than we experienced. Our teaching approaches, our student support systems, and our academic culture must adapt or face the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Gary M. Pollack

Dean, College of PharmacyWashington State University