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CMU West may alter master's tradition

Undergraduate degree may no longer be a must

Sunday, August 11, 2002

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Wanted: Graduate students.

A bachelor's degree is not a must. Come with what you've already earned, including credits from community college, and start work toward a master's degree in information technology at Carnegie Mellon University's West Coast campus.

That's the thinking behind an early-stage idea that could redefine the path toward an advanced degree -- at least on one fledgling campus.

Carnegie Mellon insists it's not a shortcut through the Ivory Tower. The school's California branch, which acknowledged last year that it missed enrollment and fund-raising goals, has begun exploring ways to attract to its master's program adult learners who have not finished, or, in some cases, may not want an undergraduate degree.

"If somebody dropped out of college -- Bill Gates comes to mind -- and they have done all kinds of exciting things for 10 years, I'm not going to say, 'Sorry, you can't be admitted to a master's program because you don't have a bachelor's degree,' " said Raj Reddy, director of the campus.

The idea, if approved by school trustees, also would enable people with degrees as nontechy as English to pick up an extra credential. Reddy said the campus would not admit anyone not qualified to study on Carnegie Mellon's main Pittsburgh campus.

"If anything, we're going to be a lot more demanding," he said.

The West Coast campus, announced in January 2000, originally wanted to enroll an inaugural class for fall 2001 of up to 100 students, but abandoned that and a backup plan described by computer science dean Jim Morris to enroll fewer students in January.

The campus also delayed about $125 million in development plans last year, blaming the slump in the high-tech industry that left many wealthy alums and venture capitalists in the area unable to give large gifts.

This fall, the campus expects to have 60 students. They include 20 attending full time and 40 part-timers who have full-time jobs in Silicon Valley, said Roger Schank, who became chief educational officer last year for the campus in Mountain View, a town of 75,000 in the San Francisco Bay area.

Schank said he wasn't aware of any previous enrollment targets set by Carnegie Mellon before his arrival in June 2001, adding: "When I came on board, there was really nothing there."

The campus, at the NASA Ames Research Center, is not authorized in California to grant undergraduate degrees. Its offerings include a pair of master's programs in information technology, one with a software engineering focus and the other with an emphasis on e-business technology.

Asked about the delays, Reddy attributed them largely to complexities of securing a government lease and of assembling students and faculty for a new campus. He said Carnegie Mellon was prepared to be patient because it is convinced that having a campus in Silicon Valley is vital to the university's future.

"If we are going to be a leading institution for information technology, we need to be interacting with industries which are on the leading edge of information technology," Reddy said. "We can't do that simply by sitting in Pittsburgh."

That said, it may be awhile before the school can proclaim success.

The idea of having a far-flung branch campus is not radical, especially for a prestigious school such as Carnegie Mellon that can claim programs that are among the top in the nation, said David Merkowitz, a consultant from Maryland who follows education trends.

But the school is heavily identified as being a Pittsburgh institution. And that presents a marketing problem when student recruiters are "going into the back yard of Stanford," Merkowitz said, "Never mind Berkeley and the other schools that are there."

"It's not like General Motors or Hewlett-Packard, where it doesn't matter where you go. You expect to see the brand there," he said.

"It's a psychological barrier."

In the future, some who enroll at the Carnegie Mellon West campus may take unusual paths to reach their master's degrees.

By altering the curriculum to include undergraduate work, campus leaders said, they would like to identify adults in the work force who have completed at least part of a bachelor's degree and are prepared to finish the rest to the satisfaction of Carnegie Mellon. They could be awarded a bachelor's degree through another four-year college and then receive their master's degree from Carnegie Mellon.

Students from two-year schools, including technical and community colleges, would do junior and senior level work and then complete a master's degree. Those students might not necessarily need a bachelor's degree to qualify for a Carnegie Mellon master's, Schank said.

"We're going to make it so that you can go from the middle of college into the master's degree," he said.

The school isn't "planning on holding the hands of 18-year-olds," Schank said, but instead wants "very serious professionals."

The campus is talking with two-year campuses in California and a four-year private college in Nevada that Schank declined to name. Reddy said the school also was working with Foothill-De Anza Community College District.

Schank balked at the notion that opening the program to undergraduates was an attempt to boost enrollment.

"I don't think that's what's going on at all. What's really going on is we're trying to do something interesting in education -- something different," he said. "After you have built a really interesting master's program, you might ask yourself, 'What interesting things can we do on the undergraduate level?' "

Schank said few schools offered computer science instruction of the caliber delivered at Carnegie Mellon. As such, the school has an obligation to expand its reach.

"We want to provide a higher quality experience to people who otherwise might not be able to get it," he said.

The idea of a master's program seeking out students who aren't already on the verge of a four-year degree would be unusual at Carnegie Mellon and other campuses, Provost Mark Kamlet said. The concept is intriguing, he said, but a long way from being approved.

"We should be thinking out of the box and saying this is a green-field situation," he said. "But on the other hand, there are some parameters we have to play within. Certainly, having a bachelor's degree would be one of them."

The economy was much stronger when Carnegie Mellon announced its Silicon Valley campus almost three years ago.

Initially, plans were to spend $125 million or more and develop 20 buildings at NASA's Ames Research Center over the next decade. But last year, the school decided to settle, at least for the immediate future, on spending no more than $20 million to renovate three existing naval buildings at the center.

To date, the school has raised $1.5 million toward the campus, which employs 12 people, Reddy said. The campus expects to break even by 2004 or 2005 and, until then, is relying on loans from the main campus that it expects to pay back by 2007, Reddy said.

Schank said the campus could still hit its original long-term target of 1,000 students, but that it could sustain itself with a smaller total -- in the hundreds.

He expects to have 200 to 300 students enrolled a year from now and said just because some venture capitalists lost big money on dot.coms, that didn't diminish the future of the industry as a whole.

"Computer technology as a business is not going to go away," he said. "This computer revolution that we're talking about, we're at the beginning, not the end."

Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.

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