Gustavus Adolphus College is launching its first master's degree program and is beginning to evaluate whether it should add others.

The Evangelical Lutheran college in St. Peter has for decades offered a program that allows students to graduate with a bachelor's degree designed to prepare them for careers in athletic training. With national certification standards changing, the college will instead begin offering a five-year master's degree program.

"Obviously, it's a unique situation for Gustavus, [which] had not offered any master's programs before," said Mary Westby, director of the college's athletic training program.

The change comes at a time when colleges across Minnesota are competing for a smaller pool of students and increasingly trying to find ways to distinguish themselves from other higher education institutions. Many are also trying to navigate changing standards in the job market.

The demand for athletic trainers has evolved over the years, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic predicts they will see higher than average job growth over the next decade. While some athletic trainers still work with sports teams, others work with musicians, dancers, police officers or firefighters, among others.

"What athletic training really figured out several years ago was, there is a lot more people who are physically active in the world than just high school and college athletes and professional athletes," Westby said. "And the skillset of an athletic trainer fits well with a wide variety of those populations."

National organizations that certify athletic trainers voted years ago to change their standards to require a master's degree, and the change is set to take effect with people beginning their studies next school year.

"The scope of practice that they're being asked to provide is greater, and so when we were looking at the care that athletic trainers are being asked to provide and looking at the curricular content that would be needed ... it was determined that that level was really at the graduate level," said Dale West, executive director of the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education.

West said other institutions across the country have also been updating their programs in anticipation of the new requirements. Gustavus expects to be the first in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to offer the Master of Athletic Training, though some other Minnesota colleges and universities offer programs in sports and exercise sciences, among other similar fields.

Gustavus will begin accepting applications for its new program this fall, and those students will begin classes in the summer of 2024. The new program will allow students to complete the bulk of their undergraduate studies in three years and then spend two years working toward a Master of Athletic Training. People who have completed their undergraduate degree elsewhere can apply for the two-year master's portion, which runs about $49,000 per year.

The first year of the master's program will be based locally, with students completing their coursework and clinical work near the private college or with partners in the Twin Cities. The coursework will be done virtually in the second year, so students can take clinical options anywhere in the country.

Gustavus, about an hour southwest of the Twin Cities, enrolls about 2,000 students. The athletic training program comprises a small portion of them — enrollment for the master's program will likely be capped at around 20 new students per year — but administrators say they believe it will help with goals to increase diversity and offer new, innovative programs.

Provost Brenda Kelly said she has received proposals from other Gustavus faculty members who are interested in launching graduate programs as well.

"Given that this is Gustavus' first graduate program, we kind of wanted to get this one started and get our foundation under us" before making decisions on those other proposals, Kelly said.

Kelly said she anticipates they will have decisions on whether to offer additional graduate programs in the "next several years."