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Could higher education become the Solution to a lack of professionalism?

March 5, 2014

Higher education is one way REALTORS® are developing the skill sets to meet greater customer demands for professionalism in the industry, says William Hardin III, director of the Hollo School of Real Estate at Florida International University.

After all, the real estate agent’s role has changed dramatically in the last 15 years to focus more on helping customers interpret real estate information—much of which they’ve gathered themselves—to make more informed buying and selling decisions.

Agents who are committed to higher learning may engender higher degrees of trust and confidence from clients in meeting that evolving role, Hardin says.

While a college degree in real estate is not a requirement to meet higher levels of professionalism, the industry only benefits by having more agents and brokers seek higher levels of training, says David Funk, director of Cornell University’s Baker Program in Real Estate.

“Buying a home is often a person’s biggest investment in life,” Funk says. “The trust and responsibility that comes with that is huge. University programs and a master’s degree raise the bar and move the industry more toward a professional status that aligns it to the importance real estate plays in most people’s lives.”

Building a Solid Foundation

So how are graduate programs helping students achieve this higher level of professionalism? For one, they’re putting ethical training at the forefront of their programs.

Although you may not find a specific course on real estate ethics in many graduate programs, educators say that’s because teaching ethics is so important that they infuse it throughout a graduate student’s curriculum, such as in law, financing, and business courses. The REALTOR® Code of Ethics is the foundation for most of the ethical training students receive in real estate programs such as REALTOR® University, University of Denver, and Florida International University, among others.

Real-world, practical applications are an important factor in graduate education and the teaching of ethics, says Marc Gould, dean of student services at REALTOR® University. Students ­often receive ethics training in the form of case studies that allow them to confront challenging circumstances related to real estate practice, business, and regulation—examining scenarios as wide-ranging as dual agency, dispute arbitration and mediation, ethics in management, accounting practices, and marketing.

Many graduate programs also bring in real estate brokers and industry leaders to share their experiences with challenging transactions and ethical dilemmas. “It helps to take the abstract to the concrete,” says Hardin says.

“Real estate is a large global industry, but when you’re working in it, it can feel incredibly small. One’s reputation, integrity, and ethics can’t be underestimated,” Funk says. “In our coursework, we never get away from the fact that real estate is a people business. Projects and transactions get done through networks with people.”

Indeed, many graduate programs urge students to build connections during their training, such as by establishing mentorships with others in the field, connecting with alumni, joining the national and local REALTOR® associations, attending business networking events, and earning REALTOR® designations for the networking and added training opportunities.

A Growing Differentiator?

As more real estate professionals earn master’s degrees, could they pave a big change for professionalism in the industry?

“Any time it’s easy to enter a field, you have difficulty with the idea of  ‘professional,’” says Mark Lee Levine, professor at the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management at the University of Denver. “As more earn master’s degrees, employers will take notice of the quality of their work and the sophisticated analyses of real estate that they have. It may one day influence more hiring decisions. And consumers will see the benefits of people who are well-trained, ethical, and honest.”

Still, the industry has a “tremendous ways to go in developing programs in higher education to serve all of the real estate industry’s needs,” Funk says. Associations can help, he adds, by creating university linkages, mentoring programs, and scholarships, and developing greater opportunities that connect students at the undergraduate and graduate levels to the association. Late last year, NAR launched its student membership category to emphasize the value of involvement in the National Association.

Whether it’s through graduate training, designations, or continuing education, Hardin says, one thing will remain certain: “The professionals in our field tend to be those who invest in themselves and invest in understanding how the market works. And in the long term, they will be the ones left standing.”