What's a master's degree worth?

What’s a master’s degree worth? It depends on the subjects, say four experts on a New York Times blog.  A graduate with a master’s in engineering will be able to pay off the loans. A master’s in anthropology? Maybe not.

Liz Pulliam Weston, an MSN financial columnist, writes:

Graduate school has traditionally been a great place to wait out recessions while honing your skills for a better job. But sometimes, the payoff doesn’t justify the cost.

Community college significantly boosts earnings. Bachelor’s degrees also pay off, especially if earned at a lower-cost public university.  Medical and law degrees are expensive but lead to much higher earnings.

Not such a slam dunk: Master’s degrees.

In some fields, such as business or engineering, a graduate degree typically boosted income by more than enough to justify the cost. In others — the liberal arts and social sciences, in particular — master’s degrees didn’t appear to produce much if any earnings advantage.

Degree inflation makes the master’s more useful, writes Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public services at George Washington University.

In a bad job market does it make sense for students to seek a safe harbor and earn a master’s degree? Absolutely: if they can afford it; if the debt from their previous academic work is not too great; if someone else is paying; if they seek to reinvent themselves. If, if …

The consensus view: Look before you borrow money.

About Joanne


  1. This makes the classic error of reducing the advantage to financial terms.

    In 1985 I got a BA in philosophy, and made a certain amount of money. In 1986, I got an MA in philosophy and made a bit more, but not much more.

    A bad investment? No. In 1985, all I could find was work in the food services industry. In 1986 I found work AS A PHILOSOPHER.

    The money may have been similar, but the quality of the work made all the difference in the world.

    Earning a Masters is, for many people, the difference between finding work you hate, and finding work you love.

  2. Mike Skiles says:

    Another groundbreaking article destined for submission to the prestigious research journal, “DUH.”

  3. deirdremundy says:

    Also, I think it really depends WHERE you earn your Master’s from. If you have an MA from a prestigious university, it tends to be worth a lot more than a MA from “State school’s small branch campus”.

  4. maestra545 says:

    Halfway through an MA in TESOL (teaching English as a second language) and wondering how low can schools go. I interviewed for a job today in SF that asked for a TESOL masters, 12 hours a week, $18-22 per hour; there were 80 applicants! The degree only gives one the opportunity to apply for a California Community College job (presently one opening in entire Bay Area). All these people who need to learn English and you’ve practically got to be independently wealthy to teach them.

  5. Also, some universities allow students to stay a 5th year to earn a master’s degree instead of the normal 4 yrs for a bachelor’s plus 2 years for a master’s. If students enter with advanced standing from AP exams, they may even be able to complete both degrees in 4 years.

  6. Bill Leonard says:

    My son’s MBA is not worth a huge amount in the present economic climate — he works for a pharmaceutical company. And The Anointed One’s socialized medicine scheme likely will spell an end to most serious drug research. It has in every other country with socialized medicine, so far. But that doesn’t mean he does not bring value-added to his senior management job. He does.

    Now, if the masters were in education? So what? It is not known as a rigorous curriculum. Those in it likely have not grappled with serious subjects like relatively advanced mathmatics (many MBA programs) or much of anything else.

    I think this problem for educators likely will continue: as long as the curriculum is basic and simple, no one will take you seriously. Nor should they.

  7. You’re forgetting the salary scale in most school districts. A master’s may be worth $2,000-5,000 a year. Not a bad pay-off for the effort. Most young teachers entering the profession will be required to earn a masters just to renew their license.

    The effort to reimburse teacher for their Board certification is similar – bonuses range from $2K-7.5K, depending on state.

    States vary on how much a PhD gets; some don’t pay for anything beyond a masters.

  8. Tom in GA says:

    Cost for my teacher wife to complete her Master’s Degree: ~$7000/year for 2 years.

    Increase in revenue for our family once she has her Master’s Degree: ~$7000/years for hopefully 20 more years.

    Yeah… for us financially it is worth it.

    Now should it be…? I don’t think so – she’s not going to be that much better of a teacher once she has the M.S. She already teaches 3 IB and AP classes a year, is teaching at our state’s six-week summer honors program, and has won a state-level award as a teacher of distinction. But until we figure out a way to reward teachers for doing their job right, getting higher credentials is the only way she will make as much as the teachers in her school who sit on their fanny and do next to nothing.

  9. A Master’s is almost mandatory as a librarian, and the difference between a library clerk and a librarian is about $15,000 and starts around $30,000 more for management.

    Of course in this economy, getting a job is the hard part. And getting a clerk job to make $28,000 can be harder with the degree than without since it’s assumed you won’t stay. It took me two years to get a professional job with a Master’s, but it was worth it.