The entry-level master’s degree

The master’s degree is the new bachelor’s, writes Laura Pappano in the New York Times. Nearly 2 in 25 people age 25 and over have a master’s, about the same proportion that had a bachelor’s or higher in 1960.  “Several years ago it became very clear to us that master’s education was moving very rapidly to become the entry degree in many professions,” says Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

The professional science master’s, or P.S.M., which combines job-specific training with business skills, is growing rapidly.  “Humanities departments, once allergic to applied degrees, are recognizing that not everyone is ivory tower-bound and are drafting credentials for résumé boosting,” Pappano writes.

 “There is definitely some devaluing of the college degree going on,” says Eric A. Hanushek, an education economist at the Hoover Institution, and that gives the master’s extra signaling power. “We are going deeper into the pool of high school graduates for college attendance,” making a bachelor’s no longer an adequate screening measure of achievement for employers.

Colleges are turning out more graduates than the market can bear, and a master’s is essential for job seekers to stand out — that, or a diploma from an elite undergraduate college, says Richard K. Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

Not only are we developing “the overeducated American,” he says, but the cost is borne by the students getting those degrees. “The beneficiaries are the colleges and the employers,” he says. Employers get employees with more training (that they don’t pay for), and universities fill seats. In his own department, he says, a master’s in financial economics can be a “cash cow” because it draws on existing faculty (“we give them a little extra money to do an overload”) and they charge higher tuition than for undergraduate work. . . . He calls the proliferation of master’s degrees evidence of “credentialing gone amok.” He says, “In 20 years, you’ll need a Ph.D. to be a janitor.”

Students say the programs give them industry contacts. Employers say a master’s signals a higher level of commitment to the field.

The obligatory anecdote features a history graduate, working as a $7.25-an-hour waiter and living at home, who was rejected for tutoring and tour-guide jobs because he doesn’t have a master’s.  He’s going for a master’s in Jewish Studies with hopes of working for the CIA, though Pappano suggests “teaching, museums and fund-raising in the Jewish community” are more likely.  Or waiting tables, a job he started in high school. Many nonprofits are short on funds and laying off staff, not hiring.

Via Instapundit, who’s been blogging about the higher education bubble.

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  1. Mark Roulo says:

    It would help a lot to know that the distribution of these degrees was, both by degree and by student.

    Two examples to illustrate what I mean:

    *) I’m under the impression that a *LOT* of public school teachers eventually get a Masters of Education. This makes sense for them because they get a pay bump for doing so. If a lot of the increase in masters degrees were in education, we’d have a partial answer.

    *) Additionally, one way that lots of Indian and Chinese students get from home to the USA is by going to school here. The typical sequence is to get a 4-year degree at home, then come here for a masters degree, then get a job. This works much better for them than trying to get here for a job directly after the 4-year degree.

    So, what percentage of the increase in masters degrees are in what and are obtained by who? If the degrees are being used to help immigrate, or to get a guaranteed raise, then, “No, the masters is not the new bachelors.” But we need a breakdown to know.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    No degree can replace personal ambition and drive.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Many, many master’s degrees are a joke.

    It’s even worse than the situation with bachelor’s degrees.

    People are casting about for some sort of assurance of worker quality… but all the old signs have been undermined, their value traded upon so heavily that there’s naught there but wind and hope.

    Credibility and reputation must be nurtured, not spent recklessly.