A bachelor’s degree isn’t worth quite what it was: More and more people — 657,000 in 2009, double the number in the 1980s — are getting a master’s degree, says the New York Times. In fact, 2 in 25 people (that’s 8 in 100) aged 25 and above have a master’s; in the 1960′s, about the same proportion applied to those who had a bachelor’s or higher. It is not simply that people are wanting to continue their studies. Rather, a highly competitive job market means that having those two or three extra letters after your last name can make the difference between your resumé being consigned to the recycle bin, or not.
This is not exactly encouraging news for recent college graduates and their families, weary from paying (i.e., taking out loans) for college. It’s news that makes me, a college professor at a small, urban New Jersey college which has recently started some new masters programs (in criminal justice and health records management). I wonder if we are doing enough to educate our students. Does a BA or BS no longer mean you can get a job in your field of study?
Many of the new masters programs that schools around the US are starting are geared to provide students with specific professional credentials:
“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,” [Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools] says. The sheen has come, in part, because the degrees are newly specific and utilitarian. These are not your general master’s in policy or administration. Even the M.B.A., observed one business school dean, “is kind of too broad in the current environment.” Now, you have the M.S. in supply chain management, and in managing mission-driven organizations. There’s an M.S. in skeletal and dental bioarchaeology, and an M.A. in learning and thinking.
The degree of the moment is the professional science master’s, or P.S.M., combining job-specific training with business skills. Where only a handful of programs existed a few years ago, there are now 239, with scores in development. Florida’s university system, for example, plans 28 by 2013, clustered in areas integral to the state’s economy, including simulation (yes, like Disney, but applied to fields like medicine and defense). And there could be many more, says Patricia J. Bishop, vice provost and dean of graduate studies at the University of Central Florida. “Who knows when we’ll be done?”
A few years ago — I also advise students at my college about applying to graduate school — I helped a student apply for a program in perfusionism (with success, happily). She needed this degree to get a job as a perfusionist in the cardiac surgery unit in a hospital. But other students I’ve advised are seeking master’s degrees after job searches that have found them part-time work at most. For these students, a bachelor’s degree — in education, in business — is simply not enough. As Richard K. Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says, 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.”
Colleges and universities benefit by starting master’s programs , as Vedder also points out:
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. “We have incentives to want to do this,” he says. 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.”
Offering graduate degrees and saying faculty teach graduate-level courses can also add to the prestige of a school. The notion of master’s programs as “cash cows” is not, however, uncommon. At many universities, financial aid in the form of scholarships is awarded first to Ph.D. students (who are presumably planning to devote themselves to a less-lucrative life in academia) and then, if funds remain, to master’s students. I regularly receive requests from graduate students asking about scholarships — which many need even more, as they have families of their own and are working at least part-time just to get by — and often have to deliver the bad news, that such opportunities are much more limited than for undergraduates.
The New York Times quotes the chair of a new master’s program in law enforcement as saying the degree really isn’t needed to do the job:
Walter Stroupe, a retired police first lieutenant and chairman of the department of criminal justice at West Virginia State University, acknowledges that no one needs to get the new master’s degree in law enforcement administration the school is offering beginning this fall. In fact, he concedes, you don’t even need a college degree in West Virginia to become a police officer, typically the first step to positions as sheriff and police chief.
Still, Dr. Stroupe says, there are tricky issues in police work that deserve deeper discussion. “As a law enforcement officer, you can get tunnel vision and only see things from your perspective,” he says. “What does a police officer do when they go up to a car and someone is videotaping them on a cellphone?” The master’s experience, he hopes, will wrangle with such questions and “elevate the professionalism” among the police in the state.
Might it not be more useful just to get such experience on the job (provided one has been able to get a job)?
While the general consensus in the New York Times seems to be that master’s programs have their benefits, those making those claims in the article are faculty and administrators. The undergraduates interviewed in the article have yet to get their graduate degrees and enter the workforce. It remains to be seen if their advanced degrees make the difference.
Have we become too reliant on credentials rather than discerning what abilities and talents a person has?
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