Do You Really Need a Master’s Degree?


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?


Related Care2 Coverage

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Simon A.
Simon A.2 years ago

Well I was just researching this topic on (I live in the UK and they are quit big here) and I agree with what you said however this is the internet and you are speaking to a global audience. You have to know, that the wage gap between degree holders and those without a diploma is still quite significant in many, actually most parts of the world. Apart from this it was quite a good read.

Christine C.
Christine C.3 years ago

Do people with Masters Degrees actually use the crap from their Masters their job? Mostly not. Just because you learned something in college doesnt mean you can do a job.

My 67 yr old dad has only a high school degree and is an engineer making over 100,000 a year in the textile industry, he learned all his skills on the job. He actually got hired 10 years ago - the company created a job for him because of his extensive knowledge and experience.

He tells me lots of stories of how people with big degrees get on the job and cant fix a machine in the plant and screwed things up terribly.

Do you know how to do it and can you do it, not can we talk about it. Many times American college is like reading about how to fix a car for four years and theory, but then when it comes to fix the dang car, you dont know what your're doing.

Japanese engineering students are required to do hands on training in plants and machinery.

Plus many of the professors have not actually worked in the field and are behing.

Computer industry is also like that. Professors are behind in what's going on in the work world.

jane richmond
jane richmond4 years ago

Today a Masters is a must.

Ruth R.
Ruth R.4 years ago

If programs were set in place to give students an option to work half a day and go to school half a day, than more people could finish an under- graduate degree program, and a masters, and doctorate. This system would help to put the poor and "average" student on equal footing with those who have parents who are paying, or who discovered their talents earlier in life.

Ruth R.
Ruth R.4 years ago

Some people have a high school Diploma and they have jobs now. It depends on the support system to every person to accomplish life goals. People need to consider giving emotional, spiritual, support and kindness and encouragement to help each and every person -- man, women, child to achieve their true goals, and use their talent, and reafirm their self-worht -- so that as a people we all become stronger together and as individuals. I challenge you as people: let us work to not let one person, man, women, child miss out on living to their fullest -- by starting with one good thing that each person can and desires to do -- to help herself and others. This is the true goal -- not about about money, about talent and working to help one another to have all needs and some desires met at each different time period in a person's life.
I fully support the fact that high school or a GED, is a good thing for most people, or learning a trade if the above does not fit the person. Respect is more important.
College, University and Graduate school needs to be free in exchange for the students chosen volunteer work or work, or work created by the student that is approved by the faculty/ or community or a group as having value.
Thank You care2.

KrassiAWAY B.
Krasimira B.4 years ago

Very interesting comments.

Christina R.
Christina R.4 years ago

I have come to realize that it is not the amount of education one has that matters, but rather, the amount of skills and experience one has in the field in which one seeks employment. An employer will hire someone with ten years experience over someone with a degree and minimal experience.

It is sad and frustrating, especially when you work hard in school and have a looming debt. I just do not feel that college degrees are as appreciated and respected as they once were. My husband is a sales manager for a business and he never went to college; he makes 2-3 times more than I make as a college graduate working as a secretary.

Gary A.
Gary Addis4 years ago

Sonya, I applaud your hard work and success. Should I say "break a leg" for good luck in the business world?

Sonya Mayfield
Sonya M.4 years ago

I won't say I made the mistake in getting an MBA but right now, nepotism is quite familiar in this city. My experience has been it's not what you know, it's who you know. In my position, I am privy to salary and educational information and most of the 6 figure guys do not have an MBA.

So, to make myself feel better about having over $100,000 in student loan debt, I just say, I'm an anomaly in a good way and it was worth the experience as an education teaches critical thinking and even social skills (that's if you pay attention) that can be used in an outside of the business world.

Gary A.
Gary Addis4 years ago

Glenn said, "A holder of a Master's degree in India is still going to be the one that gets the job."

Because the foreigner will work for half the rate-- of course, it cost him only a 10% as much to get his Masters