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Is the Master’s Degree the New Bachelor’s Degree?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

When I went to college oh, so long ago, I chose my first of several undergraduate majors for many of the same non-reasons that graduate admissions counselor Don Martin cites in his April 20, 2012 article, Ask 7 Questions Before Applying to Graduate School, on the US News Education website. In particular, my non-reasons (as Martin calls them) for choosing to be first pre-law, then pre-med were "because of pressure from my family," "to increase my earning potential," "because I don’t know what else to do," and because these choices were "what I thought I needed to do," not, as Martin suggests, because I wanted to learn more about any of those areas, or because of an overwhelming passion for the topics. Ultimately I migrated to two areas that I did have a great passion for: English Literature and Religious Studies – neither of which fulfilled the "make more money," or "get a real job" criteria. I eventually found a passion for technology and education that combines many of Martin’s criteria, and I have been quite happy in the field ever since.

What was more interesting than this self-revelation, however, was that the advice was aimed at those considering graduate, not undergraduate education. The question is then if, in the 20 years since I graduated from college, has a MA become the new BA?

Deciding to Attend
After the initial questions that Martin raises about why a professional degree is important to you, the questions become completely interchangeable with those that any high school guidance counselor should ask their charges:

  • What type of academic or professional degree are you seeking?
  • In what geographic region do you want to study? (This one is actually far more relevant to making an undergraduate decision than for grad school).
  • What type of learning and student experience are you seeking? (Again, really a question that those entering an undergraduate program should ask – the graduate experience is much more homogenized.)
  • Will significant others impact your plans?
  • Should you consider a full-time or part-time program?

These questions make it seem as if the pursuit of an advanced degree is a decision that everyone needs to consider at some point in their life. A July 22, 2011 article in the New York Times, The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s,  further emphasizes this point. The article, written by Laura Pappano, refers to the new need for advanced credentials to obtain many jobs that previously required only a bachelor’s degree, as "credential inflation." Pappano cites Debra Stewart, president of the Council on Graduate Schools, who states that the number of master’s degrees has doubled since the 1980s, leading to nearly two out of every 25 people over the age of 25 currently having a master’s. In the interview, Stewart states that, "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" (Pappano, 2011). What sparked this change, and more importantly, what does it mean for the future of education and alternative credentialing?

The Dumbing Down of the BA or the Skilling Up of Business?
In the same article Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution states that there is definitely a devaluation of the bachelor’s at work in American society (Pappano, 2011). More high school students are going to college and thus there is a glut of what were previously considered qualified workers available for employers. Employers have responded by seeking employees with other, more advanced degrees to distinguish them from their fellow applicants. Enter the master’s degree.

In response to this need, there has been a rapid growth of master’s granting fields. Forbes.com recently published a list of the best master’s degrees for getting jobs. The list includes several areas in which a bachelor’s or even an associate’s would previously have been sufficient such as:

These fields, now some of the top ones for people to get jobs with master’s degrees, until recently, could all be done with a bachelor’s. The end result of this need for graduating college students to turn around and go get a master’s is that the already soaring costs of higher education escalate even further.

The Even Higher Cost of Higher Education
Is this a vicious cycle that will perpetuate itself, eventually requiring everyone interested in pursuing employment in technical fields to obtain a PhD? While that extreme scenario (posed by higher education hater Richard Vedder) is unlikely to become a reality, there is a disturbing trend towards requiring already in-debt students to obtain more education before they can get a job in their chosen field.

The following graph from the College Board illustrates the rate at which student debt for attending college has been accelerating.


(NPR, Planet Money)

In addition to this mounting debt for students completing a Bachelor’s degree, the average debt accumulated by a student pursuing a graduate degree is between $30,000 and $120,000 depending on the degree and institution (FinAid.org). The following table breaks down the amount of debt by type of degree and includes total average accumulated debts for students.


(FinAid.org)

With legislation that fixes student loan interest rates set to expire this summer, these numbers could increase dramatically for students with educational debts. The need for advanced degrees is only exacerbating the student loan crisis. Is there any solution to this problem before we bury generations of graduating students with insurmountable debts and additional years of education?

Alternatives on the Horizon?
There is no easy solution to this problem on the horizon. It is a complex interplay between the worlds of business, education, and our expectations as a society. The first step is to convince the business world that alternative credentials such as digital badges, associate’s degrees, military training,  and other sources of formal and informal learning, are legitimate indications of an individual’s accomplishments and potential. Again, not an easy task, as there is a huge investment on the part of employers when hiring a new employee and university education is currently the only accepted avenue for ensuring the quality of prospective employees. As much as I hate to agree with Richard Vedder, a glut of BA’s may be contributing to credential inflation.

That does not mean, however, that there is not a need for higher education or even an increased number of individuals with Bachelor’s degrees. Despite the criticism of President Obama as an "Education Snob," there is a real need for the type of broader conception of what a college education is and does that he proposed in the most recent State of the Union Address.

The ultimate solution to this complex problem will be a melding of establishing a credentialing system for alternative education streams and a lowering of the costs of education by embracing an "All of the Above" education policy that supports and expands education and our societal valuing of education to encompass a much broader range of what can be accepted as legitimate sources of learning.  A move in this direction will allow students to better cater their learning to their interests, means, and objectives while also satisfying the needs of employers and, in fact, greatly broadening the pool of possible candidates that they might consider for any opening.