July 22, 2011
The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s
By LAURA PAPPANO
Call it credential inflation. Once derided as the consolation prize for failing to finish a Ph.D. or just a way to kill time waiting out economic downturns, the master’s is now the fastest-growing degree. The number awarded, about 657,000 in 2009, has more than doubled since the 1980s, and the rate of increase has quickened substantially in the last couple of years, says Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. 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,” Dr. Stewart 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?”
While many new master’s are in so-called STEM areas — science, technology, engineering and math — humanities departments, once allergic to applied degrees, are recognizing that not everyone is ivory tower-bound and are drafting credentials for résumé boosting.
“There is a trend toward thinking about professionalizing degrees,” acknowledges Carol B. Lynch, director of professional master’s programs at the Council of Graduate Schools. “At some point you need to get out of the library and out into the real world. If you are not giving people the skills to do that, we are not doing our job.”
This, she says, has led to master’s in public history (for work at a historical society or museum), in art (for managing galleries) and in music (for choir directors or the business side of music). Language departments are tweaking master’s degrees so graduates, with a portfolio of cultural knowledge and language skills, can land jobs with multinational companies.
So what’s going on here? Have jobs, as Dr. Stewart puts it, “skilled up”? Or have we lost the ability to figure things out without a syllabus? Or perhaps all this amped-up degree-getting just represents job market “signaling” — the economist A. Michael Spence’s Nobel-worthy notion that degrees are less valuable for what you learn than for broadcasting your go-get-’em qualities.
“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. “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.”
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