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In Defense of the Master’s Degree

Bringing some data to this conversation.

July 22, 2021
 
 

The Wall Street Journal piece “‘Financially Hobbled for Life’: The Elite Master’s Degrees That Don’t Pay Off” is a story that higher ed can’t afford to ignore. Any school that is running master’s degrees in which students end up with more debt than they can possibly repay from salaries needs to ask itself some hard questions.

We highly doubt that anyone in higher ed is going to spend much energy defending a system in which M.F.A.s (or any graduate students) end up owing $300,000 in student loans.

The question is if the stories of individuals with extreme imbalances between debt and potential earnings described in the Wall Street Journal article say something larger about the structure of postsecondary master’s programs?

Are master’s programs, as Jordan Weissmann claims, the “biggest scam in higher education”?

Or, as we’d argue, are most master’s programs a kind of public good, beneficial not only to colleges and universities but to the vast majority of today's and tomorrow’s students?

As we’ve said recently, we’re skeptical of anyone with a particular credential telling those without that credential that they don’t need one. It’s a tricky type of advice.

And, to be fair, our deep connections to a number of master’s programs at our institutions warrant some degree of skepticism (no pun intended) of our opinion as well. As Upton Sinclair might have said if he was writing for Inside Higher Ed, it is difficult to get an academic to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding.

Still, the overall data showing positive economic outcomes for graduates of master’s programs are hard to refute. In 2019, the median earnings for year-round full-time employees with a master’s degree was $81,636. This compares to $66,536 for a worker holding a bachelor’s degree.

While students with master’s degrees now account for about half of all student debt, the vast majority of these master's graduates are able to pay off their loans. Graduates with student loan balances over $100,000 are relatively rare, accounting for only 6 percent of all borrowers.

The relatively high incomes and average student debt for students who have completed graduate programs mean that this group is the least likely to default on their student loans. The Brookings Institute calculates that less than 5 percent of students completing a graduate program at a public or private nonprofit university end up defaulting on their loans.

Averages, of course, can obscure as much as they enlighten. A critical focus on master’s programs that routinely graduate students with both high debt and low earning prospects is undoubtedly past due.

In the rush to critique those few master’s programs that seem to be producing suboptimal outcomes for some of their graduates, we should not lose sight of the reality that earning (and paying for) a master’s degree is a good investment for the vast majority of students.

Financial success is only one part of the picture, of course.

Master’s programs are often key to career growth (including as a stepping-stone to a terminal degree), midcareer moves to new fields and an investment in personal satisfaction.

Oh, and there’s that whole learning thing, too.

In an age when more and more students are getting two- and four-year degrees, a master’s degree becomes a differentiator. While we wouldn’t argue that degree inflation is a good thing, we do think it’s important to recognize the changing role that an undergraduate degree -- and by extension a graduate degree -- plays in our society.

Master’s degrees are also often key for a midcareer professional who wants to shift into a new profession. The educational experience along with the demonstration of a commitment to the new field are often valued by new employers. The degree with the combination of previous work experience can be an invaluable asset for folks making this transition.

Maybe most importantly, however, is the fact that master’s candidates spend about two years doing a deep dive into rich topics. Some programs may have become more rote than anyone would like -- and certainly there may be some schools that choose to see their master’s programs as revenue sources and no more -- but this should not take away from the rich array of fields that students pursue, both for professional and personal reasons.

Given the dynamic and complex world we live in and the uncertainty about the future of work, it’s difficult to imagine that a four-year degree will serve every student for life. Master’s degree programs are one possible element in the puzzle of lifelong learning.

Lots more to say on each of these, but however you look at the question, it’s difficult to see master’s degrees as the "biggest scam in higher education."

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