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Thinking of a Master's Degree? Think Again

An article in Bloomberg collects a number of depressing but all-too familiar stories with one common theme — young people graduating from master’s programs with low-paying jobs and crippling debt. The article reports:

More people are losing the same gamble as a 33 percent jump in U.S. graduate school enrollment in the past decade, coupled with an 80 percent surge in tuition and required fees, runs headlong into a weaker job market. Universities are fueling the trend by offering more one- and two-year programs in areas from environmental science to sports management that rarely come with financial aid other than the option for loans.

“Students need to be more skeptical that the income, debt and job-placement statistics that they’re being shown about graduate schools may not reflect individual experiences,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, a website with educational-lending information. “It’s like the advertisements on TV for weight-loss programs: the results are not typical.”

About one-third of people with master’s degrees make less money on average than a typical bachelor’s degree holder, said Stephen J. Rose, a labor economist with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, citing U.S. Census data.

Masters programs hit the sour spot of higher education — they tend to be more expensive with fewer financial aid opportunities than other programs, with a smaller payoff. Government and academic bureaucracies will sometimes favor them due to the low quality of some bachelor’s programs and the need to “objectively” narrow down a large applicant pool, but as these jobs become scarcer and less important, the added value of these expensive programs will decrease. Stories like those referenced in the article are becoming increasingly common, and many college graduates may be better off avoiding these programs entirely. Degrees earned at the top few programs in a given field often pay off nicely, but the rest nay well not be worth the debt. If you must go, and you can’t get into the equivalent of the ivy league in your field, just choose a program that’s cheap.  And look for a one year program instead of a two year.

Cost is only one reason for holding off on a masters. Early adulthood is a time to travel, explore, and get accustomed to a working adult life. Most young people could use some time away from the academy and in the working world, and they will have more flexibility to try different things if they aren’t struggling under a massive debt burden. The jobs of the future will be more based on innovation and less on bureaucracy, and expensive degree programs will do little to help people navigate them.

I advise my own students, employees and relations to think carefully before signing up for expensive masters’ degrees.  Most of the successful journalists, NGO leaders and authors I run across don’t have masters’ degrees and when the subject comes up they don’t recommend them to young people interested in these fields.  There are exceptions where top teachers who are also leading people in a given field can become your mentor and help you enter a challenging and rewarding profession, but you have to look hard to find these.

A master’s degree can be the right choice, but too many people sign up not because they understand what the degree will (and won’t) do for them, but because they aren’t sure what else to try.  Think hard about these programs, and try to meet people in the field you want to enter and see whether they think need you need the degree to launch a career.

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  • Toni

    Here’s a formula for debt-free job security: take up an essential trade that can’t be outsourced, and educate yourself.

    Become a plumber or building maintenance staff or appliance repairman. I’m sure there are other such jobs; these happen to be some I’ve noticed. You won’t be laid off.

    Self-education used to be a common tool in this country; Abe Lincoln had little formal schooling. (It was also a common aspiration until self-actualization replaced self-improvement as the middle class’s chief goal in the 1960s.) Libraries are still free, and you can get almost anything through inter-library loan programs.

    The Internet is a magnificent but fallible resource. One would have to learn to sort solid, disinterested information from propaganda and outright lies. But that’s doable.

    The lagniappe: one would probably have to learn to think for oneself. Plenty of college grads and MAs and PhDs fail to acquire that skill.

  • Gary L

    Professor, you fail to note that the article you linked to offers the perfect solution to the student debt crisis:

    [Mr. Stafford] said he paid for the degree with $25,000 won on the television game show Jeopardy!

    Unfortunately, the free market has failed us once again. There are at present only a small number of game shows that allow the intellectually gifted to display their skill at trivia, so at present very few students – not even one percent! – can count on Alex Trebek to help advance their careers. We need then to have the Obama Administration appoint a “Game Show Czar,” who will be assigned the task of creating a whole new array of government-subsidized academically stimulating game shows, whose poised and articulate panelists can then use their winnings to finance their advanced post-graduate studies in vital fields such as Surfing & American Culture, Puppetry, Anime – not to mention Social Thought! A win-win situation – financial rewards will be bestowed upon the most brilliant scholars – or at least to the ones who can most quickly press the buzzer – and the American public will be able to enjoy countless hours of additional entertainment.

  • TJM

    I left the Army in 2008, then earned my MBA in 2009 and my JD in 2011. Although unemployed, buried in debt, expending the remainder of my savings, and beginning to live on credit, I still see tremendous value in the education that I paid so dearly to obtain.

    Choosing to resume formal education at the graduate level should be more than an economic decision. Some of us seek knowledge for the same reasons that others go on vacation, play sports, or participate in social clubs. Education, for many of us, is an avocation with vocational potential. I enjoyed school immensely. It was also a welcome reprieve from years of alternating between combat deployments, extended field training exercises, and routine all-nighters in garrison.

    Although I am in a horrible financial situation and have no job prospects, I nonetheless have more options before me than I did before. My MBA is more marketable than my Biology degree. My JD makes me eligible for jobs unavailable to the vast majority of the population. Even if I pursue a career that does not require an MBA or JD, I will likely be better at my job because I have learned the fundamentals of finance, accounting, regulation, litigation, transactional law, and how to manage both financial and legal risk. Once in a position where any of these subjects are relevant, I will have an adequate foundation of knowledge to begin learning immediately, and to learn more quickly, than if I needed to learn these subjects on the fly.

    Furthermore, academia is conducive to reflection. As an Army Officer I had no time to reflect. I rarely even had time to cook or do laundry, and certainly had no time for a social life. In school, I had the time to reflect upon my experiences, to consider what I did well and what I did poorly, and I believe that this will make me a more effective manager or leader in the future. Concepts discussed in class were not just abstract ideas; I could think back upon my experiences and consider how those concepts would have played out in situations that I had encountered. School was also a time for me to figure out how to maintain a reasonable work-life balance – a skill that I never came close to perfecting in my career.

    I know people who spend their money on TVs, video games, vintage wine, expensive cars, and so on. I spent mine on formal education. Granted, it was not merely for recreation and it was partly an investment in myself. To that end, perhaps I will not see a financial break-even point that justifies my decision in strict dollar terms. But I think that I will be content with the financial reward, even if it is less than the financial cost, because of the immense intangible rewards.

  • Corlyss

    “A master’s degree can be the right choice, but too many people sign up not because they understand what the degree will (and won’t) do for them, but because they aren’t sure what else to try.”

    That’s the role traditionally played by Law School.

    Me (to office mate). Why’d you go to law school, Terry?

    Terry: I didn’t know what to do when I finished college. What else do you do with a degree in philosophy?

  • HS

    I agree with the second half of Tony’s comment regarding self-education. The right word is self-learning and self-development – so being consistently tuned into what is available out there. There’s a number of online resources – videos, webcasts, seminars, blogs – that will continue to provide us with information.

    However there is a difference between education/information and actual learning. You can spend all day reading articles – but will you actually learn?

    I’m 23 and about to start my Masters degree two years after graduating from my Bachelor’s. Thing is, I’ve already spent at least a few years in ‘adult working life’, I’ve already traveled (by myself), volunteered, etc. I’m unique to the many ‘typical’ stories because I’ve actually quit my job in order to do this Masters (along with a myriad of other ‘life decision’ made). In fact, I would go as far as to say that I would have gotten my job ($45k – good starting salary for a graduate – it’s a professional job as well) without my Bachelor’s. Speaking of going through with life without an official certificate to validate one’s education, I came close to not graduating – being nearly one of those ‘high school drop outs’ in favour of getting work experience and trade skills!

    ‘Institutional’ education is overrated (ie it’s not life and death). However in the same vein that my options would have been limited if I actually did drop out of high school, then pursuing this Masters is a great opportunity to open those doors.

    People seem to treat their degrees as the ‘vehicle’ to take them from Point A to Point B – but you need a whole lot more than that.

  • Toni

    Corlyss, this is why we’re over-lawyered in this country: too many humanities majors with too few options for a good salary.

  • Toni

    TJM, first, thank you for your service.

    Second, I think your view of your bounteous skills is probably accurate.

    Third, your future employer will be lucky to have you.

    You’re also extraordinarily mature. I’m guessing your time in the Army gave you time to grow up and, if you didn’t already have it, a good grasp of what’s truly important in life.

    Here’s an idea. Before going to college, every kid should spend a year or two working at whatever kind of job he or she can get with a HS degree. That would make the average callow youth more serious about study and less inclined to major in beer and surfing studies.

  • Toni

    TJM inspired this idea — something colleges could do to expand their students’ employability that is simultaneously what they’re least likely to do.

    I refer to ROTC. Not only would the students have jobs automatically upon graduation. They’d also acquire valuable leadership and implementation skills while they served their country.

    But the liberal monolith that is academia is unlikely to cotton to this idea.

  • MC

    Please tell me TJM’s comment was a parody.

  • Mrs. Davis

    What is a master’s degree? TJM’s MBA and JD are much more professional degrees than master’s in the Arts & Sciences sense and more likely to pay off for him in the long run.

    Long, long ago, my alma mater considered adding an MBA program but the faculty senate voted it down because it would turn us into a “trade school.” And a master’s was considered a consolation prize for those who would not earn their Ph. D. But as I say that was long ago and far away.

  • Chase Crucil

    This country is not “over lawyered.” Rather, the expensive education required to obtain a JD and sit for the bar is so expensive that legal services are only available to people who can pay at least relatively high fees – even small town general practitioners don’t come cheep, especially from the perspective of a middle class client – or have been injured by a wealthy defendant.

    The people who do need legal services, the middle class and the poor, often cannot afford them. If you doubt me on this point, think about this. Hundreds of thousands of Americans signed onto mortgages that they couldn’t afford, and furthermore, many of those mortgages had clauses within them that called for a large increase in payment a few years into the owning of the house. The mortgage seemed great to the borrowers at first, because the payments seemed reasoned, but there was a bear trap waiting for them.

    These unfortunate people who signed on the dotted line might have not done so had the contract been explained to them by a lawyer, who unlike a bank employee, would be solely concerned with the interests of the borrower, not the lender.

  • Andy Freeman

    It depends on the Masters. An MS{E,M,C,P}E or an MSCS is not much like a Masters in English or History.

  • bob sykes

    The only MS degrees that are good investments are those in engineering. The engineering MS is a legitimate terminal degree and is in high demand among employers. Also some professional societies like the American Society of Civil Engineers want to make the MS the entry level degree for professional licensing.

    And then there is cost. The degree is free at every legitimate engineering school in the US. MS engineering candidates are supported by working on externally funded research projects. These projects pay the students’ tuition and fees and provide a living stipend. The student graduates without debt.

    Any engineering program in the US that does not support its MS students is illegitimate. Its faculty are so incompetent that they cannot get external research grants, and the degrees they issue have little value.

    The only degree in the natural sciences that might have value is the PhD. But these are academic degrees, and faculty positions are few in number with low turnover. Also, only PhD degrees from the most elite graduate schools are marketable.

  • Steve Gregg

    My Marquette MBA in 1987 was useless getting me a job. I would have been better off getting a comp sci undergrad degree.

    Marquette published figures saying that 90% of its MBAs had a job in the field of their choice within 120 days of graduation. I didn’t realize until a year in that 85% of their MBA students were part-timers getting their tuition paid by their jobs. In other words, most of Marquette’s MBAs started with a job in their field of choice, but Marquette’s administration took credit for making that happen. For the 15% of we full time MBA students, only one third of us got jobs, no thanks to Marquette, which only brought one recruiter on campus to hire MBAs during my two years there. The rumor was that Marquette had cut a deal with Milwaukee employers not to bring recruiters on campus to poach their employees.

    My lessons learned:
    1) Don’t trust college administrators. They’re as dishonest as used car salesmen.

    2) If you must get a master’s, pick it carefully. Open the want ads and see if anybody is hiring graduates with that degree. If not, don’t do it.

    3) Don’t pay for your master’s. Have your employer pay for it. Go to night school while you’re working. Don’t kill yourself doing it. Pace yourself.

    4) Beware of computer classes where you never touch a keyboard or where the students present papers the entire course.

    5) If you need to learn a computer subject, go to Learning Tree, the gold standard in technical training.

  • Neo

    As a STEM graduate of some years now, I found that when I went to look for my second job, my abilities that had been honed at my first job were overshadowed by my lack of a MS or PhD.
    I returned to school after 12 years of employment using tuition reimbursement from my employer, in order to “get a degree and maybe learn something.” Frankly, I learned more than I expected, but the piece of paper was worth more than what I learned.

  • Milwaukee

    Dang, I wish I had read this years ago. But I needed graduate school to escape living in a town where my marriage had failed, and the school I taught in was a failed school. The Masters program I was in administered Masters Exams 3 times a year. Every time the committee would meet after the exams were given, and have a yelling argument over who passed and who didn’t. They were clueless as to writing and assessing those exams. The last two times I took it, all three female committee members were there because they were spousal hires. (One had her husband hired because of her, the other two were hired as part of a package. Without their husbands being hired, they wouldn’t have been hired.) I did finish my Masters in 5 semesters. Unfortunately that goes on your permanent record.

    Wisconsin has a system of 2-year campuses. For a number of years they have only been hiring doctorates for those teaching jobs. The same courses taught at UW-Madison or UW-Milwaukee would be taught by teaching assistants. So the students have their tuition hiked to give them a better education than then need, subsidized by the Wisconsin taxpayers. Those with just a Masters need not apply for those jobs.

  • SDN

    “3) Don’t pay for your master’s. Have your employer pay for it.”

    Be careful with this. My employer in the 90s was happy to pay for a masters or other education… provided you agreed to stay two years past completion. Otherwise, you paid them back (with interest). If they laid you off, you were still on the hook. They also had restrictions on taking courses unrelated to your course of study… even if the school called it an “open elective.”

    I paid for my MBA myself.

  • MiddleAgedMax

    @ 9: I cannot grasp why TJM’s comment would be interpreted as parody. The combination of the skills, insights and self-awareness that can be gained in the military coupled to the considerable benefits that can be gained through (an increasingly expensive), formal education, can be a formidable one and personally advantageous even if the ROI is not immediately apparent. TJM, thanks for your service.

  • Greg Q

    The STEM responses are correct. A terminal MS in an engineering field is a valuable degree. You get the Ph. D. if you want to go into research / academia (and if you want to blow an extra 3 – 4 years of your life on the degree, plus another year to three years on a post-doc), you get an MS if you actually want to accomplish things.

    In the sciences or humanities it is indeed different. There a Masters is a booby prize.

  • eml

    “If you must go, and you can’t get into the equivalent of the ivy league in your field, just choose a program that’s cheap”….Excellent advice. I would also add – try to pick something that sets you apart from the herd and that will make you more marketable. I earned a Master’s of Science degree in Applied Economics from a state university. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It taught me how to think critically and analyze data – and it sets me apart from the herd of MBA’s who can’t think their way out of a paperbag.

    It also came with a “fellowship” program that covered the costs of tuition and rent. It may not have the cachet of a degree from one of the high-prestige schools, but it opened doors for me, and the work ethic and analytical skills I learned allowed me to succeed once I was given the opportunity.

  • 00stephen

    While I respect TJM’s service and admire his passion for learning, there is something disconcerting about a former military officer with a MBAJD who is broke, living on credit, and cannot get a job. I think it brings to forefront the crux of this article: an MBA may not be in the best economic interest for everyone.

    There’s little doubt that many, if not most, humanities majors found a sense of value and personal reward in their studies. The question, though, is whether such pursuits (be they graduate or undergrad) are sound investments from an economic perspective. And I’m comfortable saying that, speaking as an English major who chose his coursework at a time of 4.5% unemployment, when tuition cost half as much as it does today. I was blessed to be able to pursue a passion, riding on the coattails of an economy flush with prosperity.

    Today’s environment is nothing like that. So I implore everybody considering higher education to choose a course of study that is (a) is technical in nature, (b) develops skills that cannot be automated or outsourced, and (c) maximizes the ratio of salary to tuition. We can always go back and take enlightening coursework as a hobby, to enrich ourselves, or further our career to the next specific, well thought-out level… once we’ve established the ability to provide for ourselves and take care of the basic needs in life.

    And while I agree with Chase Crucil that wealth allows for greater protection by legal professionals, I disagree that a lack legal counsel among the lower classes is what led to the housing defaults. It was not a lack of intellectual comprehension among the borrowers… but a rather to the blinders of a more primal, base force… greed. Everybody believed they had something great to gain for little expense/effort: the lenders, loan officers, appraisers, realtors, builders, securities brokers, policymakers, and, yes, borrowers who took out loans for amounts larger than they could knowingly and realistically afford to repay.

    I can only hope that articles like this will help prevent people from irrationally taking on similar amounts of debt (from which they cannot walk away, this time) for the wrong reasons.

  • richard40

    A masters is helpful if you want to teach, and is helpful for some gov jobs. Otherwise, experience is far more important. A BS is often necessary to get by the HR gatekeepers, but after that, key experience is much more important than a masters.

    Instead of taking an extra year for a masters, try to get into a coop program in your major. It takes a year longer to get your BS, but then you have useful experience, and will often be hired by the company you coop with.

    • D.R.

      It sounds like I made the right choice when it comes to deciding on pursuing a master’s degree. I obtained a bachelor’s degree, then gained over two years of full-time federal employment before applying to a master’s program. The program is geared toward professionals already in my line of work (criminal justice), and I’ve somehow been able to take classes full-time (6 credit hrs per semester) while continuing to work for the federal government full-time. It hasn’t been easy by any means, but I’m making it work and have learned a great deal and matured during the process.

      The best decision I ever made in regards to education was to wait a few years before deciding on grad school. Now I’m on track to have my master’s degree by the end of 2014, and I started the program in August 2012. What’s even better is that close to the entire cost of the program is being funded by my employer!

  • richard40

    Other commentors here are also correct that while a masters helps little getting that 1st job, once you have worked awhile, and gotten valuable experience, a masters could be helpful if you want to get promoted to management. As they also said, the best way to get that masters is through night school while working, hopefully with your employer paying part of the bill.

  • nerdbert

    I strongly agree with Bob and Neo: for many engineering programs you need a MS to get ahead and to get better job security. Many of the BS level jobs are outsourced to the BRICs with less than stellar results, but they are cheaper. The additional system level and deep background knowledge that an MS affords is invaluable. And it gets you better and more interesting job responsibilities.

    You have to drink with from a firehose in the STEM courses just to get the basics for your BS. It’s in the MS level where you get to think more deeply and delve into the meat of the matter, and where you get to differentiate yourself and specialize your knowledge.

    I would strongly add that a Ph.D. in most engineering programs is NOT a good terminal degree if you want to work in industry. For the first decade after I graduated I actively fought suggestions that I was more interested in getting into academia than actually working on products, and I felt disadvantaged by my Ph.D. in applying for many jobs. These days, though, the Ph.D. is actually a marginal help, but it certainly wasn’t worth the effort to get economically. I’m actually glad I have it, though, since I’ve tweaked my career several times using things I never learned at the MS level.

  • Mastro

    Something not touched on in this article is the chicken and egg aspect of Master’s programs.

    20-30 years ago young studs were sent to get MBA’s by their company as preparation for bigger and better things.

    Now too many middle management types get Masters (leaving work on the clock) and think they will impress upper management- which they haven’t in the workplace.

    Even worse are the kids who go from undergrad directly to Masters programs- other than an internship or two- they’ve never worked- but feel entitled to lecture people who’ve been in the field for 10-20 years.

  • Taxpayer1234

    TJM, you rock. Sounds like you pursued your degrees for the right reason: to obtain an education, not a job.

    I plan on pursuing a Ph.D. after my daughter graduates high school. With luck, I’ll finish before I’m 60. I won’t get any “return on investment,” and I don’t care. It’s actually kind of liberating. I won’t have to trade my academic or personal integrity(translation: kiss professorial #ss) for a spot on the “A” list of fellowships or jobs. Nor will I have to play the grad-student-as-indentured-servant game. It will be all about educating myself, and that’s exactly the way it should be.

  • Theo

    Don’t take anyone’s advice (including this advice). They are probably wrong, and you are probably wrong. But it is better to own the consequences than redirect the responsibility later.
    Am puzzled by TJM’s account. My students who are out of the service are having the gov pay and are doing quite well – but for varying degrees of post-traumatic symptoms.

  • Toni

    Chase Crucil says: This country is not “over lawyered.”

    Oh yes it is. Compare no. of lawyers to population in any industrialized country, and the ratio here is off the scale.

    Law is the only profession where you can create your own demand. Find a reason to sue a big corporation – or a small one, or a wealthy person – and start rounding up clients. Can’t find a good reason? No problem! Find an excuse that you think you can get past a jury, and wait for a payout, either a settlement up front or a fat jury verdict later.

    I oversimplify, but the principle remains. These days the tort system is less about justice than about fattening trial lawyers’ wallets. The situation is so bad that even small-town grocers have to have hidden cameras, for the frauds who drop a grape or open a jar and spill some and then “slip.”

    Their lobbying group used to be called simply the Trial Lawyers Association. That was too explicit. Now it’s the American Association for Justice. Somewhere Orwell shudders.
    In 2008, 94% of their donations went to Democrats. For ’12 so far, 91% has. (See

    Along with Wall Street and unions, they’re among the staunchest Democratic supporters. For the same reasons: they want laws and budgets manipulated to protect and, better, enlarge those fat wallets.

    Big government – including law codes – always behooves those who want to game the system.

  • Toni

    Chase Crucil does have a point about the unnecessarily costly hurdle to becoming a lawyer.

    Here’s my idea. Create legal specialties the way doctors have specialties.

    When someone takes a bar exam now, they have to prove knowledge of both federal laws and the laws of that state. What if a lawyer wants to do just what Chase says, practice law in a small town in one state? Let’s say the lawyer knows he wants to make wills, handle divorces, and otherwise practice family law. Why should he have to know anything about environmental or intellectual property law? Or about federal law except as it relates to family law?

    Then limit the bar exam to issues of family law in that state. If the guy’s wife gets a great job in another state, he could study and pass the family law bar exam for that state.

    This would make everything more manageable, including financially. If he decides he wants to branch into banking law, he can take the state’s banking exam. Breaking the state bar exams into chunks should make each chunk more affordable. Plus, aspiring lawyers need never set foot into a law school. As long as they can pass the exam, they will know what clients need them to.

    This would be fabulous for clients. They could find an attorney who has exactly the skills they need, and her fees would be more affordable because she hasn’t had to pay to learn about laws she doesn’t need to know. Meanwhile, folks who need sophisticated corporate lawyering would continue to pay top dollar.

    The American Bar Association would hate the idea. The know-everything bar exam keeps fees high, as Chase says, and keeps the supply of lawyers limited. Law schools would hate it too. They’re part of the racket.

    Well, change has to start somewhere, if only as a tentative idea.

  • WG

    Doctoral degrees are not much better than Master’s degrees these days, simply because there are too many people with doctorates on the job market. And that is the case despite the fact that at least a third (and often half) of those who start a typical PhD program never finish it.

    We’re used to hearing about the benefits of advanced degrees, but the truth is that grad school is often a bad bet. Consider, for example, the misery expressed in the comments on the “100 reasons NOT to go to grad school” blog:

    Unfortunately, people tend to discover this the hard way.

  • Toni

    Even some PhDs in the sciences are useless.

    In 1981, a friend who graduated with a BA in music talked a major oil company into hiring her in a geophysics position by pointing out that music is like math. She was thrown into the deep end. She had to figure out how to interpret seismic data on her own.

    Turned out, 1981 was the peak of the first “energy crisis.” She survived waves of layoffs.

    Now she’s trying to teach PhD geophysicists how to work her magic. They don’t listen. They won’t take direction or work with each other. She mentored one who would even shout at this very, very nice lady who is my friend. Who loves what she does but plans to take early retirement so she doesn’t have to deal with the brats.

    Simultaneously, they have an extraordinary sense of entitlement. Ah, I could go on, but I do believe those entitlement expectations are familiar to many employers these days — and may simultaneously explain a sliver of today’s unemployment rate. Maybe some of today’s grads at every level expect too much, and potential employers sense it.

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