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Higher Education Bubble
The Rise of the Master's Degree

Eight percent of the population now holds Master’s degrees, the same percentage that held bachelor’s degrees (or higher) in the 1960s, reports Vox. Master’s degrees in education were by far the most popular, holding at around a third to a quarter of all such degrees from 1971 to 2012, though MBAs had taken the top spot by 2010. In fact, the increase in the number of MBA degrees is astonishing: Only 11.2 percent of master’s degrees were in business in 1971, but in 2012, they were a whopping 25.4 percent.

The rise of the master’s degree is likely a product of credential inflation. As more and more people acquire bachelor’s degrees, those who wish to make themselves stand out go on to get the MA. And as Vox points out, while a Master’s degree does have a positive impact on earnings, the overall debt of people with undergraduate and Master’s degrees has grown markedly in the past decade. In fact, as we recently noted, graduate student debt is in large part driving the student loan crisis.

Employers are also likely to use degrees as screening tools, eliminating people who don’t have a certain level of education in order to expedite the selection process—regardless of whether the advanced degree is really necessary for the job. But we shouldn’t want an economy that favors people with polished résumés over people with good ideas. This data is not a good sign for our economic health.

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  • Loader2000

    I think an MS in physical or mathematical sciences is always a good thing. My undergraduate classes in statistics only scratched the surface. However, I’m not so sure about an MBA or an MS in engineering. For engineering, if the MS puts emphasis on research it is probably beneficial. For an MBA, I don’t think there is an equivalent of original research and thesis writing.

    • LivingRock

      Imho the best one can do with an undergraduate engineering degree is pursue the Professional Engineer license, usually issued by each state. An Engineering Master’s may serve as yet another higher credential and you may learn a bit more, but the professional license is the key for many engineering jobs. That can be obtained w/o a Master’s and actually requires something akin to an apprenticeship, along with other criteria.

      • Behind_You1

        To be fair, the PE license is required for many, if not, most jobs in civil engineering. Jobs in other engineering fields like electrical, mechanical, and chemical don’t require it nearly as much.

        Still, having a PE license in those fields certainly doesn’t hurt.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Writing a thesis can be valuable, if schools take the time to involve students in nontrivial research. In the practicing professions, however — that includes medicine, law, social work, teaching — it’s hard to see how research is valuable for most students. Do a thesis if and when you do a PhD, and do that only if original research is (realistically) going to be an important part of your career — that’s what a PhD program trains you to do.

  • Gerald

    I have a BS in Engineering and an MBA. The undergraduate engineering curriculum was far more rigorous and prepared me well for a successful career. The MBA was not nearly as useful. The strongest point for the MBA was exposure to marketing concepts, although the material was trivial compared to the expertise at P&G, my then current employer. I also had exposure to advanced programs at an Ivy League Advanced Management Program, that again was highly regarded, but only useful in contacts that were made.
    My sister, a retired teacher got advanced degrees in Education because it enabled automatic salary increases while providing little value in actually performing her job.
    So, I agree that credentials are an issue, but would also suggest that the “dumbing down” of undergraduate degree requirements – even in engineering – are also a factor in why masters credentials are more important to industry.

    • Mastro63

      Don’t studies show that Masters in Education don’t make teachers more effective? To hell with value added- its value subtracted- when you factor in the automatic raise and opportunity cost of – say- spending more time with students.

      • Gerald

        Can’t say that the Masters doesn’t help some teachers. My sister has a BS in Physics and taught AP courses in Chemistry and Physics, so her experience might not be representative.

        • Mastro63

          Sure- I imagine science teachers it would help. I’m talking specifically about Education MS and Phd’s

          • Curious Mayhem

            There isn’t much value in many master’s degrees, not compared to even 20 years ago, at least outside the sciences, engineering, and medicine. For teaching a subject, some ed schools do the five-year “co-terminal” bacherlor’s and master’s where the student learns a subject and how to teach the subject, including a year’s practicum as a student teacher in a classroom. It’s a valuable degree track, but not enough schools take this approach. Much of the master’s degree time is wasted in pointless classes of little value in learning how to teach.

            Similarly with the MSW. Some schools take the serious approach of a five-year co-terminal bachelor’s/master’s program, with a year in clinical or field practicum. But most don’t, because it’s a lot of work for everyone, and instead fill up students’ schedules with pointless classroom time.

  • lukelea

    Off topic, but here is an interesting article about the shortage of STEM workers in the US. The comments are particularly interesting. I’d like to see WRM get out in front of this particular issue.

  • Andrew Allison

    “Eight percent of the population now holds Master’s degrees, the same percentage that held bachelor’s degrees (or higher) in the 1960s, reports Vox.” Does that make the value of a Master’s today the same as that of a Bachelor’s fifty years ago?

  • William Ockham

    A question though, is there any meaning at all to many of those masters degrees? Nearly half of all the masters degrees granted are in education, MSW’s and the proliferation of advanced credentials in incomprehensible subjects, all entirely non-cognitive. When the core of your inquiry is hand puppets or finger painting does it amount to anything?

  • richard40

    Basically todays bachelors is equivalent to what a HS diploma was in 1960, while an MS is equivalent to what a bachelors was in 1960. I suppose completing HS today is equivalent to completing 8th grade in 1960, since there were plenty of older people then who had not completed 8th grade. Whether all that extra education is really necessary for every job is a different story, but if you have the diploma, and the other person does not, you are less likely to get screened out.

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