Master's degree programs surge at nation's colleges and universities

Master’s degree students graduate on May 12 from American University’s School of International Service in Washington.
Master’s degree students graduate on May 12 from American University’s School of International Service in Washington.
Published May 27, 2013

The nation's colleges and universities are churning out master's degrees in sharply rising numbers, responding to a surge in demand for advanced credentials from young professionals who want to stand out in the workforce and earn more money.

From 2000 to 2012, the annual number of master's degrees issued jumped 63 percent, federal data show, growing 18 percentage points more than the amount of bachelor's degrees. It is a sign of a quiet but profound transformation under way at many prominent universities, which are pouring more energy into job training than ever before.

The master's degree, often priced starting at $20,000 to $30,000, is seen by some universities as a moneymaker in a time of fiscal strain. It is seen by students as a ticket to promotions or new careers. For them, the lure of potentially increasing their salary by many thousands of dollars a year outweighs the risk of taking on large tuition bills and possibly debt.

In generations past — with notable exceptions in such fields as education and business administration — the master's often played a secondary role within universities. Sometimes it was considered a steppingstone on the way to a Ph.D., or a consolation prize for those who fell short of a doctorate.

Those views are fading.

"The master's degree has become a much more important part of the American mobility story," said Katherine Newman, dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University. "Once upon a time, American industry would have expected people to learn on the job. Increasingly, employers are looking to universities. We are becoming more of a training machine for American industry at the high-skill end."

Sarah Theos, 34, of Montgomery County, Md., is a case in point. Theos, a saleswoman for the biotechnology company Promega, holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Virginia Tech and knows her way around a laboratory. Two years ago, she enrolled in a part-time master's program in biotechnology at Hopkins, and she is finishing up this month. She said the degree, priced at about $32,000, will help her connect with customers. Promega and Theos split the tuition. "In my sales industry," Theos said, "they like you to have the advanced degree so you can talk the talk."

Adam Jadhav, 30, was a political journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a few years until he felt a calling to go overseas to write, teach and volunteer. He got his passport stamped in Kenya, Ecuador and India. In fall 2011, he started work on a master's in global environmental policy from American University with a focus on political science, economics and sustainable development.

Grants and a fellowship offset much of the $56,000 cost, but Jadhav said he took out about $50,000 in loans to cover living, research and travel expenses. The master's program helped him win a Fulbright research grant to study fishing communities in India after his graduation this month.

"The master's degree, for me, has opened a whole bunch of doors and is really allowing me to do things I want to do with the rest of my life," he said. The bachelor's degree he earned from the University of Illinois several years ago now strikes Jadhav as the "bare minimum" people like him need if they are to thrive in the modern economy.

The cachet of the master's is rising even among college freshmen. Last year in a national survey, the University of California at Los Angeles found that 42 percent of freshmen are aiming for a master's — nearly twice the share that said a bachelor's degree was their highest goal. Forty years earlier, the survey found freshmen were more likely to aim for a bachelor's than for a master's.

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Depending on the employment field, census and other data show that many people who hold a master's degree are better paid than those with only a bachelor's.

"On the whole, it is true that the earnings return for post-baccalaureate degrees is very high," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. He said that is especially true for degrees in engineering and other technology-driven jobs.

Experts say many young professionals went back to school after the 2008 financial crisis, which bolstered the master's pipeline. As the job market improves, there are signs that new enrollment in master's programs has fallen slightly.

"It may turn out nationally that the growth in master's (degrees) will taper," said Steven Lerman, provost at George Washington University. "There's no guarantee it will go on forever."

But the expansion of master's degrees began before the 2008 crisis and has become a driving force in higher education.

Business and education, long- dominant subjects in this sector of academia, account for about half of more than 750,000 master's degrees awarded each year. The venerable MBA — master's in business administration — is now available in a host of part-time, online, executive and specialty programs. But other programs are proliferating, too — in bioinformatics, regulatory science, geographic information systems, media entrepreneurship, sustainability management and many more.

Some analysts wonder if the expansion of master's programs has gone too far.

Jeffrey Selingo, editor at large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, said that when universities offer more master's degrees and programs, job recruiters take note. When recruiters take note, so do students. When students seek more master's degrees, universities offer more. Others say demand for the advanced degree is legitimate.

"It's the complexity of the knowledge economy that's driving more education," said Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools.