Education in America

What is the Price of Higher Education?

On Friday, the New York Times published an article entitled, “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s.”  The piece describes a developing trend in the relationship between the academy and the workforce: namely, the fact that more and more employers are hiring Master’s holders, leading to a perceived devaluation of the Bachelor’s degree.

According to Laura Pappano, author of the article, statistics show that these days, more and more students are opting to continue their education beyond the Bachelor’s level and pursue a Master’s degree in one field or another. Fields of study are becoming increasingly specialized, so that to a certain extent a Master’s can almost function as a vocational degree, providing students with both classroom and applied experience. In theory, greater numbers of Master’s graduates are entering the job market with the kind of work experience they need rather than the generalized skills they acquire through undergraduate level education. The article paints an overall picture of an environment in which a Master’s is getting more and more valuable by the minute due to the lack of under-skilled potential employees looking for work.  Although the pending obsoleteness of the Bachelor’s degree is considered, the article (like many NYT articles) boasts an undercurrent of tone-deafness, an apparent incapacity (or perhaps unwillingness) to dig a bit deeper and consider some of the more immediate concerns that a market flooded with graduate-school-educated job seekers inevitably brings up.

For one thing, the numbers clearly point to the fact that more and more students are opting to get their Master’s these days. And there’s obviously no denying the empirical evidence indicating that new Master’s programs are providing students with the option of getting a more practical, job-specific degree. But to what extent are many undergraduates (and college graduates who have been on the job market) pursuing a graduate-level education just because there are very few other options available to them? There’s a very big elephant in the figurative room that this article inhabits: the economy. And while Pappano is willing to dance around the topic, she seems unwilling to put her finger on it and put into words what everyone must, to some extent, be thinking.

Instead of acknowledging an obvious and straightforward truth (this is a really difficult job market), Pappano prefers to paint the picture of jobs that have evolved to an extent at a rate that undergraduate education can’t match. Is this really the case? Or is it possible that what’s really going on can be stated in pretty simple terms: there are a lot of people looking for jobs, and very few people who have jobs to offer. Employers are in the cat-bird seat and have the freedom to hire applicants with a Master’s degree at a salary that is lower than the one someone with a graduate school education would ordinarily command. The problem has less to do with the kinds of jobs that are available and the imagined lack of qualified applicants and more to do with the fact that, in the United States, the unemployment rate is such that a Bachelor’s degree no longer gives a college graduate the competitive edge it used to.

Empty school hallwayThe development of all kinds of new and practical Master’s programs does suggest that there is an increased demand for specialization; however, it’s hard not to see this is directly related to the economy as well. There’s no reason why Bachelor’s-holding employees shouldn’t be able to get a job and learn the skills they need on the job as people have done throughout history. What really seems to be going on is that enrollment in Master’s programs is high because returning to school is a more encouraging idea than unemployment, and, facing higher enrollment numbers, universities are now in a position where they can draw in more money through tuition dollars. As one professor interviewed in the article admits, “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.”

Additionally, the article fails to take into account the somewhat bone-chilling long-term impact of the degree inflation that has resulted from the lousy employment situation the country is in: if, in fact, degree holders are going to need a Master’s in order to be considered viable job candidates, what sort of crisis are we going to face when the economy is saddled with the added burden of the overwhelming number of former students unable to pay the graduate school loans they had to take out in addition to their already-exorbitant undergraduate loans? Whether intentionally or not, this article both brings up and drives home the need for widespread undergraduate-level education reform – we now find ourselves in a situation where a college education is both extremely expensive and not a guaranteed ticket to a job (let alone a job that would make it possible to pay back the loans we’ve taken out in order to pay for the education in the first place). Will we be able to address this issue in a productive and effective way before the consequences set in?

By Emilie

Runner, yogini, knitter, Manhattanite in spite of myself. Also blogging at

10 replies on “What is the Price of Higher Education?”

Great article, Emilie. The whole system is really out of whack. At this point, unless an employer is paying for a Masters program, it’s out of the realm for me. My husband is lucky in that his employer does offer tuition reimbursement for employees, and he’s earned a BA and is going for a MA, with very little out of pocket costs. How much the MA will benefit him job wise remains to be seen.

Thanks, Sally. You’re certainly not the only one who finds the price of education out of their realm–I wonder if there might be an increase in the number of employers willing to offer tuition reimbursement if the situation continues to progress this way?

Trying to put a value on the MA is such a tricky thing. To this day I wonder if it was worth my time or whether I would have been better off with those additional years on the job market. It’s impossible to tell.

I just had this discussion with a few of the girls (young 20s) I work with. A bachelor’s degree is today what a high school diploma was when I was their age, about a decade ago. I’m really glad I didn’t take out an insane amount in loans for my degree, especially since I don’t need it for my current job, and I make about what many of my peers from college do who are in degree-related fields. These days, a bachelor’s seems to be the base expectation. I’m far less educated than much of our readership, and I wonder how much of that is somewhat generational.

Here, and especially in my field, even anyone with a masters isn’t enough. You also have to have > 5 years, although you might make it into an interview with less. I went out on my own and started to volunteer at the local health department almost a year ago, and they just now found out they have the funds to hire me, although even that isn’t certain. Thankfully I have a flexible part-time assistantship and live with my boyfriend, but in 10 months I am coming out of school in a field where a masters is now par-the-course. I am glad my schooling was one of the cheapest in the nation and I didn’t have to take out loans, but it doesn’t help much if I can’t eat.

I’m 33, have been working since I was in HS, have an AAS, BS, and MBA. I work in a job where I can’t afford to live on my own (I’m living with my mom), and am constantly amazed at how limited I am in job choices. I’m actually going back this fall to get a 2nd bachelor degree in Accounting just so I can have something specific enough to get the attention of hiring managers. That’s another $10k to add to my already large loan pile. The fact that MBA’s (and other Master-level degrees) are becoming a dime a dozen is a major issue. We are becoming a nation of over-educated, and under-employed workers. Until wages fall back in line with experience/education, this economy is staying right where it is (and I’ll still be stuck living at home).

I kinda feel like grade inflation at the undergrad level is largely to blame. I know many people who graduated from my university who did squat to earn that degree. Half the seniors with whom I worked in the writing center had gone through nearly 4 years of coursework without learning to write an essay properly.

It’s not that I want a return to a male-centric, money-centric elitism, but I do think that perhaps a more stringent grading system might be beneficial to weed out those who don’t have the motivation/gumption to get the degree honestly.

Amen. As someone who is deeply in debt from their undergraduate degree, I worry about the levels of education and experience I have to compete with AND pay them bills. Paying my bills is possible with a full time gig and a weekend gig, but what happens when you want to make a change in your life and you still have to pay those bills? What happens if your health gets in the way? Or another form of debt? Why do schools let kids take out 100+ student loans from private lenders on a humanities degree?
The thing that I find really mind boggling is the relationship between many schools and lenders ( my own school was deep in with sallie mae). So instead of looking for viable options in financial aide, grants and scholarships, my schools financial aide department would push loans on us. Its been written on many times about the special relationship that lenders have with certain schools and how schools will get tax cuts for providing certain providers to students.And what sounds better than an adult telling you at 20 that oh loans are easy to pay back! You can do it for a really long time!
And yea, maybe I and other people who took out loans should have had a better grasp on interest rates and what debt really meant for my long term life, but at 19, 20, when you come from a family that cant pay for college( shit, when throwing you 40$ is a BIG deal) and your whole life you have been told about how college is the ticket out, you get in a mindset to do whatever you need to do to go to school because thats important. And then you get out into the world and realize, oh shit, I’m competing against people with PhD’s and 5, 10 years experience and I’ve been working at Starbucks the entire time to help pay my way and I have a pile of debt that takes no prisoners, its a real shocking moment of what am I going to do?

I would love to get an MA, but to be frank, I feel like I’m being priced out of the opportunity. I worry that my children will not be able to attend a university for their bachelor degrees because we’ll have too much money to qualify for financial aid and too little to cover the exorbitant cost ourselves.

I’m increasingly troubled by the inflation of educated workers on the market, as well. Bachelor degrees aren’t becoming a boon, but a bare minimum.

Thought-provoking article, Emilie. You’ve given me a lot to consider.

I have a MA in a subject area that is totally unrelated to the work I do now (well, largely unrelated anyway). I’ve wanted to go back to school to study public health for some time, but I’ve recently given up on the idea because, like you, I’m completely priced out. I can’t take on the additional debt, and I also can’t afford to potentially give up my salary while I’m back in school. It’s a difficult situation, and I wish there were more mainstream coverage of these issues.

Leave a Reply