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What’s a master’s degree worth?

Associate editor and business partner Tina sends a link to this interesting discussion. The main post itself has several links to relevant, equally interesting posts and conversations.

Given the astonishing burden of student loans that too many young people are saddled with—M’hijito’s roommate’s girlfriend, for example, remarked that she will graduate from a top-quality institution with a master’s degree in international business and $1,400-a-month student loan payments—assessing the “value” of graduate education is not a crass or pointless exercise. It’s well and good to love learning for learning’s sake and so to feel that the graduate school experience is irrelevant to one’s vocational prospects. However, once that graduate school experience ends, you still have to pay for it. You still have to keep a roof over your head, put food on your table, and foot the considerable cost of raising a family. When young people are saddled with five- and six-figure student loan debt, they should reasonably expect the financial investment in graduate education to pay off with jobs that will support them.

“That, unfortunately, is too often not the case. In our current economy, there simply aren’t enough decent jobs (or jobs at all) to accommodate the rafts of M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s that learning factories like GDU crank out each year. Certain degrees, like an executive doctorate in educational leadership, make for more employable graduates than others, hile some degrees, such as the M.B.A., need to come from a top-tier (read “wildly expensive”) school even to get the holder hired, to say nothing of commanding an upper-middle-class starting salary. And some degrees, to be blunt about it, are simply fraudulent: they’re money-making scams perpetrated by administrators solely to extract as much cash as possible from as many suckers as will bite.

For example, GDU has a much-ballyhooed interdisciplinary master’s degree that has virtually no entrance requirements and virtually no substance. Students in this program, which the university advertises as something that will help working adults get ahead in their careers, pay a $200 per credit surcharge, on top of the regular graduate tuition and various extra charges (all GDU students, for example, pay an extra fee to support the athletic program). Since a standard graduate course carries three credits, every single course you take in this program costs you $600 more than any other student on the campus would pay for it. Students enrolled in the program take a few core courses taught by the program’s director and then fill out their card with electives in regular departments. One elective is U.S.-Mexican border history. A student in this exotic interdisciplinary program may sit next to a History Department graduate student who pays a full $600 less to be in that classroom. Because the program is pretty fluffy and leaves one with a master’s degree in nothing recognizable by another university or by an employer, its value is highly questionable. IMHO, it’s a scam.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t pursue a master’s degree. Or a doctorate, or a J.D., or degrees in nursing, public health, history, English, library science. To the contrary. Graduate education has—or should have—real financial value in addition to the intellectual adventure and polish that students rightly expect to gain from it.

After altogether too many years in the ivied halls of academe, I would advise those who are thinking that now is the time to go back to school for a master’s degree, a professional degree, or a doctorate to plan very carefully. You need to develop a two-pronged planning scheme:

1. Intellectual and spiritual planning

The prospective graduate student should ask Why, really, do I want to do this?

Do you want to pursue a subject because you’re crazy-passionate about it, so much so that you don’t care whether you can ever make a living at it? (There’s nothing wrong with this, BTW.)

Do you feel a graduate degree will make you look smarter to people who matter to you? (You’d be amazed at how many people with Ph.D.’s wanted, at heart, to prove to someone that they weren’t so stupid after all! This is not a good reason to go to graduate school.)

Do you want a graduate degree because you hope it will open the door to an interesting line of work, whose pay doesn’t really matter as long as the job doesn’t bore the pants off you?

Do you want the degree because you think it will open the door to high-paying occupations, whose remuneration very much does matter?

Is it that, at the grand old age of 28 or 30, you still don’t know what you want to do when you grow up and you’d like to take a couple years in graduate school to figure that out? (Chances are you won’t figure it out then, either—precious few of us ever know what we want to do when we grow up!)

The answers to these and similar questions not only bear on your choice of major, they bear on financial issues, too. To make a just-barely-living wage in teaching, journalism, or library science, for example, requires a master’s degree, but it doesn’t require one from an expensive university. As long as you can put food on your table, a vocation that calls to you need not earn a ton of money. But…maybe it shouldn’t put you in hock for the rest of your life. And surely Tucson, Buffalo, or Austin is as good a place as New Haven to take two years to seek the meaning of your life. On the other hand, if a high-powered corporate career is what you’re after, then you probably need a degree from a world-class institution—a costly program may pay for itself within a few years after you graduate.

2. Financial planning

Bringing your real motives into sharp focus goes a long way toward deciding how much to spend on a degree and how to finance it. First, of course, you now can decide whether you truly need a degree from a prestigious (i.e., expensive) school or whether an in-state public university will suffice.

Consider that even lukewarm public universities often have one or two first-rate—even world-class—programs. The University of Arizona, for example, has one of the premier programs in astrophysics on the planet. Psychology programs at Michigan, Cal-Berkeley, Illinois, UCLA, Minnesota, Indiana, and Washington rank among the top twenty in the U.S. Cal-Berkeley, NYU, North Carolina, Indiana, Washington, and Maryland’s MBA programs have shown up among the top twenty. Don’t discount your home state’s public schools, especially if you’re in a place in your life where one master’s degree is about as good as another. Check university rankings for schools in your state and for public universities whose out-of-state tuition is more or less within reason.

If nothing close to home has a program that suffices, investigate universities in other countries, such as Canada, where costs are far more reasonable than out-of-state fees in the U.S.

Try to get your employer to foot part or all of the bill. Many companies and government employers will underwrite graduate training relevant to the job. Even if you have to agree to stay with the company for a number of years after you finish the degree, that’s more than a fair trade to avoid being saddled with student loan debt for years.

Look for research assistantships that waive tuition. Tell the program director or whoever is trying to recruit you that you can’t attend unless you get an assistantship or other support that will waive tuition. Remember: graduate students are the bread and butter of most university departments. They want you.

Failing that, try to get a 50 percent FTE job on the campus. Most universities waive tuition for employees, and often this applies to half-time as well as full-time workers. GDU, for example, considers a 50 percent time job to be “full time,” complete with health insurance and tuition waiver. The waiver is taxed as income, but since you will earn so little, your tax will be minimal…certainly compared to a lifetime of student loan payments. Often this applies only to in-state tuition; bear that in mind if you’re looking at out-of-state schools.

Some universities will waive tuition for an employee’s spouse. If your husband or wife has a job that’s fungible and is willing to work at the desired college or university, this is a strategy that might make sense.

If you’re interested in a university in another state, get a job in that state, register your car there, register to vote, and wait a year to enroll. This will establish residency and avoid the outrageous tuition often charged to  out-of-state students.

Do everything you can to avoid having to take on student loans, even if it means maintaining your dreary day job and taking coursework online and at night. If you possibly can get by on a part-time income, tighten your belt for the two to four years it will take to complete a program while you work. That’s a hard row to hoe, but well worth the goal: completing the degree free of debt.

Finally, I’d add one more bit of advice:

Caveat emptor!

Investigate and think carefully about any degree program before enrolling—no matter which institution offers it. Some otherwise respectable universities have gone into the diploma mill business—under pressure from legislators and alumni to compete with outfits like the University of Phoenix, university administrators and boards of regents crave to operate their institutions on a business model, even though education is not and should never be a business.

Any degree program that does not require the GRE, the GMAT, the LSE, or a similar entry exam is suspect. My university, for example, offers a very respectable Master of Business Administration, for which applicants must submit GMAT scores. It also offers several knockoff low-residency and online versions of the MBA, none of which requires an entrance exam of any kind. Savvy employers know the difference.

Any fully online degree program should be regarded with deepest suspicion. Any low-residency program should be approached with caution. Any interdisciplinary program that leaves you with a strangely titled degree (“Master of Liberal Studies,” for example) should be avoided. These degrees may get you a perfectly fine job. Maybe not, too.

If higher education is a business, then students are consumers, and they should use as much care in buying the “product” as they do in buying a refrigerator or a dishwasher.

Postscript, June 6, 2009: One other strategy for underwriting a master’s degree without going into permanent hock is to join the military. I didn’t think about this as I wrote the post, first because it’s such a huge commitment and second because IMHO, you should join the military because you want to serve your country, not because you want to extract a lagniappe. If your main motive for signing up is to have the taxpayer cover the cost of your graduate tuition, you really ought to ask yourself whether a master’s degree is worth risking your life. There are higher reasons for serving America.


Oxford University, Andrew Yong at Wikipedia Commons
U.C. Berkeley, Tristan Harward, at
Wikipedia Commons, ShareAlike License

19 thoughts on “What’s a master’s degree worth?”

  1. I read this piece also. I especially liked Mark Taylor’s comment. And, if you read about 4 pages of comments, you might see one from me! I mentioned that more than a few of my students decide to get a masters for the express purpose of avoiding paying their loans back. Of course, they take out more loans for the masters.

  2. @frugal scholar: You got in! Good work!!

    They rejected my comment. Maybe they didn’t want to hear what I’ve said here about academic fraud? Mwa ha ha!

  3. I just assumed they put all comments in. Mine was #233 (or thereabouts). Your comment might be in there.

    We have our first doctoral program–in education leadership. It’s for principals. Or principal-wannabees.

    One instructor got a doctorate in “higher education” many years ago.

    So this stuff has been around for a while.

    • @ frugalscholar: Argh, don’t get me started on the College of Education! A friend worked in the Graduate College, reviewing dissertation formats and paperwork. She came across a dissertation that had been ACCEPTED (!), cowritten by two Ed.D. students in Education. That they allowed students to cowrite a dissertation was amazing enough. Then there was the subject of their research: “The Use of Pull-toys among Black Mothers in South Phoenix.” No joke! The College of Education actually granted not one but two doctoral degrees on the strength of this!

      It went to show that times had not changed since the early Vietnam era, when my boyfriend, who had just graduated from the UofA with a B.S. (hmm) in public administration, decided to dodge the draft by entering a master’s program in elementary education. He figured the combination of degrees would put him in line for a school principal’s job. In his first semester, he earned three units of graduate credit for a course in bulletin-board making. And yes, that’s exactly what it was: pinning pieces of construction paper and felt on corkboard.

      Is there any question why kids escape 13 years in K thru 12 thinking World War I happened in the 19th Century and Wisconsin is a Rocky Mountain State?

  4. Should you be breaking articles in a 300 words post each and make a sequel? Honest opinion, I got bored with the length of the article. Wouldve enjoyed it in parts if it were smaller.

  5. @ MBA: It runs 1,750 words. An average magazine feature, typically targeted to people with an eleventh-grade reading level at best, is 1,500 to 2,000 words. If the copy bores you, it’s not because of its length.

  6. Well… reading things on computers is different =)

    First, I hate blanket statements like these. I wrote a simplified analysis for engr-ing majors a while back.
    Things that mess up the analysis is the ability to find funding, making your employer foot part of the bill, and the desire to do higher level research. I mean, if you really truly want to work in R&D you more or less have to go to grad school.
    If it’s just the $$$, then it depends on time (years needed) and other opportunities.

    But actually, you could write the same thing about a BS.

  7. I think joining the military to earn a Master’s degree is actually a fantastic idea. If you are the type of person who would actually consider it, you may be the type of person that the military would benefit from. A number of my colleagues (I’m a Navy pilot, by the way) joined for this reason, or at the very least undergrad, and they have branched off into other areas of the Navy and government where they are doing great work.

    Our military and government needs smart, well-educated people and thats why they are willing to pay for you to get an advanced degree. Its a gamble, considering you may leave after your payback period, but for those who stay the payoff is tremendous.

    • @ Chris: Agreed: military programs are excellent. My feeling is, though, that joining the military is like deciding to teach: it’s something you do because you feel committed to an ideal. My father started out Navy… When he tried to re-up as a young man and some quack wrongly thought he heard a heart murmur, he joined the Coast Guard. After that he had a long career in the merchant marine, which today is regarded as a variety of military service (and well it should be, considering the number of torpedoes he dodged during WW II, and that my mother had to physically restrain him from signing up for the near-suicidal Mermansk run).

      As my father’s brat, I think young people who sign up for the military should do so first because they want to serve their country. Any good things (personally) that come from it should be secondary.

  8. “Look for research assistantships that waive tuition. ”
    Research assistantship isn’t the only assistantship there is. There is also teaching assistantship and in some fields – like computer science, engineering, math – and in large universities and in some fields assistantships are very easy to get. In some schools and some fields there is a shortage of teaching assistants. Occasionally there are some jobs on campus that are considered “assistantships” – i.e. they come with the same tuition and fees waiver and the salary that could be higher than that on teaching/research assistantships. For example, the university where I got my MS/CS had programming jobs in some departments for people with BS/CS that counted as “assistantships”. This is probably why they had a constant shortage of teaching assistants in CS.

    Assistantships is a great way to get a graduate degree. Not only don’t you pay a thing, you are paid a salary. Not a huge salary but enough to cover all expenses and have some money left. I had about half of my assistantship left after basic expenses.

    In fact, if you can get an assistantship graduate school is a great way to “sit out” the recession: you cannot get a job anyway, so why not have one that pays you to study? By the time you get your advanced degree a recession may be over.

  9. I’m half-way through a Master of Humanities degree and really liking it. No, it’s not from a world class school, but it is properly accredited. It is interdisciplinary in nature. Before beginning it, I checked with a few colleges, who supported the idea of this degree, stating that they would be interested in hiring someone with this background. If properly designed, this degree can have within its structure a cohesive bond of unifying themes. I centered mine around classical studies emphasis while augmenting the degree with 18 hours of Latin language at the graduate level, nine hours of which were accepted into the Master of Humanities. Some would say the classics are useless, as well as the humanities in general. Seneca two thousand years ago defined academic learning as having “no utilitarian value.” That sounds like the ultimate in futilitity by modern standards, and yet we are reading, publishing, digesting and lauding Seneca two millenia later. Is it worth incurring debt for this degree? For me it is. It is more than a Master’s in English or history. As a unified whole, this interdisciplinary degree stands as a unit of coordinated effort, which has been integrated and united to a subspecialty in the classics. For some it would be futile, while for others it is the culmination of themes from other disciplines in an holistic body of information. This degree ties together concepts of slavery in the New World with that of the past, philosophy of the ancients with psychology of Jung and Freud, the creative force behind art that hearkens back to Greek vases with inscriptions that give us a glimpse of early Indo-European languages tracing the origins of civilization. Check the typical student reading lists from 1920 compared to 2005 and determine whether or not this is for you. As an aside, I work with a young woman who just graduated with a BS in social work. I mentioned Massachusetts in reference to New England, and her comment was “I thought Massachusetts was in the United States.”

    • @ Bill: There are Ph.D. programs in humanities, and you can get jobs both in and out of the academy with advanced degrees in humanities. To “use” the degree pragmatically in a direct way, a master’s degree in humanities will get you a decently paid f/t job in a community college, and it also looks very good on the résumé when you apply for jobs with the NEH or for state humanities councils. The most active and successful state humanities councils pay their executive directors well — I applied for that position the last time it came open in Arizona, where the starting salary was around $90,000. Arizona’s council, which is large and active, has a number of other staff positions that look interesting and fun. There are many indirect routes to parley any degree in the liberal arts into interesting, well-paying jobs; you just need some originality to recognize how to do it.

      And as your comment implies, the intellectual benefits of what I like to call “real” education (as opposed to voc-ed) are manifold. I personally happen to think these outweigh the vocational benefits of university-level programs whose primary purpose is to get students a job.

  10. Wow! This is great stuff! I am actually planning, in all seriousness, to write a book on the quarter-life crisis, with heavy emphasis on student loans and what they can do to you. (Car payments, credit cards, etc., too.) I am 28 and worked full time for several years between college and (currently) grad school, so I know some of the harsh realities of rent, a cell phone being cut off, and even–occasionally–being a little hungry. It blows my mind when people think that monthly loan payments of $425 are “not too bad.” We far, far exaggerate the degree to which higher education ups our salaries. It can get us into jobs we do not hate, but that’s another matter entirely.

    I am not entirely anti-loan; I think a few thousand is okay. For certain semesters, such as clinicals for nursing and certainly for student teaching, it is VERY difficult to hold down significant work at the same time. And it may be worth it to pour 100% of your effort into these final steps to finish a degree. But $10,000 or more every semester, with no real income to pay for any of it, even during summers–no, no, no, no! A thousand times no.

    Good work! I definitely plan to come back to this.

  11. @ Prudence Dagg: That’s actually a very interesting idea for a book. Many people in the generation now in their late 20s to mid-30s seem to have experienced a “quarter-life crisis.”

  12. (I know it’s been a while but I thought I’d add in case you still checked this.)

    “Many people in the generation now in their late 20s to mid-30s seem to have experienced a ‘quarter-life crisis.'”–Why do you suppose that is?


  13. Prudence, if you’re still checking this, I’d recommend you read a book by Jean Twenge called _Generation Me_ which addresses this very thing. The sort of expectations this generation of people have been set up with combined with the reality they find themselves faced with create the quarter-life crisis. Twenge also references other great works on this concept.

    • Thank you!

      I stopped back by while finishing up a grad school paper, ironically enough. 🙂 (Thankfully I don’t owe too much; taking a loan for school ONLY and not for car, housing, or any living expense helps.)

      I’ll check it out. Thanks again.

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