The number of Americans with master’s degrees doubled between 2000 and 2019, resulting in 13.1 percent of U.S. adults with a postgraduate diploma. The 2008 recession led to a 2010 surge in graduate study in the United States. In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, law, business, and medical schools have all seen a significant rise in applications. Regardless of whether a bachelor’s degree is necessary to do the tasks of every job requiring one, the market does favor people with college degrees. American college graduates have long tended to earn more than non-graduates and, in the past year, were more likely to have jobs that allowed them to work from home. The benefits of staying on for further schooling are less straightforward. All things equal, graduate education is associated with somewhat higher salaries. However, graduate programs can come with substantial debt, which in many cases exceeds earning potential post-graduation. If the practical value of a master’s degree is so questionable, why are so many people so eager get one?

Aaron Hanlon is an English professor at Colby College in Maine and a contributor to The Washington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to Hanlon, American undergraduate students often believe they will need a degree beyond the bachelor’s to be competitive on the job market, but the data on the return on investment of specific degrees is sparse. The selling point, meanwhile, for many M.A. programs in the humanities—increased odds of admission to elite doctoral programs—can offer the short-term reward of Ph.D. admissions, but only paired with the long-term likelihood of facing a dismal academic job market with additional debt. While Hanlon doesn’t discount the possibility that an M.A. could help someone’s resume stand out, he says that schools offering these degrees are insufficiently transparent about what comes of their graduates, making it difficult for applicants to know what they’re signing up for, and whether it will really help their career prospects vs. just increase their burden of debt.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: What is the point of a master’s degree?

Aaron Hanlon: Some master’s degrees serve a credentialing function for promotion or certification, as in professions like teaching and social work. Others are aimed more toward people who just want to explore a discipline or a field beyond undergraduate level, with other people who are similarly interested in and exploring that thing. Some, like engineering, are much more professionally pitched, as something that might be useful for promotion or competitiveness.

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