What is a Masters degree worth? à la NY Times

I was scouting the internet to see what’s ‘out there’ concerning Masters degree after doing a blogpost on seven reasons to do a masters, and I came across a series of short articles done by the NY Times’ “Room for Debate” series back in 2009. The writers are three US professors and a financial advisor debating the economic merits of doing a masters degree:

  • Mark C. Taylor from Columbia University,

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  • Stephen Joel Tranchenberg, Former University President,
  • Liz Pulliam Weston, personal finance columnist
  • Richard Vedder, Ohio University economist

Now keep in mind that this was at the heart of the economic downturn (2009) so all things financial especially in the States were shrouded in doom and gloom, and also that this is a very American perspective.

Here’s a gist of the arguments they make:

1. Mark C. Taylor, Columbia University chairman of the religion department 

During times of financial stress, people become vulnerable and understandably seek to improve their situation in any way they can. For many, more education seems to be the solution. When the economy goes down, applications to graduate programs go up.

As a lifelong educator, I believe more education is always a good thing, but buyers must beware.

He goes on to talk about the challenges in getting a job in a tough economy and while he does mention some doom and gloom, he does actually offer up some practical advice:

Some graduate degree programs can be very helpful for certain careers but many are not. And, remember, what is most interesting is not always most practical. Be sure you consider your motives and goals carefully. Do not simply assume that another degree after your name is going to open doors.

In other words choose your graduate program wisely

2. Stephen Joel Tranchenberg, Former University President president emeritus and professor of public services at the George Washington University. 

The M.A. permits someone who has a generic B.A. degree in a field she didn’t much care about to change direction, to add a line to her curriculum vitae that says she has a documented competency. M.A.’s also allow their owners to check the right box on corporate personnel forms and similar documents used by the armed services, N.G.O.’s, schools and public agencies that like their civil servants credentialed.

Earning an M.A. degree can be fun; it can provide knowledge; and can stretch the imagination. A cynic might conclude that the M.A. degree is the stepchild of the university community, is increasingly a commodity offered by universities in order to earn tuition dollars devoted to the Ph.D. programs. But in the marketplace, it adds to one’s personal narrative. It makes one more interesting.

I’m just going to ignore the fact that he assumes in essence that it is women who do M.A.’ s seeing as he simply refers to the student as ‘her’. I don’t entirely agree with his argument. A Masters degree (or an M.A. in this case) can bring focus to an area for an undergraduate degree that was more generic in a way that can position you well for the job market and/or further graduate studies  (PhD).

3. Liz Pulliam Weston, author of “Easy Money,” “Your Credit Score” and “Deal with Your Debt.” She is a personal finance columnist for MSN Money.

In some fields, such as business or engineering, a graduate degree typically boosted income by more than enough to justify the cost. In others — the liberal arts and social sciences, in particular — master’s degrees didn’t appear to produce much if any earnings advantage. The Census Bureau has updated the data I used a few times since then, and the results are similar: certain graduate degrees just don’t seem to pay off.

Advanced education has many other, non-economic benefits, of course. But if you’re borrowing to pay for your schooling — as 60 percent of graduate students do, accumulating an average $37,000 in student loan debt, according to the 2003-2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study — you want to make sure you can pay those student loan bills when they come due.

…this rule of thumb won’t work for everyone — heaven knows, you may be the rare literature M.A. who writes a best-selling novel and pays off her debt with one check — but it’s a good starting point for anyone considering strapping herself to more education bills.

Did she just trash social science degrees? I am sure there is far more that you could achieve with a social science masters that does not necessarily involve making less money. With this one, I say do your homework and your research before going into your Masters AND weigh out the amount of debt you are willing/able to incur and the cost-benefit of it in the long run.

4. Richard Vedder, Director of the Center of College Affordability and Productivity and teaches economics at Ohio University.

Given the poor labor market, should new college graduates go on and get a master’s degree? For many students, this is not a bad option. Census Bureau data show us that typically young adults with master’s degrees earn about $8,000 more a year (roughly, 15 percent) than those just having a bachelor’s diploma. The lifetime earnings gains for the second degree should reach into the low six digits. For many, the rate of return on the added college investment therefore should be reasonably high — and it beats unemployment or working in a low-skilled, low-wage retail trade job.

That said, however, that is not true for everyone. Not all degrees are equal — a master’s in anthropology or art probably has less incremental earning power than a M.B.A. or advanced engineering degree.

Argh!  My problem with this argument is that it brings us back to the science is the way and arts is a waste of time argument which is just purely inaccurate. There are numerous graduate programs that are NOT MBA, neither science nor engineering degrees with great dividends. If you had a B.A., you can venture into a Masters in Development Studies and work in the Development field and/or NGO field. Increasingly corporations are building in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs that might open up a niche for you to work.

This series of articles were concerned with economic arguments for (but seemingly mostly against) doing a Master’s degree which they take as synonymous with M.A. As you see I don’t necessarily agree with most of their points, but it is important to have this perspective as well. Remember also that they ALL have graduate degrees, so before you let them convince you against pursuing your dream, keep in mind that there will be many resisting voices and you need to push through.

To read all of the articles check out the link here.

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