Education Creep

Do I Need a Master's? Does Everyone Need a Master's?

Even just a few decades ago, a bachelor's degree was a mark of intellectual commitment and personal discipline. Master's degrees were rare, solid proof that candidates had sacrificed for distinction in their field.

Higher education is no longer solely the province of the elite, however, and a bachelor's degree doesn't carry the same weight it once did. Jobs that used to require applicants have a bachelor's degree are shifting sharply toward a preference for the master's, threatening to leave a sizable chunk of graduates behind.

"Education creep" and the job market

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job opportunities at the master's degree level are projected to grow faster than any other education level between 2010 and 2020, at about 22 percent (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). How is this happening?

Terms like "education creep" and "credential inflation" are now being bandied about, suggesting that the economic value of college degrees is shifting because the supply of graduates to the job market is shifting beneath it. Education is more accessible now, and bachelor's degrees are a dime a dozen from a hiring manager's perspective.

Because jobs aren't as plentiful as the candidates for them, hiring managers are often faced with the difficult task of selecting one applicant from a stack of resumes. It's not uncommon for them to make broad initial cuts along educational attainment lines. While that cut used to be at the "college degree" level, it's now increasingly coming at the "master's degree" level.

Master's degrees are changing

Another reason suggested for the increase in master's degree requirements points to changes made by university professors and administrators to explain the job market shift.

Universities are developing master's degrees tailor-made for certain knowledge-heavy professions, creating a batch of mutant hybrid degrees by splicing a few vocational school genes into their curriculum. A danger of this "skilling up," though, is that some careers are so technical or so specialized that the amount of study it takes to earn a master's degree has long been necessary to perform them competently.

If the master's is crowding out the bachelor's as today's entry-level degree, then what will happen to the master's degrees in fields that required it before "education creep" began to set in? Will the city planners, family therapists and biochemists of 2025 have to write vocational-doctoral dissertations before they're allowed to practice? Time will tell.

So do I need a master's?

It's important to point out that the aforementioned 22 percent projected increase in master's degree jobs actually translates to only about 431,000 new positions by the end of the decade (BLS.gov/ooh, 2012). To put some perspective on that figure, the BLS reports an expectation of 3,656,000 new positions that will require bachelor's degrees and more than 7.5 million emerging positions by 2020 for candidates with just a high school diploma.

Master's degrees are expensive, time-consuming and, ultimately, still not a guarantee that you'll fall backward out of your cap, gown and braid straight into a well-paying job you enjoy. With more than 11 million new jobs expected to open in categories that require less education, vocational master's earners may find themselves either fighting for a limited number of positions at their education level or settling for a job they feel overqualified for.

If you're thinking about a master's degree, think hard about the sort of things that make you excited to learn. While earning a master's degree online can be a wonderful experience -- and may well be a means to a better-paying vocational end -- you'll first want to do some research, give it much thought, and make it count.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, "Employment change by education category," Overview of the 2010-20 Projections, March 29, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/About/Projections-Overview.htm
The New York Times, "The Master's as the New Bachelor's," Laura Pappano, July 22, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/education/edlife/edl-24masters-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Many seek master's degrees for better, higher-paying jobs," Emily Gibb, February 10, 2011, http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/education/many-seek-masters-degrees-for-better-higher-paying-jobs-213813/

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