Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?
Editor & Writer
Editor & Writer
Editor & Writer
Editor & Writer
- A Council of Graduate Schools campaign touts the individual and community benefits of master's degrees.
- Master's degrees have become increasingly popular, though programs at private universities can be expensive.
- Recent criticisms of master's programs question their value and ROI, blaming universities for saddling graduates with debt.
- The value of a master's degree can vary widely depending on type of institution and field of study.
A new public relations campaign wants you to think a master's degree — at least in some disciplines — is a sound investment with myriad benefits.
Others will have you believe master's degree programs saddle graduates with debt and don't pay off when compared to a bachelor's degree alone.
Master's Degrees and the Job Market Outlook
By any measure, master's degrees have become big business for universities. The number of master's degrees conferred rose 83% from 2000-2020 and nearly quadrupled since 1970, per the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES). According to the Urban Institute, universities awarded two master's degrees for every five bachelor's degrees during the 2015-2016 academic year.
Some of this growth can be attributed to the rising popularity of the MBA, though in such fields as education, social work, and healthcare, the master's degree has replaced the bachelor's as the entry credential.
The master's degree has become a much more important part of the American mobility story, Katherine S. Newman, former dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University, told The Washington Post in 2013.
Enter the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), a national association aimed at advancing graduate education, whose new public relations campaign seeks to amplify that story. Last fall, it launched “Master's Degrees at Work,” an effort to educate the public about the importance and value of master's degrees.
The campaign focuses on five key areas: public K-12 education, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, cybersecurity, and museums and culture.
What do these fields have in common? They're all growing rapidly in terms of workforce needs, Suzanne Ortega, CGS's president, explained to BestColleges.
Museums might seem like a bit of an outlier in this regard, and Ortega admits she championed the addition herself.
Everybody knows what a museum or a cultural institution is, she said,
but very few people think about ... how important museums and cultural activities are to the economy of communities.
And that's the core message of CGS's campaign: Master's degrees benefit not only the individuals who earn them but also the communities in which these graduates work. Part of the campaign's strategy is telling stories of master's graduates positively impacting their communities.
In the ongoing debate of whether higher education is a private or public good, this campaign's answer is “both.”
Master's degrees benefit all Americans, the campaign's website asserts,
not just the ones who hold them.
People with advanced degrees can fill vital roles as teachers, school counselors, healthcare workers, manufacturing specialists, and cybersecurity experts, addressing critical shortages in each case.
Job Sectors Where Master's Degrees Address Critical Needs
Public K-12 Education
According to the Government Accountability Office, teacher shortages exist in the West, in rural and urban communities, and in high-poverty areas. For school counselors, who normally hold a master's degree, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates job growth of 10% through 2031, with more than 32,000 vacancies. And for principals and assistant principals, the BLS expects over 14,000 new jobs by 2031.
Examining educational requirements in job postings offers key insights into what degrees are needed for specific fields and jobs. The Burning Glass Institute provided BestColleges an analysis of job postings from January to December 2022, revealing that approximately 16% of postings for elementary and secondary school teachers included a master's degree requirement. Some states require a master's degree to become certified, though most don't.
Among the school administrator ranks, BLS data from 2018-19 show that about 43% of educators aged 25 and above held master’s degrees.
The National Association of Manufacturers says 4 million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed by 2030. To bolster America's role in manufacturing, particularly semiconductors, President Biden last year signed the CHIPS and Science Act, a partnership between government, industry, and higher education.
To be certain, most of these jobs don't require a master's degree. Some don't even require a bachelor's. Data from the Burning Glass Institute indicate that for a number of manufacturing jobs — such as industrial engineering technologist, mechatronics technologist, and electrical engineering technologistchip designer — fewer than 2% of job postings last year stipulated a master's degree.
But some positions, including industrial engineer (17.8%), mechanical engineer (25.4%), and computer hardware engineer (35.8%), do prefer a master's degree. The majority of engineering and management-level positions in the chips manufacturing space required only a bachelor's degree, according to Burning Glass data.
The BLS projects 40% employment growth between 2021 and 2031 for some nursing specialties. The demand for nurse practitioners, who typically must earn a master's degree as a point of entry, remains high, with 14,400 new jobs expected annually through 2026.
For physician assistants, who also must hold a master's degree, the BLS expects 28% job growth through 2031, with more than 38,000 new positions coming online in a field whose average annual salary tops $121,000.
In cybersecurity, the BLS projects the job market to increase by 35% through 2031. Master's degrees in the field can help graduates land jobs and advance more quickly into top positions.
Burning Glass data indicate that just over 18% of job postings for information security analysts last year included a master's degree requirement.
Museums and Culture
And, yes, museums do anticipate a robust future: For archivists, curators, and museum workers, the BLS projects 12% growth through 2031, anticipating roughly 4,700 new job openings each year.
About 37% of museum curator positions posted last year required a master's degree, the Burning Glass data revealed. That figure squares with BLS data from 2018-19, which show that 36.3% of museum curators and technicians held master's degrees.
Overall, notes the CGS, entry-level jobs requiring a master's degree are projected to grow by 15% between 2019 and 2029, the fastest such rate across all education levels.
On her campus, Janet Rutledge, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who chairs CGS's Advancement Advisory Committee, is using the campaign's narrative to frame how the university shapes graduate programs and engages in community relations.
Part of what the CGS campaign is trying to do is bring people's attention to what's all around us that we're just not thinking about, Rutledge told BestColleges.
Master's Degree Return on Investment
While a master's program might prepare you for a vital job in a growing industry, there's no denying that it will come at a cost.
Let's break it down.
The average total cost of earning a master's degree in the U.S. is about $71,400. But that varies drastically by program. The cheapest 25% of programs cost less than $36,000. Programs in the most expensive quartile cost over $90,000.
- Average cost of a master's degree: $71,400
- 50% of programs cost between $36,000-$90,000
- Average debt for a master's degree: $64,400
- Return on investment depends on your school, field of study, and program cost.
According to NCES, most master's students borrow federal student loans to help pay for their degree. Unfortunately for many, the investment doesn't pay off.
An August Department of Education (ED) Report revealed a
Eventually, some costlier public and private degree programs paid off in higher incomes for graduates. But the link between debt and earnings was non-existent, and even reversed for for-profit schools.
Responding to Claims of Crippling Debt
This issue of cost and resulting student debt has become the subject of media stories questioning the value and payoff of master's degrees. Some have gone so far as to label some programs
predatory cash cows preying on naive victims.
Two years ago, The Wall Street Journal published a report on graduate student debt, highlighting expensive master's degree programs at elite private institutions that left graduates
financially hobbled, disillusioned, and on the brink of loan default. Thousands of students, the report revealed, incurred debt loads far beyond their capacity to repay them.
Graduates of Columbia University's School of the Arts, for instance, emerged with a median debt of $181,000 and earned less than $30,000 per year on average two years after receiving their degree. At New York University, graduates with a master's degree in publishing borrowed $116,000 on average and earned $42,000 two years after graduating.
These are but two examples of many programs requiring significant investments without returning suitable dividends.
Ortega is quick to admit the CGS campaign was designed to offer a counternarrative to this criticism.
Immediately after [The Wall Street Journal] article came out, I went on record saying that our programs and our universities owe it to potential students to fully disclose the cost of attendance, she said.
And if they do so, if they are providing all the information people need to make an informed decision, then I believe we should not shut people out from following their dreams, even if their dreams turn out to be a long shot.
The value quotient of a master's degree shouldn't be reduced to a simple number — salary — but rather expressed in terms of the potential doors it opens.
We have to give people an opportunity to pursue their dreams, even if those dreams don't turn out to be money in their pocketbook, Ortega said.
It will turn out to be something good for them — maybe not in salary, but in the intangibles.
Rutledge, who criticizes such reports for sensationalizing the issue of graduate student debt, offers the example of someone in the business world switching professions to pursue a teaching career or a role in the nonprofit sector, earning a master's degree in education or community leadership fully expecting to earn less money but nonetheless seeking more fulfilling challenges.
They want to be able to do a particular kind of work, she said.
And they want to have the tools to be able to succeed in a way that they couldn't if they didn't get this advanced degree.
Through their work, those individuals offer their communities a form of ROI that's rarely measured but immensely valuable.
Graduate education is more than just getting a higher salary for an individual, Rutledge said.
When we look at the kinds of jobs that our country needs, very often bachelor's-level education is not enough, and master's degrees fulfill those roles.
Through its campaign — and, indeed, more broadly — CGS offers a more nuanced answer to the question of “worth” when it comes to master's degrees. Measuring ROI through one lens, cost versus salary gains, ignores not only the intrinsic value of graduate education but also disregards the larger conversation about how a highly educated workforce constitutes a tide lifting all boats.
That's what both Rutledge and Ortega hope this campaign will help the public better understand.
We want to move away from the discussion of debt for master's degrees and think about the joy and happiness they're bringing people for their careers, Rutledge said,
and the public good that is coming from having people with advanced education.
Is My Master's Degree Worth It?
Whether a master's degree is worth it for you will depend on your situation, your program, and your goals for a degree.
1. Public, nonprofit, or for-profit — school type influences return on investment.
The ED report from earlier showed:
- Public universities report the least student loan debt for graduates.
- Private nonprofit colleges tend to benefit students with the highest median earnings.
- For-profit college graduates typically have the highest debt burdens and the lowest salaries after graduation.
2. Some master's degrees pay off more than others.
The highest-paying master's degrees — namely, electromechanical engineering and computer science — result in average starting salaries of over $100,000. That's according to 2021 data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
If those fields aren't your thing, take heart in knowing that non-STEM master's can pay off, too. Graduates with master's degrees in transportation, business administration, and languages see starting salaries in the mid $70,000-$80,000s.
3. Master's students may qualify for financial aid and other cost-saving measures.
You might curb costs through free financial aid for graduate students, like fellowships, assistantships, and grants.
Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants, for example, award students up to $4,000 a year for completing undergraduate or graduate studies in education.
That said, you will need to actually teach for four years after graduating. Otherwise, that grant turns into a loan you owe the government.
Finally, explore more ways to reduce costs.
After all, if you're earning a master's degree to invest in a passion or your community, you shouldn't need to disinvest in yourself.