Master's degree graduates stand during the commencement ceremony… (Eva Russo/The Washington…)
The nation’s colleges and universities are churning out master’s degrees in sharply rising numbers, responding to a surge in demand for advanced credentials from young professionals who want to stand out in the workforce and earn more money.
From 2000 to 2012, the annual production of master’s degrees jumped 63 percent, federal data show, growing 18 percentage points more than the output of bachelor’s degrees. It is a sign of a quiet but profound transformation underway at many prominent universities, which are pouring more energy into job training than ever before.
The master’s degree, often priced starting at $20,000 to $30,000, is seen by some universities as a moneymaker in a time of fiscal strain. It is seen by students as a ticket to promotions or new careers. For them, the lure of potentially increasing their salary by many thousands of dollars a year outweighs the risk of taking on large tuition bills and possibly debt.
The Washington region is a major driver of the trend. George Washington, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities all award far more master’s than bachelor’s degrees each year, a Post analysis of federal data found.
Georgetown, for example, awarded 1,871 bachelor’s degrees and 2,838 master’s degrees in 2012. Its annual bachelor’s output rose 12 percent over eight years. Its growth in master’s: 82 percent.
Doug Stone, 28, an analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, graduated this month from Georgetown with a master’s in public relations and corporate communications, a degree that cost him about $27,000. He had decided that his bachelor’s degree in political science from Ohio State University was not quite enough in a city filled with college-educated strivers.
“I work with a very tech-heavy, tech-savvy crowd,” Stone said. “If you want to position yourself, you need to have at minimum a master’s.”
In generations past — with notable exceptions in fields such as education and business administration — the master’s often played a secondary role within universities. Sometimes it was considered a steppingstone on the way to a PhD, or a consolation prize for those who fell short of a doctorate.
Those views are fading.
“The master’s degree has become a much more important part of the American mobility story,” said Katherine S. Newman, dean of arts and sciences at Hopkins. “Once upon a time, American industry would have expected people to learn on the job. Increasingly, employers are looking to universities. We are becoming more of a training machine for American industry at the high-skill end.”
Sarah Theos, 34, of Montgomery County, is a case in point. Theos, a saleswoman for the biotechnology company Promega, holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Virginia Tech and knows her way around a laboratory. Two years ago, she enrolled in a part-time master’s program in biotechnology at Hopkins, and she is finishing up this month. Some classes she took online, others at a Hopkins satellite in Rockville. She said the degree, priced at about $32,000, will help her connect with customers. Promega and Theos split the tuition.
“In my sales industry,” Theos said, “they like you to have the advanced degree, so you can talk the talk.”
Adam Jadhav, 30, was a political journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a few years until he felt a calling to go overseas to write, teach and volunteer. He got his passport stamped in Kenya, Ecuador and India. In fall 2011, he started work on a master’s in global environmental policy from American University, with a focus on political science, economics and sustainable development.
Grants and a fellowship offset much of the $56,000 cost, but Jadhav said he took out about $50,000 in loans to cover living, research and travel expenses. The AU program helped him win a Fulbright research grant to study fishing communities in India after his graduation this month.
“The master’s degree for me has opened a whole bunch of doors and is really allowing me to do things I want to do with the rest of my life,” he said. The bachelor’s degree he earned from the University of Illinois several years ago now strikes Jadhav as the “bare minimum” that people like him need to thrive in the modern economy.
The cachet of the master’s is rising even among college freshmen. The University of California at Los Angeles found last year in a national survey that 42 percent of freshmen are aiming for a master’s — nearly twice the share that said a bachelor’s degree was their highest goal. Forty years earlier, the survey found freshmen were more likely to aim for a bachelor’s than for a master’s.
Depending on the employment field, census and other data show that many people who hold a master’s degree are better paid than those who hold a bachelor’s.