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Is a Masters Degree the New Bachelors?

Nov 5, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 0 Comments

Maybe you’ve been seeing a lot of this sentence in job ads lately: “Bachelor’s required; Masters preferred.” If you have, you’re not alone. The number of Masters degrees awarded since 1980 has more than doubled—with a large amount of growth in the past few years. And employers love them.

So why has the Masters degree become such an important credential in the past few years? One reason is that Masters degrees have become very specialized—and often more practical and job-oriented than the typical Bachelor’s. Even the MBA is becoming a highly specialized degree—with traditional and distance learning MBA degrees focused in topics such as health administration, finance, or international business.

While an online undergraduate degree requires a broad focus in the humanities and sciences in addition to classes geared toward a specific major, a Masters degree does not have that broader educational mission—and the Masters is becoming more professionalized in response to employer preferences.

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It’s also possible that colleges are graduating more people with Bachelor’s degrees than there are jobs. The number of college graduates with a Bachelor’s degree is at an all-time high. In 1950, approximately 34% of adults held a high school diploma; today, almost that many—30%--hold a Bachelor’s.  Approximately 1.6 million students graduated from Bachelor’s programs in 2009—and that number is projected to grow to about two million by 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)*. While a Bachelor’s used to signal advanced skills, now everyone has one—and a Masters is becoming more and more important in standing out.

In addition, a Masters signals a commitment to the field. Students who attend college directly out of high school often make a decision about their major when they’re quite young—and before they have the experience necessary to really gauge what they want in a career. This is one reason why it’s so common for graduates to get jobs and pursue careers outside their majors after graduation. This is less common with those who earn Masters degrees—students who earn a Masters often treat the degree more as an essential tool for career development and less as an opportunity to explore. Holding a Masters degree can indicate a deep dedication to the field—and a commitment that’s reassuring to employers.

In addition, it’s getting easier and easier to find job applicants with Masters degrees. Going back to school is a common tactic for graduates who aren’t having much luck on the job market—something a larger number of recent grads need to do, with approximately 53% either employed or underemployed after graduation, according to a recent Associated Press study**. With so many highly qualified applicants on the job market, including those with both an advanced degree and job experience, employers are more able to wait for the ideal candidate and contact only those with a Masters degree.

This isn’t a good development for people who hold Bachelor’s degrees. A Masters degree means higher levels of student debt and more years out of the workforce. And even though Bachelor’s degree holders earn about two thirds more than high school graduates, a large and growing number of people with Bachelor’s degrees are underemployed.

There’s no question that the amount of investment it takes to land a good job in this economy is rising. But while a Masters degree is rapidly becoming the norm in many fields for entry-level work, the Bachelor’s still has value in the marketplace as well. It’s best to do some research into what type of education will work best for you once you’re out of school. Talk to people who work in your chosen field—including people with experience hiring in this job market—and find out what you really need.

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