Master’s degree programs surge at nation’s colleges and universities

(Eva Russo/ The Washington Post ) - Master's degree graduates stand during the commencement ceremony for American University's School of International Service at Bender Arena on American University's campus on May 12.

(Eva Russo/ The Washington Post ) - Master's degree graduates stand during the commencement ceremony for American University's School of International Service at Bender Arena on American University's campus on May 12.

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.

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More master's degrees in Maryland, the District and Virginia
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More master's degrees in Maryland, the District and Virginia

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See a ranking of schools by the number of master’s degrees awarded.
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See a ranking of schools by the number of master’s degrees awarded.

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.

“On the whole, it is true that the earnings return for post-baccalaureate degrees is very high,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown. He said that is especially true for degrees in engineering and other technology-driven jobs.

Virginia data show that those who earn a master’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering in the state command a median salary after graduation of about $75,000. A bachelor’s degree in the same field draws $56,000.

A similar salary premium is found in another booming master’s field — nursing. The bachelor’s degree in nursing, figures from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia show, yields a median starting salary in the state of about $48,000. For the master’s it is about $66,000, a 38 percent differential.

Shawna Brennfleck, 29, a registered nurse at Inova Fairfax Hospital, is finishing up a master’s in nursing from GWU with a goal of becoming a nurse practitioner. Priced at about $34,000, her degree required online coursework and various clinical experiences over three years.

The emerging online access of many master’s degrees is a big draw for students who want or need to continue working while they are enrolled.

“Every week you have assignments, a test you have to complete,” Brennfleck said. “You can do them on your own time. You definitely have to be self-motivated.”

GWU awarded about 3,900 master’s degrees in 2012, ranking 18th in the nation. Hopkins, with about 4,800, ranked ninth. Among others in the top 20 were New York (2nd), Columbia (3rd) and Harvard (15th) universities. The online unit of the for-profit University of Phoenix, which awarded about 18,600, ranked first.

Experts say many young professionals went back to school after the 2008 financial crisis, which bolstered the master’s pipeline. As the job market improves, there are signs that new enrollment in master’s programs has fallen slightly.

“It may turn out nationally that the growth in master’s [degrees] will taper,” GWU Provost Steven Lerman said. “There’s no guarantee it will go on forever.”

But the expansion of master’s degrees began well before the 2008 crisis and has become a driving force in higher education.

Business and education, long dominant subjects in this sector of academia, account for about half of more than 750,000 master’s degrees awarded each year. The venerable MBA — master’s in business administration — is now available in a host of part-time, online, executive and specialty programs. But other programs are proliferating too — in bioinformatics, regulatory science, geographic information systems, media entre­pre­neur­ship, sustainability management and many more.

George Mason, the largest public university in Virginia, launches new master’s programs nearly every year. The latest: computer game design and data analytics. “The rationale for both of these degrees,” said GMU Provost Peter Stearns, “is they’re going to be hot in the market.”

Some analysts wonder if the expansion of master’s programs has gone too far.

Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, said that when universities offer more master’s degrees and programs, job recruiters take note. When recruiters take note, so do students. When students seek more master’s degrees, universities offer more. “The whole thing is an endless loop,” Selingo said.

Others say demand for the advanced degree is legitimate.

“It’s not just because employers like to have extra letters after the name of the person they hire,” said Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. “The fact of the matter is, it’s the complexity of the knowledge economy that’s driving more education.”

 
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