“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.”