Why has Northeastern University opened two campuses in recent years far from its namesake geographic region?

What would drive a well-regarded school in Boston to open branches in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle) and the South (Charlotte, N.C.)?

Northeastern, it turns out, is making a big play in master’s degrees. The university is a prime example of a trend toward the master’s illustrated in a story in Sunday’s Post.

In 2004, Northeastern awarded 1,078 master’s degrees. By 2012, federal data show, the total had risen to 3,122. That’s a 190 percent increase.

“The traditional two pillars for higher education have been undergraduate education and PhD research,” said Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun.

But he said there is a vast market of professionals who want to enhance their knowledge and skills, including in Seattle and Charlotte. The master’s degree is the best way to help them, he said, with specialties in fields such as cybersecurity, health care and biotechnology.

“Higher education in general has been absent from this area,” Aoun said. “So we decided to step in.”

The Northeastern president has a ready reply when people ask him why the school is going for the Northwest. The West is the East, he said, “when you look at it from Asia.”

A Post analysis of data on master’s degrees found a significant pattern: Schools in well-educated urban areas, such as the D.C. region, Boston, New York and Los Angeles, tend to award more of the degrees.

New York University and Columbia University, for example, rank second and third nationally in master’s output in 2012, with 6,876 and 6,794 such degrees, respectively. Boston University (4,237) ranked 11th and Harvard (4,023) 15th. The University of Southern California (6,136) ranked fifth. The D.C. region, as the story noted, is also a hub.

Another pattern is that online-focused universities, such as the University of Phoenix (18,602, ranked first), have found a major niche in master’s degrees. Liberty University (5,093, 8th) and the University of Maryland University College (3,284, 21st), both heavily online, are big players in the master’s sector.

Lastly, there are a couple dozen major schools that award more master’s degrees than bachelor’s degrees each year. An analysis figures for 461 schools that awarded at least 1,000 bachelor’s degrees in 2011 found that 29 of them had awarded more master’s degrees in that year.

Among those universities were some big names: American, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Duke, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, NYU, Northwestern, Stanford, Chicago, U-Penn., USC and Yale.

That pattern suggests that exclusivity of those schools in the undergraduate arena may be somewhat eased for those who seek a master’s.