A Time for Master’s Degrees to Innovate

A Time for Master’s Degrees to Innovate

This article appeared originally in The New England Journal of Higher Education

The important ongoing national debate about the value of higher education and its relationship to the economy has largely focused on undergraduate education—understandably so since it represents the largest share of U.S. enrollment and spending.

Yet there is an underanalyzed segment of postsecondary education that is increasingly relevant and in demand: professional master’s education.

Over the past decade, enrollment in professional master’s degree programs has grown substantially, and this category has even outpaced the overall recent flattening of college enrollment. As a result, it is time to give the master’s degree the additional level of attention that it deserves. By doing so, we can ensure alignment between universities’ master’s offerings and how these credentials are being perceived and used in the economy. This requires us to address issues such as: access; communicating an identity for the degree and its outcomes; and addressing where graduate education fits within institutional strategies and government policies.

Today, 5 million more U.S. adults hold a master’s degree compared with a decade ago—and in some circles the master’s is being referred to as “the new bachelors,” given its increased prominence in the professional job market. The growth of the master’s degree as an increasingly demanded professional credential appears to be driven by the continued prominence and resilience of knowledge work and the bifurcation of the job market, with graduate-level education increasingly valued in the middle and top tiers of the job market. As the debate about the economic value of degrees rages on, it is important to note that over the past 10 years, all of the growth in the wage premium for college-educated individuals is attributable to graduate and professional degree attainment—a fact that has only recently been highlighted by various economists.

As master’s degree attainment is being more greatly rewarded in the job market, this demands more analysis, policy attention and thought leadership. Leaders in government, foundations, associations and universities are highly focused on bachelor’s and sub-bachelor’s credentials as the domain of needed capacity and innovation.

However, we also need to consider a world that will have many more bachelor’s degree graduates continue on to master’s study. Historically, universities’ graduate degree strategies and services have focused on the full-time, scholarly graduate student—rather than on the growing segment of students pursuing part-time, professionally oriented, or online master’s degrees.

At many major employers, master’s degrees have become the de-facto credential for leadership roles. The MBA has certainly long played such a role in business–but today employers are increasingly looking to a wide variety of degrees ranging from professional degrees in the sciences, to healthcare leadership, data analytics or public policy.

For example, the preferred credential in many healthcare professions continues to escalate toward the graduate level (e.g., the M.S. in Nursing). And, in the booming computer science and IT field, employers have so far in 2014 posted nearly 200,000 job openings that prefer or require a graduate degree, according to Burning Glass Technologies, a company that tracks and analyzes national job openings.

To ensure an appropriate pipeline of master’s-credentialed professionals, many employers are beginning to create university recruiting and partnership programs with a distinct focus on the graduate-level, a further testament to the master’s degree’s utility. Therefore, to truly enable economic mobility in our society, we must acknowledge the master’s degree’s growing role as employers’ preferred or required educational qualification for many middle and professional-class jobs. Furthermore, in addition to the economic benefits of master’s-level education to individuals and employers, researchers have illustrated that greater levels of educational attainment are associated with higher levels of societal and community engagement and well-being.

Students and professionals understand the value of the master’s in today’s job market, and they are increasingly using the degree to stand out in the competitive search process. One important trend for institutions to consider is undergraduate students moving directly to master’s study, without at least a few intervening years of professional work experience.

According to the long-running surveys of college freshmen from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA, more than 40% of entering college freshmen aspire to earn a master’s, and many universities have seen a marked decrease in the average age of entry into their graduate programs in recent years.

As a result, many universities have created “4+1” degree programs that link undergraduate and graduate study in an accelerated model. Unfortunately, many employers view these programs as little more than a sort of souped-up bachelor’s that creates greater expectations and entitlement among inexperienced recent graduates (though well-designed programs of this type certainly can add value). Employers’ conflation of work experience, maturity and acculturation with educational credential speak to the signaling value of education and the fact that a master’s degree can stand for more than simply a higher level of knowledge or skill.

This raises the question of what distinguishes a master’s-level graduate from a bachelor’s degree holder, beyond deeper disciplinary or technical knowledge. Many in higher education would point to: broader critical thinking abilities, higher levels of creativity, stronger communication or even leadership and business acumen. Indeed, interviews with human resources executives and analysis of job postings confirm that employers associate master’s degrees with higher-order communication, writing, leadership and problem-solving skills. Yet it is often difficult to distinguish, measure or document these general skills and abilities compared with discipline-specific knowledge. Hiring managers are eagerly using degrees to filter and sort the most promising candidates—and universities may find themselves needing to provide a graduate credential that operates at a higher level of resolution, involving a clearer articulation of outcomes. The many new businesses that are emerging in an attempt to address the challenge of certifying and publishing professional competencies are a sign of the gap in this area.

On a related note, universities have been deluged recently by prognostications that new forms of online credentials , certificates and assessments will disrupt the status of the degree as the coin of the realm in the professional job market. Many of the current university- and government-led experiments to provide alternatives to traditional higher education models (e.g., competency-based education and direct assessment) are typically being piloted at the undergraduate level.

Master’s-level educational programming—especially because it is typically shorter, more often professional in its focus, and more often pursued by students part-time—is also ripe for innovation. However, there is little evidence from research into the hiring practices of major companies suggesting that the master’s degree is in danger of being replaced anytime soon. Employers still see great value in the substantial and defined package of learning and perseverance that a master’s degree represents—especially over-and-above graduate-level coursework or short executive education experiences.

Nevertheless, as universities importantly innovate and experiment, there is an emerging risk that the proliferation of graduate-level programs using the same terminology—but representing very different levels of depth, breadth, and outcomes—will complicate understandings in the credentialing ecosystem. How does a low-intensity, MOOC-based “certificate” compare with a traditional, accelerated, or competency-based certificate or degree? As experimental forms of graduate credentials (or simply new models for master’s degrees) emerge, universities and others must be mindful of and communicate how these educational offerings compare to and articulate with each other, lest we confuse prospective students and the employers who hire our graduates.

The U.S. has the largest and most mature graduate degree ecosystem in the world. Our experiences and policies will have a worldwide ripple effect in today’s globalizing higher education market—and it is both our diverse and decentralized system of universities and our leading international corporations that set the global pace for how higher education intersects with the job market. As a result, it is imperative that university and policy leaders in the U.S. take a more proactive view of the master’s degree as a still-emerging but increasingly critical and desirable tool in economic development. The master’s degree deserves a more prominent place in the national dialogue about educational attainment and innovation in higher education, which may have implications for graduate education funding and financial aid frameworks, the tax-deductibility of employer-provided tuition assistance and the mechanics of occupational licensing and credentialing.

Master’s programs also merit greater attention within universities’ strategic plans that so often focus on undergraduate and Ph.D. education. Acknowledging the role played by the master’s degree in the economy will also mean revisiting assumptions about the utility of bachelor’s degree programs in certain fields, and have implications for career planning and advising. Finally, rather than relegating the notion of partnering closely with employers to community colleges and short-term workforce development activities, universities should engage in a more active dialogue and alignment with employers, recognizing that major companies have substantial pressing talent development and recruiting needs at the advanced educational level.

About Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher is chief strategy officer at Northeastern University. He recently completed his doctoral dissertation on the role of master’s degrees in the hiring practices of major U.S. employers. Northeastern University is a top-tier research university that offers high-demand graduate programs aligned with the needs of industries around the globe.

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