A Degree of Certainty

More college students will need a master's to stand out. But the decision to get one requires careful study.

When is graduate school worth it? Washington Post Magazine, cover story

BY CECILIA CAPUZZI SIMON, The Washington Post, February 18, 2012 >>

In early 2011, Ramsey Day was completing his 21/2-year tour as head of USAID's Montenegro office and evaluating his next job offer. The 36-year-old’s political career trajectory had been steep and fast. Starting in 2003, he had: served as an advance representative for Vice President Dick Cheney; worked on George Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign; won a political appointment to USAID’s Europe-Eurasia Bureau; been promoted to the bureau’s chief of staff, and then promoted again to chief of USAID’s Public Liaison Office.

With that track record, his successful stint in Montenegro, and his deep management experience, Day seemed positioned for advancement by almost any measure — any measure, that is, but his academic credentials. With a bachelor’s degree only, he was shut out of the running for positions at the next level of leadership in the U.S. Agency for International Development. His new assignment felt like it would be a step down: a post as general development officer in a remote area of Afghanistan, which (because it was also a move from civil to foreign service) came with a $50,000 pay cut — half of his Montenegro salary.

“That,” he says, “was not something I intended on doing.”

In a field that relies on technical expertise in specialties such as international economics, agriculture or democratic governance, and is dominated by those with advanced degrees, Day says his management skills took him only so far. He was a skilled problem solver who could identify development goals and assemble teams of experts to execute action plans in his host country, but he was doing it without the academic credentials. “I knew that at some point my lack of a master’s would catch up to me,” he says.

And so, instead of going to Afghanistan last year, Day went to graduate school. After weighing acceptance letters from American University’s School of International Service and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Day left the mountains of Montenegro in August and moved to Cambridge, where he is now halfway through a one-year master’s in public administration.

Day’s professional world may be specialized, but the circumstances that led to his enrollment in a graduate program are hardly unique. As Phillip Trella, assistant vice president for graduate studies at the University of Virginia, sums it up: “The bachelor’s degree is no longer the coin of the realm it once was. Thirty years ago, it distinguished you in the marketplace. That’s no longer so.”

For those who want to shore up their worth in their chosen profession, boost their salaries, switch careers or even simply wait out the bad economy while adding to their academic résumés, the case for earning a master’s degree is strong. Especially, it seems, if you aspire to work, or advance, in Washington. Twenty-eight percent of the over-25 population here has a master’s or PhD — more than any state, according to 2009 Census data.

The trend is similar elsewhere. Nationwide, the number of people enrolled in graduate school has risen steadily, an average 3.8 percent per year in the decade before 2010. In that year, in the thick of the recession, applications were up 8.4 percent, though first-time enrollment dipped slightly by 1 percent as employers pulled back on tuition reimbursement, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Graduate Record Examinations Board. Nevertheless, 2010 saw more than half a million graduates land in the marketplace with newly minted advanced degrees. Today, two in 25 people age 25 or older have a master’s as their highest degree — about the same number with a bachelor’s in 1967, according to the Digest of Education Statistics.

Part of this attraction is purely economic. In 2009, the median salary of a master’s degree recipient was 26 percent more than those who held a bachelor’s only, according to a report released last year from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

In every academic major group, more education resulted in more money. But field matters when assessing earnings boost and employment prospects, says Anthony Carnevale, the study’s author and the center’s director. Biology and life science majors were the most likely to earn graduate degrees and experienced one of the largest salary bumps with them (101 percent); arts majors and those in communications and journalism had the lowest, with 23 percent and 25 percent, respectively, and coming off of already low salaries. A master’s in a health-care profession is “like money in the bank,” Carnevale says.

Engineers experience a significant boost in compensation with master’s degrees that push them into management. Business majors — especially in finance, hospitality management and international fields — are in demand again after taking a hit early in the recession, and stand to increase already-high salaries by an average 40 percent with a master’s. Of the law and public policy majors group, 24 percent earn a graduate degree, however of public policy majors alone, 50 percent earn a graduate degree and experience a 107 percent earnings boost.

In some professions, such as teaching, social work or psychology, master’s degrees are becoming mandatory. The salary boost may not be high (the median salary for social workers with advanced degrees in 2009 was $55,000 compared with $40,000 for a B.A. only, according to the National Association of Social Workers), but master’s degrees are necessary to advance or get licensed.

Institution also matters in some fields. Graduates from top-ranked economics departments earned a median salary 46 percent greater than that of graduates from other programs in 2010, according to the National Association for Business Economics.

Carnevale says those younger than 35 are in the best position to maximize the investment of a graduate degree. On the other hand, workers in fields that now require a graduate degree to advance might be smart to earn one regardless of age.

Earnings potential is not the only factor in creating what Carnevale says has become a “presumption of graduate school.” A large part is also the consequence of “credential creep” because, well, just because everyone else is getting them.

Colleges and universities have added to this mind-set. Driven by business opportunities, political pressure, student interest and employer demands for a better-trained workforce, schools have been on a mission to attract more students and turn out more degrees.

Employers expect graduate education because they can, and academic bona fides help them narrow an ever-growing pool of applicants. The degrees also raise the level of organizational expertise necessary in a global marketplace.

So, should you go to graduate school? Aside from the obvious — that a master’s gives you specialized and substantive expertise — the degree also signals to employers that recipients can complete a demanding program and that they have already been vetted by an institution, says Charles Caramello, dean of the graduate school at University of Maryland. For the master’s recipient, institutional affiliation can, or should, present a professional network to tap into once in the labor market.

“There is an overall financial and job enrichment chain that happens the higher the education you have,” says Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

But academics and workplace experts add that there are no guarantees attached to a master’s, and it is not for everyone. “Just because the statistics say unemployment is lower with a master’s doesn’t mean you won’t be unemployed,” says Kristin Williams, George Washington University’s assistant provost for graduate enrollment.

She and Stewart advise those considering graduate school to do a cost-benefit analysis.

Part needs to be financial: How will you cover tuition? Will your expected salary make the degree worth the cost? Can you assume debt? More than half of those pursuing a master’s will borrow an average of $31,000. Can you attend full time, or do you need to keep working?

Part should be personal: Can your private life sustain the commitment in time and energy graduate study requires? Do you need to relocate? Are your ambitions a good intellectual fit with the degree you want?

Ramsey Day took stock before starting his degree but acknowledges feeling daunted by the $50,000 tuition (covered with loans), $30,000 in living expenses (he tapped into savings), the challenge of getting back into “an academic mind-set” after being out of school for years, and a personal life put on hold (“I’d like to be married and have children someday”).

Perhaps the most important part of the assessment is a hard look into one’s preferred field, Williams says: What are the jobs like, what is the employment outlook?

Schools also need scrutiny, with close attention paid to the fate of past graduates.

Sometimes, Williams says, prospective students discover they don’t need a master’s or that a couple of courses or a graduate certificate is sufficient.

Jonathan Tubman, vice provost for graduate studies at American University, says universities also have a stake in their programs’ marketplace outcomes. “There is incredible pressure to help students succeed,” he says. “It’s difficult to say to them, ‘Please borrow all this money and have faith that you’ll get a job after we graduate you.’ ”

Prospective students should expect a school’s support outside the classroom through an established professional network and targeted internships, says Robert Manuel, dean of the school of continuing studies at Georgetown. That’s the idea behind nine professional master’s degrees he created since arriving at Georgetown in 2006, which give students an opportunity to “test drive” a curriculum and turn it into a job.

LaRhonda Lombardi, 29, who graduated from Georgetown in 2010 with a master’s in professional studies in sports industry management and who is now manager of programs and administration for the Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics, says she doubts she could have landed the job without that approach or Georgetown’s local clout in a competitive field.

She was working as an administrator and lacrosse coach at the Maret School when she happened upon a description of the master’s in a Google search. The program is taught primarily by adjunct faculty members who are sports industry professionals, and it attracts big names. Two — Verizon Center vice president David Touhey and Mystics chief operating officer and Wizards’ executive vice president Greg Bibb — ­were Lombardi’s professors. Given the caliber of her instructors and the weekly “face time” with them, Lombardi says she “treated every class as a job interview.” After Lombardi completed an internship with the Tiger Woods Foundation in 2009, Bibb offered her a job in corporate sponsorship and ticket sales support with the Mystics the year before she graduated. She was promoted to management a year later.

Like Lombardi, many students are driven by their love for a field despite tough odds when it comes to employment or earnings.

For Tom Hardej, leaving his job at Hachette Book Group in New York City and pursuing a master’s in historic preservation at University of Maryland was a choice he made out of passion and after a hard look at his then-profession.

Having worked for four years as a book editor, a volatile business transformed by digital media, he says he “saw the writing on the wall.” Experienced colleagues were being laid off, and Hardej, now 30, was concerned with the pace at which he was advancing.

“I started thinking, ‘I could stay and do this a while longer, but what if I’m 40 and get laid off and have to reinvent myself?’ It would be easier to do that in my 20s,” he explains.

He decided to turn his love for history, and reputation for dragging friends to historical sites, into a job. He also decided he needed academic credentials to do it. Already committed to a move to Washington to close a gap in a long-distance relationship, he started his master’s in fall 2010. His dream job at the time? Work at the National Trust for Historic Preservation or the National Park Service. But, he now says, “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

Hardej’s degree, and the certificate in museum studies he will earn in May, makes sense for the interpretive or museum work he hopes to do, says David Field, assistant director for human resources at the Trust. But only a third of the Trust’s 280 jobs are directly related to historic preservation, he says, and turnover in coveted field positions is low. Though the occupation is expected to grow 20 percent in the next six years, competition will be tough because qualified applicants will outnumber job openings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, at the Trust, anyway, most jobs are filled by those with degrees in business, fundraising, marketing, accounting or nonprofit administration.

“Like any nonprofit these days, we are really looking for people with hard-core business skills,” Field says. So are a number of other industries, such as engineering, technology and the arts. (Nearly three-quarters of companies surveyed by the Graduate Management Admission Council say they plan to hire MBAs in 2012, up from 58 percent last year.)

Hardej is aware that he set himself on a precarious path. Nevertheless, he says the degree, as well as internships and a teaching assistantship, has given him the academic grounding he wanted and a broader view of his options for work. The median starting salary for someone with his credential is about $50,000. He’ll need that to pay back the $18,900 in-state tuition for the two-year degree.

Attending graduate school is a “calculated risk,” Hardej says.

“Many factors go into whether an education or a profession is a good fit. Salary is just one of them,” he says. “I wanted to do something I like.”

Still, he chuckles nervously when discussing his loans and facing the job market this spring.

“We’ll see how that goes,” he says. “I’m laughing about it now because I’m still in grad school.”

"Employers expect graduate education because they can, and academic bona fides help them narrow an ever-growing pool of applicants."