YOU’VE READ THE HEADLINES:
Despite some improvement in job growth for recent college grads, many are still trying to adjust to post-Great Recession life. They’re out of work, working part time, or cobbling together some kind of living by walking dogs, cutting lawns, and painting houses while volunteering in their preferred fields and living in their parents’ basements.
But some of those with bachelor’s degrees, both new to the workforce and not, are coming to a perhaps counterintuitive solution: They’re spending more money, not less, banking their futures on further schooling in the form of master’s degrees, professional certificates, and non-matriculating adult education.
And that may be where the smart money lies. Many of the 4 million jobs currently open in the United States are vacant because there’s a skills shortage and a need for more highly educated workers, experts say. While a record third of Americans ages 25-29 have bachelor’s degrees, “there’s some credential creep going on,” says Heather O’Leary, a principal analyst for Eduventures, a Boston firm that offers consulting to colleges, universities, and the institutions that support them. “Forty years ago, a high school diploma was enough, and a bachelor’s degree was more for high-end positions. That has shifted. Now even for very basic administrative roles, employers are starting to prefer or require bachelor’s degrees. So now it’s a master’s degree that makes you stand out.”
According to Burning Glass, a workforce research company in Boston, 23 percent of job postings in the last 12 months require or prefer a master’s. And according to the US Census, only 8 percent of Americans 25 and older have one.
Whereas in the past, master’s degrees were considered an interim credential on the way to the doctorate level — or a consolation prize for those who didn’t make it — today they’re much more career focused and, like all postgrad schooling, they’re becoming increasingly specialized. “People are being told that in order to move to the next level,” says O’Leary, “they need to have a master’s degree. Without one, it will take you 15 years to get to that next level, and people with a master’s will pass you along the way. Or they’re looking to advance by changing disciplines, using a master’s to retool for that.”
DAVID BOIANO NEVER thought he’d want to be anything but a meteorologist. “I had always been interested in the weather,” he says, “so I thought, go for your passion and see if you can make something of it.” The Connecticut native studied atmospheric science at the University of California Davis, with a minor in communications, thinking it would help him land a job at a TV station. But after searching for an internship and “not getting any good feedback,” he concluded that meteorology “seemed like a very hard industry to break into.” So after a couple of years waiting tables in Los Angeles, Boiano returned to the East Coast for graduate school at Northeastern in an emerging field: geographic information systems, a blend of computer science and geography.
Boiano had learned a little about the field as an undergrad and says that “got the ball rolling in my head.” Later, with his master’s in hand and a year’s work experience with the city of Cambridge, he was recruited by the Boston Water and Sewer Commission at a higher starting salary than he’d ever expected. “I was nervous, because they said they wanted five years of experience in programming, and I really only had a year, if that, and it was while I was in school,” says Boiano, now 26. “But I think because of the master’s degree they put me a little above midrange in salary.”
Though he’s still just barely chipping away at his student loans — now higher, of course — he thinks school was worth the cost. “I would be miserable if I were still serving,” he says, recalling his restaurant days.
POSTGRAD EDUCATION is becoming more specific than ever in two ways. First, it’s increasingly specialized and geared toward the needs of industry. “A lot of what’s driving the growth in master’s programs is new fields that are emerging,” says Sean Gallagher, who works in enrollment and student affairs at Northeastern University. He cites areas like game design, social media, regulatory affairs, health care informatics, cybersecurity, and analytics as among those that might not have even existed a decade ago, much less required a master’s degree. Even more traditional programs, like the MBA, are becoming more focused. Schools such as Wharton and MIT’s Sloan School of Management, for example, now offer specialized MBAs or dual degrees in areas like real estate, sports management, biosciences, electronic commerce, and health care.
“That’s not to say there isn’t a group who want to pursue education for education’s sake,” says O’Leary, “but students are becoming more pragmatic for their reasons for education. There’s a much greater focus on outcomes than ever before, at both graduate and undergraduate levels.”
The second way education is being transformed is in the expanded variety of program structures, with options including but not limited to the traditional two- or three-year master’s, one-year accelerated master’s programs, certificate programs, community college courses, single courses at research universities, courses at for-profit training centers, informal “adult education” courses, and non-matriculating postgraduation programs for professionals such as the MIT Professional Education Advanced Study Program, which is a semester or year, full time or part time. The shorter time frame has advantages, says Clara Piloto, director of marketing and international business programs at MIT Professional Education. She cites a Brazilian student who recently spent a year in advanced study before going back home and changing careers. “He was thinking of [staying on and] getting an MBA,” she says, and the credits are usually transferrable. “But eventually he decided he’d invested less money and less time and still had access to labs, centers, students, and faculty. In the end, he felt he didn’t need an actual MBA. He had enough to go back and do something different.”
For those getting a master’s or professional degrees, financial aid, including loans, may be available at both the federal and state levels and from individual schools; many schools also offer scholarships.
Online education, too, has gained a lot of credibility in the past 10 years, with schools like Georgetown, Northeastern, and the University of Southern California jumping into the fray. “There’s a lot of quality behind online education today,” says Gallagher. “My experience with employers is that they’re even more open to it at the master’s level. When it’s the initial degree, they’re more skeptical, because online students will miss the acculturation process that’s part of college. But graduate students have already had that, so if they complete the courses, the degree is every bit as valid.”
David Boiano chose to study geographic information systems at Northeastern partly because the degree was “100 percent online,” he says. He didn’t have to leave California to pursue it but is glad he did. “Through Northeastern, I got an internship at a real estate company called LandVest in downtown Boston, which was beneficial to landing a job as a GIS technician with the city of Cambridge.” That, in turn, led to his current programming position.
BECAUSE THERE’S NO STANDARD definition of the term “continuing ed,” it’s impossible to do an apples-to-apples comparison of its economic benefits to individuals. But in 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics placed the jobless rate for those with a bachelor’s degree at 4.5 percent, while for those with a master’s it was 3.5 percent. Even better, earnings climb by an average of $234 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or around $450,000 over a lifetime of working, according to a 2010 Georgetown study. But not everyone who gets a master’s degree does it for the money.
“There’s a joke,” says Dr. Jane Liebschutz, an associate professor at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. “If you have an MD and you get an MPH, your salary goes down.” Still, for
Liebschutz, going back to school for a master’s in public health five years after her graduation from medical school was not about earnings potential. “I wanted to think more about populations,” she says, “think broader-picture about the work I was doing. A doctor can treat an individual patient, but if you really want to change things, you have to look at larger contextual issues.”
The example she gives involves smoking. “You can tell a patient to quit,” she says, “but if you make laws making it hard for adolescents to buy cigarettes and preventing people from smoking inside buildings, you’ve changed a population.”
Liebschutz, who now heads the general internal medicine academic fellowship program she attended at BU, always advises students to wait to get their master’s until they’ve worked a bit and can see where their long-term interests lie. “Having other work experience to bring to bear on it makes you understand how the master’s can be useful and helps bring a maturity level to how to use the degree and really take advantage of what you’re studying,” she says. That way, getting the degree is “really about long-term career satisfaction and sustainability.”
Sustainability was on Brian Bastarache’s mind, too, when he got his master’s in environmental management at Harvard Extension School. Since the mid-1990s, when he received his BS in wildlife and fisheries biology from UMass Amherst, he’s been teaching at the Bristol County Agricultural School, a public vocational high school in Dighton. He loves his job as chairman of the school’s Natural Resource Management Department and has no intention of leaving it, but admits “you can never be too sure of the future.”
“Let’s just say someday I’m no longer employed at the school for whatever reason,” he muses. “I wanted to have as many doors open to me as possible.” The MS, he maintains, helped him become a better academic writer and gave him research experience that he wouldn’t have had at his current job. All that is nice, but the best part of having the degree, which took him 5½ years to earn as a part-time student, is his personal satisfaction: “That’s what I was most happy about.”
Sarah Taylor, a senior aquarist at the New England Aquarium, agrees. After getting her undergrad degree in English and history at the University of New Hampshire, she worked as a graphic designer and studied photography in Italy before volunteering as a diver at the aquarium. “Right place, right time,” she says of the job she was soon offered when an employee took maternity leave. She, too, eventually went to the extension school because of the flexibility it offered, allowing her to get an environmental-management master’s at her own pace.
The degree, she says, may help her to find employment someday at an organization like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the World Wildlife Fund, though “the job I have now couldn’t be more fun and rewarding.” Still, she says, it has made her aware of new ideas and innovations in the field, given her access to leading professors, and ignited her enthusiasm just by connecting her with other students who were also there because they wanted to be. “It didn’t change my job,” she says, “but it changed me.”
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org .