Your Bachelor's Degree No Longer Special


Recent college graduates are finding that the jobs a bachelor’s degree once promised have evaporated, meaning newly-minted BA’s are faced with the choice of going back to school or back to their parents’ couch. In larger numbers, recipients of bachelor’s degrees are choosing the former option.

Once derided as the consolation prize for failing to finish a Ph.D. or just a way to kill time waiting out economic downturns, the master’s is now the fastest-growing degree. The number awarded, about 657,000 in 2009, has more than doubled since the 1980s, and the rate of increase has quickened substantially in the last couple of years, says Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. Nearly 2 in 25 people age 25 and over have a master’s, about the same proportion that had a bachelor’s or higher in 1960.

Advanced degrees are now what’s called the “entry degree” for many jobs, which means that in order to be considered for that job managing personnel for a non-profit or teaching private school kids how to speak basic Spanish, you need at least a master’s degree.

While I’d hardly say that people going back to school right now aren’t waiting out an economic downturn or just delaying the onset of adulthood entirely (because, let’s face it: most jobs are terrible and I totally don’t blame people who want to stay in school forever and ever.), this seems to be the case for many people with liberal arts degrees facing a crappy job market.

Advanced degrees are also evolving to focus more on cultivating job skills rather than the formerly touted but difficult to articulate “thinking skills” advanced degrees used to purport to promote. One Florida education official remarked that they were trying to teach students about “on the job skills that real workers face.” (On the job skills that real workers face? Like knowing how to hit Alt-Tab to move away from an incriminating window when your boss walks by your cube? Like responding to people with ridiculous rainbow Comic Sans email signatures without signing off “Your Non-Idiot Colleague”?) Colleges and employers benefit from the expectation that every job seeker have a master’s, because employers get a highly trained workforce that they didn’t have to train and colleges fill their coffers with the outrageous tuition they charge for postgraduate work.

There are also too many people with bachelor’s degrees, and because of that, your degree is no longer special. At least, not to employers.

“There is definitely some devaluing of the college degree going on,” says Eric A. Hanushek, an education economist at the Hoover Institution, and that gives the master’s extra signaling power. “We are going deeper into the pool of high school graduates for college attendance,” making a bachelor’s no longer an adequate screening measure of achievement for employers.

So, in short, graduating class of 2011, you aren’t special and have to go back to school forever, where you will amass enough debt that you’ll have to work until you’re 80 to pay back the banks who loaned you the money to go to school. And the green grass grows all around, all around, and the green grass grows all around.

I’m moving to a cabin in the woods and tapping maple trees for sustenance. Who wants to come with me?

The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s [NYT]

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