Are Master’s Degrees Worth It?

Years and years ago (it wasn’t that long ago) when I was in primary school, teachers would often try to scare us by saying (or yelling), “If you don’t learn this, you’ll have to learn how to ask, ‘Do you want fries with that?’!” Let’s leave aside the implication that there is no dignity in working as a cashier or line cook – different topic for a different day. But the point was clear: do well in school so that you won’t have to work as a line cook/minimum wage. You could be an astronaut or an engineer, so long as you did well in school.

Done. I got a high school diploma. I got a Bachelor’s degree. Now what? Long gone are the days that a Bachelor’s guaranteed a job that provided for a family of four, or three… or two… wait, I need roommates now to live in this crappy apartment?  Ah, so this is something us 29-year-olds (plus a few years) and younger understand really well:  I’m taking on student debt so I can get a degree that won’t get me a job. Perfect. Love it.

Around 1950, only 2% of Americans finished their Bachelor’s degrees. Today, it’s closer to 37% of the population who attain a BA. Finishing college may be important to us personally and for our families (“We’re so proud of you! The first one in the family to go to college!”), but in society, does it really have any real significance?  It’s just what we’re expected to do now. You finish high school and – if you don’t have pressing financial responsibilities that require you to get an hourly job or some connection that will get you a good paying job – you go to college. And even fewer Americans have advanced degrees, but that number is rising quickly too. Today, around 13% of Americans have at least a Master’s degree, and about 2% of them have doctorates. You notice something?  The same percentage of the population who had a BA in 1950 is about equivalent to the percentage of the population who has a PhD in 2020. “So what?” you ask. “Are you saying we’ll need a PhD to serve up fries one day?”  Not exactly, but you’re on the right track. Have you taken a look at job boards recently? One fast food chain (which we all know and love for their ::hint hint:: golden *ahem* fries) requires a BA to be a cashier if you live in certain major cities with a saturated market (too many workers, not enough jobs). Why hire someone with a high school diploma when you can hire someone with a BA to do the same job?  Turns out, that old threat my teachers used to make about working at a fast food joint actually requires a college education now. Go figure.  

So is an MA worth it? 

Ask yourself this: “How long am I going to be in the workforce?”  If you’re 20 years old, you’ll be in the work force for about 50 years.  Will a Master’s degree serve you well in the long run?  Yes. Yes, it will. Consider the number of people who are getting Bachelor’s degrees right now along with the fact that certain employers are making a BA (not just a high school diploma) the barrier to entry. I would not be surprised, within our lifetimes, to see that standard rise even more.

Can I afford a Master’s program? 

Maybe. A Master’s degree at a California State University will run you anywhere from $15,000-$24,000 (tuition + books).  Double that cost for research universities, like UW Madison, IU Bloomington, or UC Berkeley. What about those “prestigious, elite” schools?  $65,000 a year at UChicago, $50,000 at Harvard, and $55,000 at Princeton. I’m still going to urge you to apply to those top-tier schools! Here’s a little nugget of information I didn’t have when I was an undergraduate at CSU Northridge: top-tier schools often provide *merit-based scholarships/fellowships* in addition to financial-need scholarships/fellowships. As an undergrad, I didn’t even know merit-based scholarships were a thing. I just assumed that I would have to take out $100,000 in student loans to pay for my MA at some fancy school. A lot of top research universities will actually pay for part or all of your MA. For example, when I applied to UChicago, my application was good enough to get me a one-half tuition waver for the first year of my MA (that slashed the cost of my first year of tuition to $27,000 in 2011; it’s a bit higher now). It was one of the many reasons I chose to go to UChicago. For the second year of the program, my full tuition was waived because I had met the minimum GPA requirement from my first year. This is what merit-based scholarships do, and I had come out of a school system that never really discussed (or even had) them. Sure, there were and still are dozens of scholarships for students who are in this particular major or that particular club, but I had never come across a scholarship that would just pay for my tuition because I was a decent student. 

If you are like me and did your undergrad at a large commuter state school, it is natural to think of applying to the same system for a Master’s. It’s there. It’s convenient. But think of research universities as a vertical move. You’re paying (or maybe not, if you get the scholarships) to be part of an “elite” cohort for a short period of time, and being part of that cohort allows you to take advantage of the experience. You’ll have access to people, networks, and resources that are really only available to students at those types of universities. There would have been nothing wrong with the lateral choice for my MA (i.e. finishing up my BA at CSUN and then taking an MA from the same or a similar institution). I would have finished school with about as much debt as I had from UChicago, but I also would have forgone all of the opportunities that were afforded to me at a research institution. In my case, I used my MA to get into a doctoral program. Other students in my cohort went on to manage NGOs, become politicians (literally!), work at think tanks, teach at private schools, become museum curators, and the list goes on and on. The point being, a Master’s degree opens doors. A Master’s degree from a research university opens even more doors. But you have to be willing to actually take advantage of what is at your fingertips when you’re at one of those schools. The only way it’ll be worth it in the short term is to make it worth it by – yes – exploiting the resources available. Tuition isn’t $65,000 for nothing!  

The Upshot

Given the way our society is moving, it may be worth (for the long term) looking into a Master’s program. And more universities are beginning to recognize that Bachelor’s degrees are not enough of the leg up they once were, so they offer 5 year BA/MA programs. That’s one convenient (and potentially cheaper) way to go about getting an MA. But still, just look at some universities you think might be out of your reach – financially or otherwise. If you have that $80 or $100 to spend on the application, it may very well go in your favor. You might end up surprising yourself.  

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