Have master’s degrees gone too far? A critique and a discussion

Have master’s degrees become a problem?

Last week New America’s education policy leader Kevin Carey gave an interview to Slate.  In it Carey and his interlocutor, Jordan Weissmann, argued that American master’s degree* programs have been corrupt and dangerous in many cases. It’s a powerful claim against one thriving part of higher education, and Carey is both smart and influential, so I’d like to explore it here.

A little background: I kicked off a Twitter discussion about the topic with a thread yesterday as well as a LinkedIn post, so I’m going to build on what I said then.  I’m also going to include thoughtful and useful replies, which makes this a kind of networked or multi-voiced post (which I love).  Additionally, I’ll share as much linked content as a can for readers who can’t get past various paywalls.

More background: if the term “master’s degree” is unfamiliar, it refers to an advanced academic degree midway between undergraduate or bachelor’s (like a bachelor or arts) and a PhD.  Most are master of arts (MA) or master of science (MS), along with specialties such as master of fine arts (MFA).  The history of master’s degrees is actually interesting; Wikipedia gives a start.

In recent years people have been taking more master’s degrees and for a set of reasons.  There is a lot of social backing behind the drive to get an MS/MA, starting with increasing credentialism – i.e., more requirements or recommendations for master’s degrees to be considered more jobs.  There is also a growing number of people with bachelor’s degrees; a master’s outcompetes them on the labor market.  Hence the expression “the master’s is the new bachelor’s degree.”  Then there’s the overall education gospel, the idea that more post-secondary education is a good thing for people (hat tip to Tressie McMillan Cottom in her essential book Lower Ed).

Combining these forces means rising demand for master’s programs, even while undergrad enrollment declines, even during COVID-19. (In fact, Josh Kim once cited rising MA/MS programs as an argument against my peak higher ed model.) In some cases master’s programs are profit centers, helping prop up the rest of an institution.  As Rob Gibson observed on Twitter,

This can mean a great deal of financial temptation for colleges and universities, as Stephen Landry notes.

Now, on to the Carey/Weissmann interview.   The gentlemen begin by recognizing the growth of master’s programs, then casting this as a problem. As Weissman puts it in a statement/question: “master’s degrees are basically the biggest scam in higher education, and it seems like prestigious nonprofit universities are in on the grift along with for-profits…”  Carey agrees with this, with one caveat:

Probably the biggest scam in higher education remains one-year certificates offered by shady for-profit colleges that cost, like, $25,000 and don’t lead to a job. Master’s degrees are probably No. 2. Certainly, within the confines of colleges that are not legally for-profit, they are the biggest scam by far.

Why are they a scam?  One major problem is that while MA/MS programs are more job-focused than BA/BSes, they do not have the same expectations of transparency about success rates.  It’s harder to find information about post-graduation career prospects in these programs, as opposed to undergrad degrees, say the discussants:

If you’re offering bachelor’s degrees… [y]ou have to publicly publish your acceptance rates, your average SAT scores, so to the extent that you’re selling selectivity, you actually have to back it up with data, whereas in the master’s degree market, you can call almost anything a master’s degree. Master’s degree programs do not have to publish their admission statistics, which creates, I think, an enormous temptation for institutions that have very attractive brand names, that are attractive in no insignificant part because their undergraduate programs are very selective, to open up the floodgates on the master’s side and pay no penalty in the market because people don’t know they’re doing it.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of this problem are master’s in the creative arts, since they cost a lot and do not often reward that investment, as careers in the arts usually don’t pay well.  Carey acidly notes that “[t]he phrase starving artist exists in the vernacular for a reason.”  In support of this he and Weissmann refer to a recent Wall Street Journal article where Melissa Korn and Andrea Fuller found several first-tier universities offering programs whose graduates sometimes were unable to pay off their student debt:

WSJ elite MA arts programs debt to income 2021 July

You can see that not all degrees are failures.  The points clustered on the graph’s left side are success stories, at least in financial terms.  Yet enough points occur to the right to make the reader concerned, as they show people for whom the MA/MS promise failed, yielding instead a lifetime debt burden.

That debt produces another problem for Carey.  He argues that students can take out more federal loans for graduate study than they could for undergraduate classes, which worsens to broader student debt crisis.

If you are an undergraduate, you can only borrow a certain amount of money from the federal government to go to get a bachelor’s degree, and that’s very specifically because they don’t want people to overborrow. In graduate school, you can borrow not only the full cost of tuition, but also room, board, living expenses, which, in a city, could be tens of thousands or more dollars per year, regardless of how much money you already owe to the federal government, by the way, and regardless of whether you have any real prospect of paying it back…

In other words,

[Y]ou’re essentially creating an unlimited spigot of money that can be used to fund graduate programs, which just creates an enormous moral hazard for colleges and universities when it comes to creating these programs.

So debts rise, which can blight the lives of those graduates who don’t follow careers fortunate enough to generate enough money to pay them off.

Carey then adds a fascinating extra charge, which is to rethink the identity of these MA/MS programs.  Despite being housed within non-profit universities, they aren’t non-profit enterprises.  That’s because many colleges and universities rely on corporations to help offer those masters programs, and give them hefty chunks of the revenue. In other words, some master’s programs are basically for-profit degrees concealed by a non-profit’s logo.  Last year Carey published a very detailed breakdown of the role OPMs play in non-profit higher ed program operations, which I recommend.

On Twitter Weissmann chimed in on this point:

On a moral level, interviewer and interviewee see these for-profit enterprises are clearly exploitative. They exact money from students to provide revenue for the broader campus:

[T]he numbers have to add up somehow, and right now they’re just not adding up for the students. They’re adding up for the colleges. The only defense the colleges really have to offer is “We need the money.”

As a result, Carey argues for a change in federal policy.  If the reality is one of grift and scamming, as Weissmann put it, then redress is required. “I think any master’s program should be treated as for-profit and regulated that way. ”

What should we make of this argument?

There’s a lot of truth to it as presented, especially the damning Wall Street Journal story.  When I shared this interview many responses agreed with it.  For example, Trace Urdan sees outsourcing MA/MS operations to companies as speeding up the growth of programs, although he wants to protect the for-profit nature of those partnerships:

Carrie Saarinen observed “the sudden swell in online EdD programs and ads targetting ABD students to finish their degree… the EdD is the new MBA. Keep an eye on that trend.”

If Carey and Weissmann are correct, then there should be a greater need for consumer information about these increasingly problematic programs.  As Jeanne Eicks notes,


At the same time there has been some pushback to the Carey/Weissmann critique. David Rosowsky argues that the case is overstated, since the need for MA/MS credentials is real, based on changing technical and social conditions.  Moreover, many programs are good:


Some people defended master’s programs they participated in. Brad Garrison offered a personal anecdote of how his education MA boosted his career:

Mike Sellers described a gaming undergraduate degree he leads as so intense an MA version might be appropriate:

I can add my own anecdote of teaching in a Georgetown master’s program.  My colleagues there offer superb classes and student support.  The students are awesome and go on to supercharged careers.

Meanwhile, Matt Holt offered several counterarguments on LinkedIn.  He sees the critique as too broad: “I am tired of news articles that paint with an overly broad brush.” He asks what a new pricing level might look like. “Should we give away online M.S. degrees because they apparently have no value? … What is a FAIR price (ahh, the age old question)?”  Then he raises the fact of lower cost, high quality programs available online:

Want an M.S. in computer science from Georgia Tech (a program easily in the top ten CS programs in the U.S.)? You can do it online for approximately $7,700. Same with an online M.S. in analytics at Georgia Tech. Want an MBA with stackable credentials from a notable Big Ten school. Complete the University of Illinois’s iMBA (and yes, partnered with Coursera) for $22,000. These costs hardly strike me as being usurious.

I would add another note.  To the extent that these graduate programs support or even subvent the money-losing undergrad ones, there might be an interesting connection to the rising discount rate.  That is, successful MA/MS programs allow a campus to keep elevating that undergraduate tuition discount.  If the former gets checked, what kind of pressure hits the latter?

Overall, what does this critique of master’s degrees mean for the future of higher education?

It’s early to tell how much of an impact it might have.  On the one hand, I might be making too much out of a Slate molehill.  That site does like to offer contrary and provocative articles as part of its business model.  And regulators at both state and federal levels might be too preoccupied with other issues to delve into this sub-sub-subset of education policy.

On the other hand, Kevin Carey is a major thinker in higher ed.  Jordan Weissmann is a high profile economics journalist. The Wall Street Journal is, of course, a major outlet for people thinking about business.  Seeing this critique surface suggests that some might be taking it seriously.

Keil Dumsch adds to this:

I would add the possibility of political partisanship.  American Republicans are already far more skeptical of higher ed than are Democrats. They could seize Carey/Weissmann as another stick with which to beat the academy.

Perhaps we’re observing the start of an anti-master’s backlash.  It could occur on the federal level.  States might also play a role, as Bobbe Baggio noted on LinkedIn, asking about California legislation against OPMs.  Also on that thread Matt Holt pointed to Virginian regulations.

If the analysis convinces enough people and the remedy (regulation) kicks in, then some of those programs will shrink or disappear, and others become more expensive to offer.  That would cut back on the internal profits they provide their institutions, which adds some financial stress to those universities.  Not to them all:

We could also see total enrollment in master’s programs drop, in an echo of how for-profit enrollment collapsed when the Obama administration started pressuring that sector.  In which case we might experience a version of peak higher ed: peak master’s degrees.

What do you make of this critique?

(thanks to Twitter discussants Alice Daer, Keil Dumsch, Jeanne Eicks, Charles Findlay, Brad Garrison, Rob Gibson, Stephen Landry, William Pannapacker, David Rosowsky, Mike Sellers, and Trace Urdan. Thanks as well to LinkedIn respondents Bobbe Baggio, Matt Holt, and Carrie Saarinen.)

*Has anyone challenged the term “master’s degree” as racist yet?  The term predates American slavery, but the resonance could be galling.  Two Ivy League universities already ended their use of the term “master” in a related context.



Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in economics, enrollment, future of education, higher education. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Have master’s degrees gone too far? A critique and a discussion

  1. Matt Holt says:

    As I think about this topic some more, there is another possibility. I wonder if the truly elite institutions with international operations could simply decide to run online M.S. programs from offshore locations. They would likely still be subject to oversight if students are taking federal loan money to participate. But if the regulation becomes too onerous, could we see “online M.S. production” start to shift to offshore locations? Maybe …

  2. Glen McGhee, Dir., FHEAP says:

    Kevin Carey misses important context — the fact is, masters degrees are the new bachelors — and more astute historiographers of higher education recognize this as the result of credential inflation.

    The arms race in credentials is the engine that’s pushing this right-tail distortion in degree attainment. It’s a distortion — let’s face it!
    And without it, schools would not be motivated to exploit the hunger of the masses for yet more and more advanced degrees; and students wouldn’t risk even more debt in the credential lottery.

    Without this defining context, Korn’s diagnosis falls short — resulting in Racist outcomes and other moral failings. We need to be asking: What degrees do people actually need for access to a steady job with promotion potential? Once this baseline is factored in, the cost and harm of credentialism is more apparent.

    Another point that Carey avoided is the fact that $500 BILLION dollars of federally guaranteed student loans will never be paid back — not ever! This has already happened. About one-third of which is from graduate loans — a disproportionately large amount lost through severe derogatories (i.e., student loan defaults).

    This much is missing from the conversation about Korn’s biased chart — it’s not just a few producers, but a sector-wide problem that policy moves over the decades have only made worse. And will continue to make worse, until they can’t anymore.

    Masters degree production will peak once the credential-bubble bursts. Graduate tuition is not and has never been a market-set number, and there is no simple mechanism to work through price cuts. Without generous federal funding to fuel the inflation bubble, it bursts.

  3. Glen McGhee, Dir., FHEAP says:

    And I also don’t hold out any hope of the regulatory environment tightening up anytime soon.
    There’s a NACIQI meeting coming up soon, and it’s a complete mess.

    Here’s Shireman trying to avert disaster:

  4. Phil Katz says:

    Another missing piece of this discussion is the sorry state of “traditional” master’s degrees in many disciplines, whether those designed as stepping stones to doctoral degrees or as “terminal” degrees. Years ago, I wrote a report about this for the American Historical Association, noting the unclear purposes, undefined learning outcomes, mixed career prospects, profit motives, and elitism of many masters programs (https://bit.ly/3rijy4W). The subsequent Tuning Project (https://bit.ly/3zi2qiH) did some excellent work in defining learning outcomes at the master’s level, but master’s programs in the liberal arts still need much more attention than they typically receive.

  5. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    CORRECTION: The Urban Institute (2016) found that Graduate debt constitutes 46% of overall student loan debt load but only 26% of the debtors. This is a trend, indicative of worsening credential inflation.

  6. Sowmyan says:

    Hi Bryan,
    I hope my random comment does not distract the main discussion. As an Indian living in India and watching education scenarios here as an observer, I am taking some leaps. The OPMs offering online education are perhaps targeting students in other countries. The target student for these OPMs may also be in the USA, but their long term target may be foreign students. Thus they may be trying to grow the pie. Many students in low income countries may not be able to afford campus admission in reputed universities at full fees. The living expenses would add to their total expense substantially. In their respective countries, online education from reputed institutions may be valued. You may want to look at data related to country of origin of students enrolled with the OPMs.

  7. Jason says:

    I think a subset of this discussion is M.Ed. degrees. In several (many?, mostly unionized) states, Master’s degrees automatically equate to pay raises based on the contract. In addition, states mandated additional continuing ed for new teachers, either through college credits and/or CEUs (or whatever acronym for hours of PD). Early in my career, every new teacher needed 18 credit hours for their first renewal; you could do CEUs afterward. For many teachers it was a no-brainer…get the M.Ed. to recertify and get a pay raise.

    The comment from the tweet about the M.Ed. was spot on in my day. However, with spiraling tuition costs, depleted CBAs, and stagnant wages, the notion isn’t so lucrative. Further, some states eliminated their college credit requirements (i.e., CEU-only pathways to recertification).

    In some areas, this led to a massive decline in M.Ed. enrollment, which, next to the MBA, was the biggest cash cow for some universities. Hence, other colleges were encouraged to develop more grad programs to compensate (and put them online, too)!

  8. What a good discussion! Adding my 2 cents: masters programs could and should be relying heavily on evidence-based pedagogies for the wide variety of adult learners. Faculty teaching in these masters programs are like well-trained faculty teaching in online programs: assuming they teach on campus, too, the masters programs can indirectly drive improvement in undergraduate programs.

    Second, masters programs ought to share the goals of undergraduate programs rather than implicitly assuming that essential undergraduate capabilities such as critical thinking in using their advanced knowledge, ethnical reasoning, communications skills, and collaborative competencies are already up to part in students admitted to masters programs.

    Programs meeting standards such as these would not be scams.

  9. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    I would not hold out hope for regulatory changes. Quality has always been a matter of self-regulation and peer review, and Congress lacks any motivation to regulate yet another sector. The last hope is NACIQI, which is meeting next week, but it’s a mess.

  10. Keil Dumsch says:

    Bryan, thanks for linking to my tweet on this.

    I have said and written it time and again on other forums, and I’ll write it again here. Reform is impossible until we get rid of the degree system, a disastrous concept from the Middle Ages that everyone seems to treat as an unalterable reality.

    Certainly we want people to use colleges and acquire the knowledge they get in degree programs. But degrees of all types are too expensive, their learning model is flawed, and their use in hiring causes a whole host of problems. Rosowky’s (jobs are more complex, therefore we need advanced degrees) and Garrison’s (anecdotal “I got a lot out of my own degree”) defense of masters don’t get at the core issues of the astronomical expense and debt. Kevin Carey’s reforms don’t get at this either.

    As long as master’s degrees are a de facto or de jure requirement for employment or advancement, people will keep pursuing them and the costs will be too high.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *