The new learning credential standard. (Your bachelor’s degree is so last century.)
The new learning credential standard. (Your bachelor’s degree is so last century.)
By David Hodes
If you are one of millions looking for a job, you have had to embrace changes forced on you by a turbulent economy driving you to get employed, stay employed and move up in your chosen field of work. To succeed in today’s business, to make the money you expect to make, to support yourself or a family trying to survive, or even just get a foot in the door, you have to have an advanced degree.
And that means more “arrows in your quiver,” according to David Breneman, professor of Economics of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, and the former dean of the Curry School of Education. “There is some truth to the statement that today’s master degree is yesterday’s bachelor’s degree,” he says.
The bachelor’s degree that automatically qualified a graduate for the pool of new hires in almost any professional business a decade ago has lost some of its luster in a world that’s more competitive, an economy that’s more global and a job market with new fields of studies populated by more highly trained specialists. A master’s degree has quickly become the new basic prerequisite.
“Supply creates demand,” Breneman says. “In other words, if people start coming forth with master’s degrees, it is probably easier to use that as a kind of criteria in a job advertisement saying master’s degree preferred,” he says. “That doesn’t exclude people with a bachelor’s degree, but you are sort of tipping your hand.”
People with bachelor’s degrees have a sense that getting a job in this economy will not be easy and are deciding to stay in school longer now, according to Steve Rose, senior economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “That has been an effect we have seen in recessions over and over again,” he says. It’s not simply the education progression of keeping on going through school until you stop, then going to work and never going to school again, he says.
“A sizable number of people are coming back now for their master’s because they realize that they need it for that credential to get the supervisor job, for example,” he says.
Rose says that he has been involved in a lot of hiring decisions, and there is no question that there is a sorting process involving master’s degreed applicants. “A lot of what people are doing in the hiring process is a first cut kind of a thing,” he says. “They say ‘Well, that person with a master’s is more likely than not to be better than someone without an advanced degree.” For some people who don’t have that advanced degree, that is a real barrier to their entry into lots of jobs, he says. “They just have to get lucky that the company sees something special in them.”
Mary Schilling, director of the Cohen Career Center at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, says that she has heard people say that the biggest value of their master’s of business administration program was that it got them into the Wharton network or the Harvard network of MBA’s. “And that network of your cohorts becomes your network going forward when you are seeking job promotions or advancements,” she says.
Schilling says if you have a master’s degree like an MBA, that will get noticed by an employer—but it’s not enough. “Once they get that position in the company, they still have [to excel] in their performance,” she says. “They have to show leadership. It’s more of an MBA-plus then, where you have to have communications skills and problem-solving skills and conflict management skills—all those things that go above and beyond the general MBA type of credential to really move up in business.”
Master’s degree programs today are built around workforce needs in general. They are not just the stepping stone to a doctoral degree that they once were. MBA’s are common, but leveling off, according to a 2012 survey by the Graduate Management Council on prospective students. Today’s master’s degree student is already working, but wants a better paying job in a more specific field of study.
At George Mason University, where there are over 100 graduate degree and certificate programs, one of the newest master’s programs is information security and assurance.“This new program was brought forward because of industry needs,” Michelle Marks, associate provost for graduate education at GMU, says. The program teaches students core competencies in operating systems and networks to examine ways of providing secure information processing systems. “Cybersecurity is incredibly relevant to all industries—government, for profit—and this degree essentially fills a workforce need to develop both the technical and leadership talent in that area.”
Another master’s program at GMU is in epidemiology and biostatistics, based on the growth of information technology and data collection. It was designed to prepare health scientists to work in health-related government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, research hospitals, public health agencies, and other health-related organizations that need to analyze data and design experiments for medical and public health research.
Schilling says that one of their more unusual programs is a master’s of marine sciences taught at their School of Marine Science, a 35-acre campus and living laboratory of inland marshes, tidewater bays and open ocean. “It’s built on our own environment because the kind of research we do can be significant for not just professional development but also to make a contribution to the problems facing the Chesapeake Bay or the water problems in that area.”
With the marketplace demand for master’s degreed workers spiking, and with the educational institutions creating programs that are meeting the demand, now it’s a matter of making master’s programs available to a student population that, for the most part, is working a full-time job. For example, the average age of a graduate student at William and Mary is 38, with 16 years of work experience. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), over two-thirds of graduate students are working when they start their graduate studies. Within three months after graduation, over 90 percent are employed.
There are generally four ways to get a master’s degree. A student can give up their full-time job and devote two years to get their degree. The goal with that kind of all-in plan is to get the master’s from a well-known and regarded institution so that the master’s degree will make a significant difference when rejoining the workforce, enabling bigger opportunities and a chance to advance more quickly.
The most common option scenario is where a student works full time and gets their master’s part time, carrying the burden of additional stresses of work, travel for work and more time away from family over a longer period of time.
Reacting to that option, some institutions are offering flexible scheduling arrangements or accelerated and compressed master’s programs to shorten the time it takes to get a master’s. For example, UVA has promoted five-year, two-degree master’s programs that have been quite popular, according to Breneman. There is even talk of a four-year, bachelor’s and master’s degree program. The UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy offers five dual-degree master’s of public policy programs with other campuses, including a MPP and Juris Doctor, with the University of Virginia; a MPP and MBA, with the Darden School of Business; and a MPP and Ph.D., with the Curry School of Education. “I think there have been a lot of universities that have seen this as a desirable way to give people one extra credential or, in some instances, a professional credential, and do it with a year less time input,” Breneman says.
Lynn Richardson, dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington, says that the university is looking at ways to adjust the pre-MBA qualifications to get more people into the program sooner and get them out into the workforce quicker. “This is trying to be realistic about people’s lives today,” she says. “But we also want to make sure that we are still relevant and have taught them the basic core competencies that people need, and basically make them equal to anybody else’s MBA program in terms of what they are learning.”
Option three, offering a greater degree of flexibility and becoming more popular, is the face-to-face/online hybrid programs. These are graduate programs where the greater percentage of class teaching time is spent in a brick-and-mortar campus classroom, and a smaller percentage is spent online at any location.
Richardson says that with hybrid programs, which are not as available yet in brand name institutions, the educational experience is going to be very similar. “At a brand name program you get a good education, but as much as anything else you are buying the cache of the name and the networking opportunities,” she says. “So it really does depend on what your needs are.”
Carole Anne Kochhar-Bryant, senior associate dean for George Washington University, says that GWU has been making flexibility adjustments for a couple of decades. “We really do target those individuals who are currently working full time, who are mature professionals, who have families and are juggling a lot of things,” she says.
Most of their classes are in the evening, where they added special, accelerated weekend courses that might have students coming for hour-blocks of classes on Friday or Saturday to get their credits. These classes might run for four weekends, she says.
Kochhar-Bryant says that GWU has been cautious in their approach to online learning, choosing to not go “headlong” into it as some other programs have. “We have wanted time to assess and begin in a graduated fashion where we begin to offer some courses online, and we assess how well students do in those courses,” she says. “We found that some courses don’t work as well with students, particularly at the master’s level.”
GWU has found that students in courses featuring research methodology and highly technical courses would prefer doing some of those courses face-to-face and were willing to come to campus.
Then there is a fourth option for getting the master’s—all online. Offering the ultimate flexibility in getting a master’s degree, fast-growing institutions like the University of Phoenix and Strayer University that promote 100-percent online degrees have caught the attention of brand name institutions.
But these name brand institutions are very cautious about offering the online-only route. “The trouble with these outfits is that they are pushed by Wall Street,” Breneman says. “And if they aren’t generating the kind of growth that Wall Street expects from them, they get pressured to do some questionable things and periodically slip up.”
Traditional institutions have been slower to jump into this online world, he says, in part because there have been a variety of ventures that didn’t pan out. “I would say ‘caveat emptor,’” he says. “It’s hard to figure out which ones are worth your time and money and which are not.”
Schilling says that William and Mary offers a great degree of flexibility, with a full-time MBA program, a part-time MBA program and a flex MBA program. “You try to accommodate people who can’t just afford to quit their job and get a master’s degree and want to do it simultaneously with working full time.”
But as far as online-only learning there? There is certainly more credibility in that type of delivery now than a few years ago, she says. “But is that the best way to get an advanced degree? No, probably not,” Schilling says. “Given the options available like the timing, the costs, the locations available, it could very well be that those women and men who learn well in a self-paced electronic fashion could be well-served by some of those programs.”
A master’s degree, once just another step in academia for a few on their way to a doctorate, has quickly become the new, best way to get a better job. According to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, a master’s degree holder will earn nearly double of someone with just a high school degree over a lifetime, averaging approximately $70,000 a year.
It used to be that the high school degree was the pinnacle of educational achievement back in the agrarian society, Richardson says. Fast forward just a bit, and it was a bachelor’s degree. These days, it’s a master’s. “It’s become the next stretch degree that people have now. The master’s degree is the differentiator now. It’s expected in many organizations in order for you to get ahead. You have to have it.”