Is the Master’s Degree the New Bachelor’s Degree?

By now, I think a lot of us have realized just how critical the graduate degree is to a career. A New York Times article called “Master’s Degrees Abound as Universities and Students See Windfall talks about the fast-growing numbers of master’s degree-earners and how this is turning into big business for a lot of campuses.

The California State University system has apparently added in a number of new master’s degree programs, and they’re not alone. For-profit schools have been catering to this surging demand for education for awhile, and one of them awarded nearly 25,000 graduate-level degrees last year. This isn’t meant to be critical of any profit that may be earned from the intense pressures on the work force to get a graduate degree. It’s simply an example of what many of us already know; the bachelor’s degree just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Back in the 70s, it’s probably safe to say that a bachelor’s degree put you well ahead of the pack, but well, we’re in the twenty-first century now. For 1970, the total enrollment in higher education institutions was about eight and a half million according to the National Center of Education Statistics.

In fall of 2005, seventeen and a half million students were enrolled in degree-granting institutions. At the graduate level, 2005 numbers show a doubling of enrollment compared to 1970; two point one million students filled up graduate rosters in 2005.

The emphasis on education and the continued development of increasingly specialized and niche jobs has facilitated the need for more educated individuals. Really, the information explosion that everyone has been talking about for the last decade has become a key contributor to it in my opinion.

The job market’s demands have pushed people to know more just to get in on the ground level much less to climb the career ladder or to push further ahead in any exploratory field, such as science. For instance, think about how much the study of genetics has expanded over the last twenty years with the human genome project and how much an individual needs to know now to get into the field. This isn’t just about a bunch of cross-pollinated pea plants anymore!

Seriously though, the traditional concept of a college student as the wet-behind-the-ears 18-year old schlepping off to a distant campus for a baccalaureate degree really is on the way out. That segment of the higher education populace will still be there, but professionals needing a flexible graduate degree program to take their careers to the next level may become the norm in higher ed. I think many campus schools know this, and I’d expect to see more and more distance learning options being provided by those traditional institutions. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see how this all shakes out, but depending on how the job market goes, I wonder if the next question may some day be, “When is it time to start getting that PhD?”

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