Graduate School enrollment on the rise

Some candidates believe the master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree.

Hilary Dickinson

The number of master’s degrees awarded nationally has increased 55 percent since 1975, Doug Ernie, the associate dean of the Graduate School, said.

While some people have speculated that the master’s degree has become the new bachelor’s – meaning people need more education to succeed at the level the bachelor’s degree previously set – that’s not always the case, according to many academic officials.

“The master’s is the new bachelor’s, but only for the people with master’s,” said George Mehaffy, vice president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “Three-quarters of the population doesn’t have a master’s degree, so clearly there’s a lot of people out there functioning without one.”

Ernie said many entry-level positions don’t require a master’s degree. Most master’s students are working adults who went back to school to get a master’s degree, he said.

Bryce Merriman is one of them. He was limited in his job as a family care manager at a group foster home, and his supervisor encouraged him to go back to school for his master’s degree.

“She said, ‘This type of work is a fit for me, but in 10 years you won’t be satisfied doing care work,’ ” he said.

Now a second-year graduate student getting his master’s in social work, Merriman said he will advance further, make more money and be able to make administrative decisions.

Trends in the number of master’s degrees awarded often depend on the field of study, said Vicki Field, the director of the Office of Interdisciplinary Initiatives in the Graduate School.

From the 1975-1976 to the 2001-2002 school year, the number of master’s degrees awarded nationally increased in the areas of computer and information science, health science, business, communication, engineering, agriculture and education.

“In some of these fields, the nature of the work has become more complex, requiring a workforce trained at a more advanced level,” Field said.

The number of master’s degrees awarded decreased in other areas, including physical science, biological and life sciences, social sciences and English.

But while advanced training is important in many careers, Mehaffey said it’s not always a master’s degree that provides it.

For example, the School of Nursing is replacing the master’s degree with the doctor of nursing practice degree in 2011 to create a more demanding degree, said Linda Lindeke, director of graduate studies in the School of Nursing.

But master’s degrees can still be lucrative, Ernie said.

“On average, people with master’s degrees tend to hold jobs that have more diversity,” he said. “There’s more satisfaction with their work, they have more responsibility and they can advance further in their profession.”

In addition, Ernie said there is a high student demand for master’s degrees because of the increase in earnings potential. Depending on the field of employment, a person with a master’s could make $11,300 more a year than someone with a bachelor’s degree.

Mary Gaffney, a senior in the Inter-College Program with focuses in biological sciences and business management, plans to go to graduate school in 2009 to get her master’s degree in nursing.

“The bachelor’s is the beginning of the learning process and the master’s will pull it together,” she said.

She also said she’ll be in a better place for the job market because the graduate school-level classes will show employers she put in more intensive study and invested more.

But Merriman said people looking at a master’s degree should consider what, exactly, it is that they want from it.

“You shouldn’t just get a master’s degree because it opens up jobs,” he said. “That’s part of it with me, but if you’re going to invest something past your undergrad it should be something that’s important to you because it’s going to mean that you’re a better professional.”