Are Graduate Degrees Worth The Cost?

Many workers are considering whether a masters or doctorate degree will provide a competitive edge. Host Michel Martin explores the costs and benefits of getting one. She talks with Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. He was recently profiled in The Washington Post Magazine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Academy Awards are this weekend and if your ticket, like mine, somehow got lost in the mail, we'll ask about who else may be feeling left out of the Oscar party.

Film director Reginald Hudlin tells us more about how the makeup of Academy members and their lack of diversity affects which movies and stars are recognized. That's in a few minutes.

But, first, it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, the magazine turned its focus, as it does periodically, to an issue that touches all of our lives and that we care a lot about. It's education.

The magazine took a look at graduate school. It is expensive. It's time consuming, but a graduate degree can mean a big boost in salary. And that may be one reason why enrollment in graduate school is the highest it's been in decades, jumping 25 percent from the year 2000 to the year 2009, which is the latest number available from the federal government.

But some people are now questioning whether a graduate degree is actually worth the cost. To help us answer that question, we called upon Anthony Carnevale. He is the director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University and he was one of the people interviewed for the Washington Post piece and he's with us now.

Thank you so much for joining us.

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: Thanks for asking me.

MARTIN: So give us an idea, if you could, of who these graduate students are. Is there some trend? Are they people in their 20s, 30s? Do they tend to be men, women, professional schools?

CARNEVALE: They tend to be people who come from the more affluent families in America. They are the people who, 40 years ago, would have been the people who got the bachelor's degrees and now they've moved on to graduate degree as the ante for good jobs continues to go up.

MARTIN: And when you say that the ante for good jobs continues to go up, are you suggesting that these degrees aren't really required for these positions? There isn't specific training that a graduate degree confers? I mean, I think most people would agree that an M.D., which is a graduate degree, is pretty much a requirement. I mean, I wouldn't necessarily want Joe-says-he's-a-doctor operating on me, but apart from that...

CARNEVALE: In general, what's happened in the labor market is that occupational skills are more and more important and more and more lucrative. In graduate degrees, almost universally, that is probably 80 percent of graduate degrees, prepare you for a specific occupational role and, as the requirements in occupations go up, employers prefer people with graduate degrees.

MARTIN: I did want to ask, though, how much of the increased enrollment in grad school is related to the economic downturn - that people are going to grad school because they can't get a job and they think it's a way to, in essence, ride out the recession? It's kind of an expensive way to ride out the recession, but do you think that that's part of it?

CARNEVALE: Whenever we have downturns, enrollment in college and in graduate schools does tend to go up. The issue gets to be, when we come out the other side of the recession, how many people will actually finish. But in general, it is worth it. On average, a graduate degree in America is worth about $400,000 over a 40 year career.

MARTIN: Well, that sounds like it is worth is, but I want to go back to something you said at the beginning of our conversation, which is that the people who go to grad school tend already to be affluent. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

CARNEVALE: The American education system, especially after high school, has become more and more stratified. That is, it is more and more the case that whiter and more affluent students complete more and more years of schooling and non-white and lower income students tend to complete fewer.

So part of the sorting process in the United States is the post-secondary education system. It is disturbing to the extent that post-secondary education - or education after high school - how much you get and what you get it in, pretty much determines what your career prospects are.

MARTIN: You know, we talk about gaps early in the education process. We tend to talk about achievement gaps in, say, elementary school and in secondary school. And what I'm interested in is whether what you've called credential creep or this growing preference for graduate degrees - does that reinforce a gap that already exists? Or does it help women and minorities and people who have been left out before - does it help them compensate for existing gaps or does it just reinforce it?

CARNEVALE: The increasing demand for education - college and graduate - is a dilemma. Education in America is a way towards opportunity. It promotes opportunity, but it has become, increasingly, a barrier to opportunity because it holds people out of particular occupations in the labor market and the increase in the demand for graduate school has made that stratification worse.

MARTIN: One of the other things I was interested in, is that you've talked about the fact that people with a graduate degree tend to be able to earn more over time. Does it almost always work that way? Because I'm thinking about people in fields like social work and elementary and secondary teaching, which are not known to be highly compensated. Does it work that way, as well, that a master's degree or a graduate degree improves your earnings over time?

CARNEVALE: Rule number one in choosing colleges and programs, graduate or undergraduate, is that what you take will determine what you make. So, there is wide variation. So, for instance, among master's degrees, you'll only earn a few thousand dollars more if you get a master's degree in the arts. If you get a master's degree in chemistry after getting a BA in chemistry, you'll earn $30,000 to $40,000 more. So it's all in the subject matter and the way it connects to the labor market.

MARTIN: We're talking about why so many more Americans are studying for graduate degrees and whether that work and the cost pays off in the end. My guest is Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. He was quoted in this week's Washington Post magazine, which focused on education. This was one of the issues that the magazine focused on.

Is there any way in which the preference for graduate education - is there any part of that that is a reflection of a lack of quality education prior to the graduate level in the same way that we see a number of colleges and universities increasingly are offering courses in remedial writing or writing and some would argue are basic skills that should have been mastered before that? Is there any way in which educational deficits are just being pushed along?

CARNEVALE: There's a temptation to think of graduate school, and even the bachelor's degree, as compensation for poor education. That is, we're getting more and more graduate degrees because the people who get bachelor's degrees are less and less skilled - and that's not true. People who get bachelor's degrees are, in fact, more and more skilled.

What has changed is that the economy is demanding significantly more skilled in a whole series of occupations that now require graduate education that did not before.

MARTIN: Is this a subject that's being discussed in the academy? Is this something that educators are concerned about? Is this good for the country, I guess, is the question.

CARNEVALE: It is good for the country and it is good for the people who have access to graduate programs, but it raises the basic American question, or at least one of the basic American questions, and that is that we've built a new part of the lifecycle which requires that people get more and more college education and graduate education to get good jobs and that is what's sorting us out.

MARTIN: And is that a conversation that is being had among the institutions that are in a position to offer this opportunity or...

CARNEVALE: This is not something that's widely discussed. Most of the conversation about higher education has to do with who goes to Harvard and who goes to the state university or the community college. We all tend to think, in the United States, of college as an equalizing force, but it's become a force that creates more inequality among us. It's both an opportunity and a barrier to opportunity.

MARTIN: What kinds of conversations would you like us to be having about this?

CARNEVALE: I think, in the 1970s, we were concerned that we were routing people through high school, some to college and some not, and we decided to change that in 1983 with the Nation at Risk report that said that we've got to get more kids able to go to college.

I think we're reproducing the tracking that we produced in the '70s in our college education institutions now. That is, the inequality shows up in college. The great sorting of Americans is now occurring in college and graduate school.

MARTIN: Is this the kind of thing that people should be yelling about or is this just the way it is and people need to get wise to it? I mean, because one would think that our core sense of self as Americans is that we offer opportunity to those who are willing to work for it and it should not be about who your father was or who your mother was, or essentially picking the right parents. But what I'm hearing you say - it increasingly is.

CARNEVALE: In the American mind, the issue of the moment is how we get enough money to pay for access to college. It has been much less concerned about the stratification in the college system itself and in the difference between people who get two year degrees, BAs and graduate degrees.

So the equity question really hasn't come up. Most of the concern is about access, about giving people access to post-secondary. We pay much less attention to the outcomes and their meaning for upward mobility in America, but to some extent, post-secondary education has become a part of the machinery that pretty much guarantees the inter-generational reproduction of privilege.

MARTIN: Anthony Carnevale is the director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. He was quoted in this week's Washington Post magazine piece titled "Graduate Degrees: Are They Worth It?" That piece was by Cecilia Capuzzi Simon.

Mr. Carnevale, thank you so much for coming in.

CARNEVALE: Thank you for asking me.

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