Chamseddine: Bye Bye B.A.

by Reem Chamseddine | 5/31/15 6:18pm

In light of the ongoing debate about grade inflation, it is time to extend that discussion to include degree inflation. A cornerstone of the proposal from the ad hoc committee on grading practices and grade inflation, it is well-known that the average undergraduate grade point average has been increasing over the years. As Kush Desai ’17 wrote in a Feb. 26 column for The Dartmouth Review, GPAs at Dartmouth have increased by almost half a point since 1975. This trend, however, is not limited to the College — Gradeinflation.com is but one website dedicated to tracking the inflation of grade point averages across more than 200 colleges and universities in the United States from 1991 to 2006.

As students’ expectations for excellent, near-A grades become more prevalent, so does the expectation for more academic credentials of recent graduates on the job market. The master’s degree has become the new bachelor’s degree. Employers certainly value a prospective employee with a master’s degree more than one with only a bachelor’s — their work experiences and holistic qualities being equal, of course. Students, on their part, have responded to this trend — enrollment numbers for graduate programs are considerably higher than past decades, and students have more reason now than ever to pursue master’s degrees.

As Laura Pappano reported in a 2011 article for The New York Times, the number of master’s degrees awarded in 2009 was 657,000 — almost double the number in the 1980s. She also wrote that “nearly two in 25 people age 25 and over have a master’s, about the same proportion that had a bachelor’s in 1960.” According to the Washington Post, the annual output of master’s degrees rose by 63 percent between 2000 and 2012. The University of Phoenix has an online “campus” that awarded 18,602 master’s degrees in 2012, 183 percent more than it did in 2004. While the University of Phoenix awarded the highest number of master’s degrees in 2012, many other universities experienced a similar exponential growth in the total master’s degrees they awarded. Western Governors University, for example, had a growth rate of 4,352 percent in awarded master’s degrees, while Liberty University had an increase of 1,603 percent over the same time period.

Employers recruit and reward those with a master’s degree significantly more than they do those with a bachelor’s, making a master’s degree seem like an increasingly necessary investment in one’s future career prospects. Many job listings appropriate for bachelor’s holders will say “bachelor’s required, master’s preferred or recommended.”

In terms of financial compensation, additional pay for those who hold master’s degrees is a well-established practice. Calculations in 2003 found that while bachelor’s degree holders on average made $43,000 per year, master’s degree holders made $53,000. A study conducted in 2012 found that the average starting salaries for those with master’s degrees were roughly 20 percent higher than those with bachelor’s degree. Eric A. Hanushek, an education policy scholar, found that 10 percent “of the total salary bill [of teachers in public schools] goes to pay bonuses to teachers who have master’s degrees.” Finally, a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2014 concluded that earnings of those with advanced degrees grow more than the earnings of those with bachelor’s degrees.

The cycle feeds itself. The more employers prefer to hire candidates with master’s degrees, the more students are likely to enroll in master’s programs. This cycle is not necessarily a bad thing — a more educated society is a better society, after all. Yet, that is only true to a point, and this trend is concerning. It undermines the bachelor’s degree and makes higher education even more elusive and unattainable for wide swaths of society, for whom even an undergraduate education is far too expensive. The degree inflation of the past few decades raises the question — will everyone need a Ph.D. to get a comfortable, fulfilling job in the future? For the sake of affordable, attainable education and employment for anyone who works for it, I certainly hope not.