Frugal Living & Thrifty Ideas

Beyond a Bachelors: Master’s Degrees, Liberal Arts, and Earning Power

I’m at that perfect storm age where a lot of people I know finished graduate school a couple of years ago, and about half of the rest of my friends are seriously considering it, or in the middle of their studies now. We’re a financially unique sliver of a generation because most of my friends (and I) graduated college in either 2008  or 2009- perfectly placed during the worst period of the recession.

I personally went to work in the service industry immediately after graduation in 2008 (retail, bars, and restaurants). I did that work for a little over two years before finding a STEM adjacent job (my experience in college as an IT Tech allowed me to land such a job despite my questionable decision to major in liberal arts, but no point crying over spilt milk). Many of my fellow liberal arts friends withstood years of unpaid internships to get a paying jobs (if they could afford it), and many others (who couldn’t) went into the service industry and sent out applications like crazy.

Because I’ve now reached a moderate degree of success career-wise, I’ve started getting questions about when and if I will go back to graduate school. Many people in my office are currently enrolled in evening classes to work towards earning second and even third degrees, so it sometimes comes up. When I’m feeling polite and vague I say, “Well I’ve thought about it!” When I’m feeling tired and honest I say, “Nope!” (To be more accurate I should say, “Not unless my employer is willing to pay for it!”)

I wasn’t always opposed to the idea of going back to school, I carefully considered it for a while. I first decided against going back to school because of the feedback I had gotten from many friends who had already obtained their Master’s degrees. And to those good friends who were super honest with me about their experiences: thank you! Many of them found themselves just as unemployed and lost as when they had first graduated with Bachelor’s degrees, only with more debt and less work experience than I had. They had assumed that additional credentials would result in employment- for some it did and for others it didn’t.

The only people around my age who were making gobs more money than I was were my other friends who also only had bachelors degrees, but held them in Computer Science or Math. The disparity between humanities and STEM job opportunities is something that has been on my mind for a long time. After all, I graduated with a silly degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing- yet I earn a competitive salary in a very tech heavy position. I can honestly say that my college job in I.T. has been worth more professionally than my entire undergraduate degree. It is the only reason I found professional employment, the only reason I have been rapidly promoted, and the only reason I will continue to see my earning potential grow. In other words, it has been made very clear to me that my tech skills are more important to potential employers than my degree.

Of course there are fields where a Masters degree (or PhD) is nearly mandatory for employment, but I would venture that the majority of obtained Masters degrees are not of this variety. An article that I found in Forbes confirmed my suspicion that many graduate degrees will not actually result in a higher paying position. In fact, they did the number crunching for me and came up with the ten best and worst Master’s degrees. Predictably, the best were primarily in health care, computer science, physics, engineering, economics, and math. Typically graduate students in these fields would not even be funding their own education beyond a bachelors, because their employers are likely footing at least part if not all of the bill.

Below are the ten worst Masters Degrees:

1. Library & Information Science

2. English

3. Music

4. Education

5. Biology (this one surprised me)

6. Chemistry (as did this)

7. Counseling

8. History

9. Architecture

10. Human Resources Management

This list probably isn’t a huge shock to most people, but it does beg the question: why are so many people still getting these (and other seemingly pointless) degrees? Of course there are probably a percentage of students who are independently wealthy (or have family money) and study whatever they want without working or worrying much about future employment. There are probably a few more who pursue fields based on their passions rather than monetary output, or on the status of accumulating a higher degree and entering higher education.

Of course, I can’t just leave it at that- because it seems to me that this still leaves an awful lot of people who thought that a graduate degree would make them more employable, but were dead wrong. So what happened? I was able to figure out that pursuing a graduate degree (in my field) would not be financially worthwhile, and I was able to do so with a moderate amount of basic research. In fact, I found that I would be far better off dedicating myself to learning various programming languages or web design (for free online). If I were to do that successfully then I would absolutely increase my earning power, perhaps by almost twofold. I think most people could accelerate their careers by boning up on their software skills or even learning a second language (and this is all easily accomplished at free or minimal prices)- so with all these free learning opportunities, why are so many people shelling out major bucks or going into debt for degrees? Because we’ve been told we need more degrees to be competitive, and that going into debt for education is always a good thing.

I dug further into my research about Masters degrees, and guess what I found? Applications for graduate programs have increased every year since 2009, and guess what increased alongside them? That’s right: the number of master’s degrees awarded. According to the Washington Post , “From 2000 to 2012, the annual production of master’s degrees jumped 63 percent, federal data show, growing 18 percentage points more than the output of bachelor’s degrees.” It’s interesting how they refer to the number of degrees awarded as the “annual production” if you ask me! There has also been a significant increase in the variety of graduate degrees being offered. New programs are popping up every semester, and many schools are cashing in big by making more and more specialized programs, including new one year master’s degrees.

This isn’t rocket science, it’s supply and demand. It’s no coincidence that this all coincides with a general economic downturn. You can read dozens of articles about this trend, just take a look for yourself. They usually profile a couple of individuals who decided to go back to school because of all the old tropes (the economy, the cost of living, the low salaries, oh my)! They never mention other options for increasing your marketability, and they really, really never mention the concept of choosing an undergraduate field that requires no further education to earn a good salary.

Now before I get a bunch of angry comments here, I’d like to clarify that I’m not claiming that a graduate degree is never a good idea- just that a great many of them aren’t necessary. I would say the same is true of buying a gas guzzling pickup truck- if you’re a contractor or a farmer, go for it! If you’re an office worker living in a suburb, it doesn’t really make sense.

I think this quote from an article in the Boston Globe , which featured this 26 year old man among others, sums it up perfectly:

” ‘I think because of the master’s degree they put me a little above mid-range in salary.’  Though he’s still just barely chipping away at his student loans — now higher, of course — he thinks school was worth the cost. ‘I would be miserable if I were still serving,’ he says, recalling his restaurant days.”

As American’s, one of our central beliefs is that education is always a good thing, and that the more you get the better. But for some reason, the type of education that’s most publicized as being the golden ticket comes in the form of high cost degrees that necessitate debt. And as we can see, it often doesn’t deliver on its promises.

This is really just another form of debt consumerism gone amok. This young man, and many others like him, are more than willing to take on more and more debt in the hopes that they will maximize their income or gain a competitive edge. Education debt is not seen as debt at all, its seen as being an investment- and as with all investments you should do research to see whether it will truly pay off.

The average American undergraduate student leaves college with $29k debt, which is crazy enough as it is. What if instead of going further into the red for a second degree, we took full advantage of the many free online resources to bone up our skills and boost our resumes? Then we could put our energy into paying down our undergraduate debt as fast as possible and move into hardcore saving.

8 thoughts on “Beyond a Bachelors: Master’s Degrees, Liberal Arts, and Earning Power

  1. I went the down the path of a master’s degree. In hindsight, individual certifications within the IT field mean a lot more. Where I work if you do not have the IT certifications there is no way you can get in the door. Nobody really cares about the degrees without them. I would recommend to anyone with a liberal arts degree (as I do) to pursue a couple IT certifications along the way, A+, Net + or something project related. They make a big impact on your employability and are not hard to get. A couple weeks of studying and take the exam. If the universities were smart about it they would recommend this to anyone in a liberal arts field. It’s bad enough that liberal arts majors generally have higher unemployment ratesthan more technical majors, or work in fields that do not require a degree.

  2. I recently sat in on a hiring board and bells started going off in my head on this… The certs were what everyone was concerned about, the degrees were just looked over. Given the right combination of certifications, the board could care less about the degree. From the frugal/practical perspective- I am thinking this is where the higherst rate of return can be found(Certs+ some experience). Not sure why masters degrees have the appeal they do. I think its been an expectation. It was for me. I woudn’t do it unless your company pays for it.

  3. I put three years towards a PhD in humanities because I thought I wanted to teach, but increasingly hated the academic publishing world. If I could go back in time, I’d tell my 18 year old self to learn programming or engineering, but then I would have never chosen the school I did, and never met my wife.

    The debt sucks, but in the long run I can’t honestly say I regret it. But no way in hell am I letting my goblins make a similar mistake!

  4. Not to nitpick, but you have a BSc in writing yet use the phrase “beg the question” wrong? (and my degree is in engineering..)

    1. Excellent catch! It appears that I’ve been using this phrase incorrectly for years- and apparently it’s a common mistake, even in the New York Times: http://afterdeadline.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/25/a-question-of-begging/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 . Nitpick away, I play the role of writer, photographer, and editor here so certain things are likely to slip through the cracks (I highly doubt this is my only error). Unfortunately a B.A. in Writing doesn’t magically make you grammatically infallible!

  5. It seems everyone uses it wrong these days anyway. But that doesn’t mean I won’t nitpick it..
    At least you didn’t say “very unique” 🙂

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