Do You Need a Grad Degree to Compete Right Now? Probably Not

More US workers than ever hold a graduate degree. Years of intensifying job requirements and headlines declaring a master’s “the new bachelor’s degree” nudged a record number of students into grad school.

And yet more well-paying jobs no longer require a college degree at all. In this tight labor market, do college grads need a master’s degree to compete? Maybe not.

“We have all reduced our almost obsession with the master’s degree,” says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO and president of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Anecdotal and statistical evidence shows employers were already pulling back degree requirements even before the pandemic: Data from a job market analysis done by the Burning Glass Institute showing a reduction in middle-skills and high-skills requirements — jobs that require more education than a high school diploma — from 2017 to 2019.

If fewer employers are requiring grad degrees to gain entrance to good jobs, prospective students should assess whether advanced degrees are worth taking on debt.

Some fields still require advanced degrees

Advanced degrees are still the key to entering certain professions: medicine, law and teaching come to mind. In other fields, as long as you can convey you have the skills an employer is looking for, you can get a job without an advanced degree, says Brad Hershbein, senior economist and deputy director of research for the WE Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Advanced degrees could hedge against a recession

Employers are likely reducing education requirements to fill slots, which can be difficult in a tight labor market like this one, experts say. But that doesn’t mean it will last.

“Nobody can quite explain what we’re going through now; I think everyone thinks it’s temporary,” says Gordon Lafer, a professor in the Labor Education & Research Center at the University of Oregon.

Holding an advanced degree could provide a safeguard for the future. If the economic tide turns, Taylor says, the degree becomes a differentiator.

Advanced degrees tend to correlate with lower unemployment rates compared with bachelor’s or associate degrees. But generally, any degree acts as a buffer against unemployment.

During the Great Recession, those with bachelor’s degrees and higher were more likely to keep their jobs, according to 2014 research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The same goes for job retention during the early days of the pandemic, according to June 2020 data from The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Graduate programs don’t always pay off

What consumers need is data that show program-specific outcomes like graduates’ employment rates and average salaries. These are woefully difficult to find. For example, the College Scorecard, a data tool from the US Department of Education, which provides information on outcomes like graduation rates and post-graduate salaries, doesn’t include graduate-level data by major.

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