“Lots of countries are poor, and lots are dreary and oppressive. But the Soviet Union is a huge, healthy nation with more than twenty million college graduates. It has all the land and mineral resources national avarice could imagine. And Russia has been part of – at least an idiot stepsister to – Western civilization for a thousand years. There’s no alibi for the place.”
- P.J. O’Rourke, Give War a Chance (1992)
Last month saw the passing of a master of satire. In addition to Give War a Chance, P.J. O’Rourke is best remembered for his masterpiece explaining America’s unique system of government, Parliament of Whores. But after graduating in 1969 from Miami University (as he clarified, “the one in Ohio, not the one where you can major in water skiing”), P.J. spent the 70s at National Lampoon where he wrote groundbreaking pieces like Games You Can Play with Electronic Calculators, A General History of Food Fighting, a four-page spread on Girls of the Communist Bloc and many more along that line I shall not repeat here. My favorite O’Rourke contributions to the Lampoon: 1972 Explanation of Form 1040P and Its Accompanying Tax Tables (a copy of the tax form for high-income taxpayers signed by George Schultz), and One Genuine New York City Municipal Bond (literally a photograph of a municipal bond).
You’d think P.J. would have financial skills. But in a column titled How I Killed The National Lampoon, P.J. says putting him in charge of the magazine was a terrible idea because he had “the people skills of Luca Brasi in The Godfather and the business acumen of the fellows who were managing New York’s finances in the 1970s.” Nevertheless, P.J. was a proud capitalist, a virulent anti-communist (“Each American embassy comes with two permanent features: a giant anti-American demonstration and a giant line for American visas”), and the only Republican at the Lampoon, which is probably why the other writers hated him so much.
While his behavior was never orthodox, P.J. dressed preppy long before Tucker Carlson made it creepy. So the most P.J. quote of all is the following: “The weirder you’re going to behave, the more normal you should look. It works in reverse, too. When I see a kid with three or four rings in his nose, I know there is absolutely nothing extraordinary about that person.”
P.J.’s wisdom applies not only to dress, but also to postsecondary education: kids with multiple degrees are increasingly ordinary. The culprit: runaway master’s degrees. U.S. universities now offer over 44,000 master’s programs in more than 500 distinct fields (2x in 20 years). Is this the result of higher education actually doing a good job keeping pace with digital transformation? Not so much. We’ve seen dramatic growth in new master’s varietals in education and the visual/performing arts.
Students have responded like Russians rushing to the bank. The number of Americans with master’s degrees is now 24.1M (2x in 20 years) and the percentage with master’s is now equal to where we were with bachelor’s in 1960. In the past few years, the rush has become a stampede and over 40% of bachelor’s recipients intend to earn master’s degrees with 21% enrolling immediately in graduate and professional programs. During Covid, master’s programs were higher education’s lone growth segment; in the fall of 2020 graduate enrollment was up close to 10%.
What’s with the master’s irrational exuberance? Postsecondary institutions are rational economic actors and master’s programs have been the easiest source of new revenue, particularly in the face of enrollment declines elsewhere. This explains not only the eruption of new programs – most online, many in partnership with online program managers (OPMs) – but also in tuition. Whereas average bachelor’s list price has increased nearly 50% in 20 years, master’s are up about 80%. Master gadfly Kevin Carey has paid particular attention to the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program ever since he received a mailer in 2013 and interpreted the offer of an Ivy League degree in self-affirmation as a personal affront. In the interim, Penn’s MAPP has bloated from $45,000 to $71,662. While tuition for bachelor’s degrees is subject to federal loan limits, there haven’t been limits on Graduate PLUS loans since 2005. So students can borrow not only the full cost of tuition, but also annual living expenses which, in big cities, amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
Another reason for the master’s explosion is that there haven’t been consequences. As a MAPP-less (and perhaps grouchier) Kevin Carey points out, unlike undergraduate programs, master’s aren’t required to disclose admissions statistics, which might be embarrassing for otherwise selective schools. The result is that hundreds of institutions aggressively market master’s programs on billboards, in airports, and especially online. Another result is a mountain of student loan debt. While graduate programs enroll 15% of students, they’re currently producing 40% of new student loans.
In their defense, master’s appear increasingly necessary to get good jobs. Employers have been eager passengers on the wild master’s joyride, adding master’s to job descriptions and contributing to degree inflation. For hundreds of jobs, master’s are the new entry degree. But master’s don’t appear to result in greater overall employment. Adults with master’s degrees are less than 0.5% more likely to be employed than those without.
More damning, master’s don’t always translate into more money. Kevin Carey first went after obvious suspects in the arts like the Harvard MFA in acting/dramaturgy that charged $78,000, but produced average income of $36,000. Then the Wall Street Journal looked at Columbia’s MFA in film, which yielded average student loan debt of $181,000 and earned less than $30,000. According to higher education analyst Preston Cooper, the Columbia MFA is an example of a master’s that results in a negative return on investment without regard to the (exorbitant) tuition because it interrupts careers and sets them on a lower income path. Last summer, Anne Helen Petersen exposed University of Chicago’s Master’s of Arts Program in Humanities (MAPH, not MAPP), a one-year humanities lovefest costing $100,000, but where enrollees are treated as “second class students and must convince professors to allow them into courses… Students from Ph.D. programs in other departments told me that it was an open secret that MAPH was a cash cow for the university.” Average starting salary of MAPH graduates? $37,928. Preston Cooper estimates that a master’s in the arts and humanities has a median return of negative $400,000.
Professional programs don’t always fare better. Intrepid reporters were stunned to find Columbia quoting an estimated total cost of $121,457 for a 9 and ½ month master’s in… journalism. (And they know all too well how much journalists make.) Master’s degrees in human services (psychology, social work, education) all yield median earnings below $60,000 at age 45. But “only” 30-40% of human services master’s have a negative ROI. With a relatively tight income band, the difference is cost. Northwestern’s master’s in clinical psychology yielding median debt of $142,000 and median earnings of $43,000 doesn’t compute. Neither did USC’s infamous MSW powered by 2U, which ended up bending or breaking admissions requirements for about 40% of entering students and left new social workers with median debt of $112,000 and median income of $52,000. The lesson is clear: master’s degrees in human services only work if they’re cheap and cheerful.
Preston Cooper calculates that 40% of all master’s degrees have a negative ROI. And, remarkably, 27% have a negative ROI without regard to the cost of the program (i.e., students would have earned more if they’d never enrolled). The only truly reliable master’s degrees are in health sciences, engineering, and tech. Not even the MBA, the iron horse of master’s degrees, is immune from the master crash. Over 60% of MBA programs now produce negative ROI. Of course, the most selective MBA programs continue to produce great returns. But that doesn’t mean that all master’s programs from Ivies and equivalents are a good investment. 16% of master’s offered by the most elite schools are decidedly bad investments. As Anne Helen Petersen observes, these programs exploit “student naivete” and are “meritocracy traps, engineered to attract students who’ve been inculcated with the idea that they’re smart enough, good enough, and most importantly, hard-working enough to beat the exceptional odds against their success.”
If American higher education in 2022 is a maze, millions of students are in a master’s rat race and universities are treating them accordingly. Kevin Carey put it perfectly: “Sure. #Notallmastersdegrees. Most police officers don’t wantonly beat up and murder their constituents. [But] we still have a police brutality problem.”
What should we make of a system that prevents millions of young people from getting a good first job before their mid-20s? It doesn’t seem designed to benefit young people or promote socioeconomic mobility. Degree inflation has done the opposite, increasing inequality: students from low-income backgrounds are much less likely to pursue master’s degrees; median debt for Black students completing a graduate program is 50% higher than for white borrowers.
It’s been a decade since the New York Times called master’s degrees the New Bachelor’s. The ensuing explosion of master’s programs demonstrates colleges aren’t doing the job 90%+ of students hire them for: to get a good first – or better – job. While prices continue to rise, bachelor’s degrees have lost value in relative terms.
I’m not arguing that certain professions shouldn’t require post-baccalaureate training, although there are few professions that, in a pinch, couldn’t shoehorn said skills into a four-year pathway. But after investing in a bachelor’s degree, the overwhelming majority of students should be able to enter a profession – starting work in a good job. Four years of tuition should be enough to begin earning. But instead college has become a pie eating contest where first prize is more pie.
But wait, there’s some good news. The first is that America’s economic rival has opted to follow our bad example. Of the 10M college graduates in China this year, 4.5M have applied to graduate school. Second and more important, given that master’s programs are predominantly online, and as cash-hungry universities have refrained from offering any discounts vs. onground programs, online master’s programs are perfectly positioned for disruption by online skills-based credentials.
The U.S. leads the world in faster + cheaper online skills-based credentials. Badges awarded rose from 24M in 2018 to 43M in 2020 and have likely doubled again since then. Nearly 50% of adults now boast some kind of non-degree credential. The next step is to rebundle online microcredentials into sector-specific or job-specific packages that resonate with employers as much as (or more than) their academic forebearers – ideally with industry-recognized certifications. These new online credentials will be much faster than 30-40 credit hours, and therefore much cheaper as well. And they won’t only be accessible to students who’ve run the gauntlet of a bachelor’s degree. Some will have prerequisites. But providers of these programs will be less worried about cannibalizing undergraduate tuition revenue and so will allow students to demonstrate readiness in ways other than a 4-to-6-year, six-figure journey. And this includes accredited universities; MIT’s MicroMasters programs in manufacturing, finance, supply chain management, statistics and data science, and data economics and development policy cost about $1,500 and any prerequisites can be taken online for free.
As master’s have become the new bachelor’s, career launch has become much more complicated for a large percentage of Americans from less privileged backgrounds. How best to help young people find their path and do so at scale? There’s no silver bullet, but the best bet is to significantly lower the cost of making mistakes. Because master’s degrees are the polar opposite of this, unbundled (and rebundled) online skills-based credentials are likely to be our salvation.
Grouchy Kevin Carey argues that, “from a regulatory standpoint, all master’s programs should be treated as for-profit, because I think they essentially are.” And so just as for-profit programs crashed (not due to regulation, but rather market forces), master’s degrees are headed for a Soviet Union-style crash. Regardless of what the kleptocratic war criminal in the Kremlin might think, it will be far from the “greatest geopolitical [or educational] catastrophe of the century.” As the iron curtain American universities have erected around good jobs comes down, I only wish P.J. O’Rourke were still around so we’d have the benefit of his acerbic commentary.