Is a Graduate Degree the New Bachelor’s Degree?

By Darby Rourick

Getting a job is the priority for most college graduates. Many have been told their whole lives, in one way or another, that going to college and earning a degree was the path to a career and financial security for the rest of their lives. However, as more students make the decision to go to college, there is a glut of young professionals with bachelor’s degrees on the job market. This has led many writers, Catherine Rampell included, to claim that a bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. Rampell explains in “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk” that many companies are requiring a bachelor’s degree for their low-level positions that do not actually need college-level skills. 

This new reality is difficult for many recent graduates, especially considering the growing burden of student loan debt. Some enter into the workforce in lower-level positions in order to pay off their loans, but another group of grads is returning to higher education as a solution to their problems. Again, students hope that more school will equal more money for them. 

Recent data published by the U.S. Department of Education in The Condition of Education 2015 shows that those who had a master’s degree or higher earned more on average than those with a bachelor’s degree. However, as more students enter graduate school there is, once again, a degree inflation in the workforce. Richard K. Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity explained in an interview with the New York Times that the only way for job seekers to stand out is to get a graduate degree or go to an elite undergraduate college. Essentially, a master’s degrees is becoming the new bachelor’s degree. 

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Anthony P. Carnevale, the lead author of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce report “Good Jobs Are Back: College Graduates Are First in Line,” said he did not agree that “a graduate degree is the new bachelor’s degree,” because those with a bachelor’s degree were still earning more than those with a high school diploma only. Carnevale is right to point out that a bachelor’s degree holder makes more than a high school graduate, but this does not erase the fact that graduate degree holders are on average making more than bachelor’s degree holders. 

As more job seekers have earned bachelor’s degrees, that level of education becomes the norm. So applicants pursue a new way of rising above the crowd—with a graduate degree. In “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s,” Laura Pappano reported that many employers were weeding out applications based on who had a master’s degree and who did not. When an employer must decide between two applicants who are equal except for their level of degree, the easy choice is the applicant with a higher degree. 

In many cases, having a graduate degree gives an applicant a leg up during the application process. Graduate degree holders have other good news to celebrate: the Pew Research Center found in their study that the median monthly earnings of graduate degree holders had gone up by a higher percentage between 1984 to 2009 than the median monthly earnings of bachelor degree holders during the same time period. While those who earned less than a bachelor’s degree saw a decline in their household income in real terms from 1984 to 2009. In other words, a bachelor’s degree was still more beneficial than no bachelor’s degree, but a graduate degree was more beneficial than a bachelor’s degree.

Earning a bachelor’s degree is definitely more common among millennials than baby boomers, but the degree is far from worthless. As more students obtain this degree, however, it does lose value. A graduate degree may not be the new bachelor’s degree as far as expectations go, but it does effect employment opportunities and potential earning. College graduates on average make more than people who only have a high school diploma, and that probably will not change anytime soon. But in order to stay competitive, those wishing to climb the career ladder may need go back to school. 

Darby Rourick is a senior at Saint Joseph’s University majoring in English and philosophy, and minoring in Medieval Renaissance and Reformation Studies. Saint Joseph’s University is home to the Phi of Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.