The Corner

Education

The Dubious Value of Graduate Degrees

The conventional wisdom about higher education (spread mainly by the higher-education establishment) is that the higher your educational “attainment,” the better off you’ll be. That belief has fueled rocketing credential inflation — the more educational “attainment” in the country, the more of it an individual needs to stand out from the pack. It’s enormously wasteful.

Fortunately, the conventional wisdom is coming under attack. One of the critics is economics professor Richard Vedder, who wonders in today’s Martin Center article if we won’t soon be seeing “Master’s Degrees in Janitorial Science?

Vedder points to recent studies showing that graduate degrees can have a lousy payoff and observes that the two sides of the education debate look at the data differently. “The College for All interpretation,” Vedder writes, “is that the diminishing payoff to the bachelor’s degree means students need to get more degrees, specifically master’s degrees. Historically, a bachelor’s degree was a powerful and reliable signaling device, telling employers that the college-educated individual was almost certainly smarter, more knowledgeable, disciplined, and ambitious, and harder working than the average American. College graduates were special people — the best and the brightest, deserving a nice wage premium in labor markets.”

The problem is that getting a college or even graduate degree these days is more a matter of persistence than anything else and lots of degree holders have hardly any more useful knowledge than they did in high school. That “attainment” alone doesn’t matter much if your abilities are merely mediocre.

The American Enterprise Institute has recently published a study on the value of graduate degrees that supports Vedder’s argument that we have already overdone it on higher education. While some grad degrees are clearly worthwhile, many others aren’t. And curiously, on average they are more apt to benefit women than men.

What the nation really needs is a more efficient means of certifying individual trainability.

Vedder concludes,

As America increasingly engages in massive federal budget deficits, incurs ever larger obligations associated with a costly welfare state serving an aging population, and faces increasingly expensive international challenges from terrorists and emerging nations like China, can we afford to continue to certify predicted employment competence the same way some Europeans did in the late Middle Ages?

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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