Phi Beta Cons

The Higher Ed Industry’s Big Market in Dubious Degrees

Among the causes of America’s higher education bubble is the artificial demand for master’s degrees for K-12 teachers. The education industry has managed to cook up a neat little game whereby public school teachers automatically get pay raises after they have obtained an MA. It doesn’t matter whether the MA is in a real academic discipline such as math or chemistry and in fact they’re mostly in fluffy subjects like education or even “education administration.” Nor does it matter if the teacher is in fact no better at teaching than before, something few schools try to measure. Get the degree and you get the raise.

In today’s Pope Center article, professor Erik Gilbert examines the perverse incentives created by this system.

First, it leads teachers to look for the cheapest, easiest program possible. “Thus, for most teachers, the master’s has become a commodity, like soybeans or RAM. They all work equally well, so why pay more for the fancy one that requires a lot of effort?”

Second, it leads universities to turn their MA programs aimed at teachers into cash cows. (Remember, just because a college or university is nominally non-profit doesn’t mean that the people who run it aren’t avaricious.) Universities, Gilbert writes, “are in the business of selling cheap credentials.”

To sell those credentials in a very competitive market, many schools turn to private firms — Online Program Managers — that get a hefty cut of the proceeds. At Gilbert’s institution, Arkansas State, half of the revenue from these dubious programs goes to a Dallas company, Academic Partnerships.

Only two states, North Carolina and Louisiana, have done away with the foolish policy of automatic raises for teachers just on account of getting an MA. Gilbert argues that all should. As a result, he says, “Programs that don’t deliver value to teachers hoping to advance their careers would wither and disappear, as they should.”

I couldn’t agree more. Let’s get rid of this part of the artificial demand for college credentials and then move on to others.

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

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