“Masters Prefered”: How Academic Inflation Affects You

September 19, 2012

Stories abound of college graduates heading from commencement into a hail of  “masters preferred” advertisements only to wind up living back at their parents’ house. Through a process of academic inflation, a bachelor’s degree has come to mean very little in terms of finding gainful employment in the professional world. The result is that more and more entrants to the work force are compelled to go after masters’ degrees and PHDs, not because of a lack of required skills but because of competition amongst their peer group. Add to this the incredible cost of higher education and it becomes clear that students are getting the short end of the stick.

Simply put, academic inflation is the process by which the value of higher education degrees becomes inflated. It is where the minimum level of education required for employment rises, without there being any actual need for more highly trained employees. Parallel to this process is the astronomical inflation in the cost of education itself. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, over the past 40 years household income has increased by a factor of 6.5, while college tuition costs have increased by a factor of 15 for instate and 24 for out of state students. Young people are getting smacked twice: they need increasing amounts of education in order to find jobs AND they are being gouged on the price of that education.

So who’s coming out on top here? Well, colleges and universities are making a bundle thanks to endless tuition hikes. They are using a lot of that money to amp up facilities and administrative staff in order to justify more tuition hikes. The other benefactors are companies looking to hire graduates of masters and doctoral programs. It’s been pointed out that there are masters programs available for notably unacademic careers, areas of expertise for which training involves hands on experience. Instead of on-the-job training, young people are paying to stay in academia, completing masters programs designed to simulate on-the-job training. Prospective employers can then choose from a broad array of highly trained candidates without having to pay for it, the cost instead falling on the trainee.

We can come up with as many scenarios as our imaginations will allow, but the truth is, we really don’t know what the future is going to look like. Perhaps a fairly hopeful image is one in which academia comes full circle: in meeting the demands of the market for highly trained professionals, our education system will undergo a drastic transformation and actually become more active and less academic. Right now, though, there are ways to help these highly educated debtors. There is financial education out there on student loans and organizations that exist to help people manage their student debt. All that’s required is for that awareness to go viral.