The Master's Trap, Part Two

The Prestige Grap, The Only Visible Path, The Career Collateral

*My apologies if you’re receiving this twice — a glitch meant that the first edition went out without Sunday Links, which subscribers can find below*

In the first edition of the series, I outlined the ways in which some Master’s programs have begun to employ for-profit practices with prestige lighting. I encourage you to read the piece, if you haven’t already, because it’ll add some nuance and context to what follows, which is an attempt to loosely group the wide array of Master’s programs in various fields.

I want to dig into their mechanics and magnetism, but also their quality and utility. Some are, indeed, “the second-biggest scams in higher education.” Others charge affordable tuition, offer useful training and skills, and are transparent about what they can and do offer. But most aren’t anywhere near as clear-cut. 

1) The Prestige Grab 

These mostly unfunded master’s degree programs use the prestige of their institution as the primary lure. Students believe the institution’s brand will increase their overall job prospects — or wager that an MA will lead to eventual placement in a PhD program. 

To see how these mechanics work, let’s return to the University of Chicago and its MAPH (Masters of Arts Program in Humanities) and MAPSS (Master of Arts Program in Social Sciences) programs, which were at the center of the last installment. When JB was accepted to the MAPH program last year, he was sent a “Hogwarts scarf” (aka, a maroon and white scarf with University of Chicago embroidered on it), a tote bag, and an offer for a $20,000 scholarship. The “prestige” of the MAPH was more valuable, the program advised, than any fully-funded offers from other PhD programs. 

When a different student — who’d applied to the University of Chicago PhD program in History and been deferred to MAPSS — informed the program she’d accepted a different offer for a fully funded Ph.D at another school, they replied: 

“I trust that you’ve explored the recent placement record of that PhD department closely, and have confidence that it can propel you into a strong academic or professional career. As I’m sure you recognize, over half of all successful tenure track placements in History are now coming from just the top 8 departments, which is why nearly 40 students turned down fully funded PhD offers to come to MAPSS this year.” 

The logic here is worth untangling. As the dismal career realities within academia have become undeniable, these programs have positioned themselves as the most reliable means to actually circumvent that reality. You might know the “hidden curriculum” for succeeding in academia, but they can give you premium access to it — for a price.

Once students pay for access to the curriculum, they’re often startled to learn its contents. In one of the first meetings of her MAPH cohort, Alice, who attended the program in the mid-2000s, said they were explicitly told that very few of them would get into competitive PhD programs. And even if they did get in, there were a dwindling number of tenure track positions within the humanities; leaders told them they’d likely end up “unemployed, or teaching community college in some small town in Oklahoma or something.” 

This strategy might seem counterintuitive, but it’s a pretty clever way of juking the stats. Programs like the MAPH and MAPSS provide students with just enough illusion that their academic dream could be sustained — and then, once they’re in the door, quickly disabuse them of those dreams. If only the “best” students with MAPH or MAPSS degrees apply to PhD programs — at Chicago or elsewhere — the placement rate of MAPH students into PhD programs will remain high.

Kathryn, who applied to PhD programs as a senior at a prestigious liberal arts school in New England, told me that she was attracted to MAPSS for that celebrated placement rate, which, as the website boasts, is the highest of any MA program in the world. 

“What I realized very quickly is how the denominator of this rate is taken very seriously — and kept as low as possible,” she told me. “They work hard to keep students they deem unlikely to succeed in PhD admissions from applying.” (The MAPSS program did not respond to a request for comment).

The messaging in these programs is rarely as direct as “you, student, should not apply to PhD programs.” It was more of what Arthur, a 2018 MAPSS graduate, described as “an overwhelming bureaucratic formalism.” It’s “a sort of Dante’s Purgatorio, but for PhD hopefuls,” he told me. The three ordering principles: “if you have less than a 3.X GPA; if your thesis advisor doesn’t say your work is among the best they’ve ever read by an MA candidate; and if you don’t have three glowing letters of recommendation, you probably shouldn’t bother applying to the Garden of Eden, e.g. Tier 1 Programs.”

If a student asked for advice about which programs they should apply to, they were “frequently met with a rather brutal, one-sidedly realist assessment of their worth as an applicant.” 

Several students told me this clarity was, ultimately, useful — they became aware, just weeks or months into the program, that they didn’t want to pursue an academic route. One MAPH graduate from the 2000s, who went on to a tenure-track position in film studies, put it this way: 

When I arrived in Chicago I sat in a classroom with 20 people who shared my exact ambition - parlay an MA from there into a PhD in film studies. After a year, the vast majority of those folks — perhaps 15 of 20 — opted not to apply to PhD programs. Which, looked at one way, means that Chicago just took them for $50k so that they could have an expensive moment of clarity about their life goals. Looked at differently, that means that a 24-year old could find a career path she was more well-suited for without spending the better part of her twenties coming to the same realization.

The problem, of course, is that one probably shouldn’t have to take on life-altering debt — recall that the MAPH now costs $62,640, plus an estimate $30,000 in fees and living expenses — in order to reach that awareness. 

“What I realized about MAPSS was that students who do well in it didn’t need to do it — and students who need it won’t succeed,” Kathryn, who attended a prestigious New England liberal arts college for undergrad, said. “MAPSS attempts to be a transition year straddling the consumption-of-knowledge that defines undergrad and the production-of-knowledge for which PhD programs train you. I knew how to approach faculty members, I knew how to ask questions in my discipline, I knew what the research process looks like, so in that sense, I was ready for a PhD! For students in the program who went to less elite undergraduate institutions, I think there ought to be a real space for that kind of training and transition—but how could you possibly accomplish it over the course of one year?” 


The MAPH and MAPSS programs are the most well-known of these types of program, perhaps because they collectively enroll ~200 students a year. They’re a recurring source of debate on GradCafe, the leading discussion board for prospective graduate students. Less well known, but functioning in a similar fashion, is NYU’s XE: Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement, previously known as the Draper Interdisciplinary Studies Program in Humanities and Social Thought. 

Similar to Chicago, many applicants are harvested from the rejection piles of other NYU programs, from journalism to creative writing. K, who attended in the 2000s, had applied to a PhD program in Cultural Studies, and ended up getting accepted by Draper with no offer of financial aid. She took out federal loans to cover tuition, and because this was pre-Graduate PLUS loans, she was directed to CitiAssist private loans, administered by Citibank, to cover living expenses in New York. (In 2007, then-attorney general Andrew Cuomo went after Citibanks’ relationship with NYU and 100 other institutions. Cuomo referred to the relationship as a form of “kickbacks”; NYU agreed to stop directing students to the loans, but admitted no wrongdoing.)  

K eventually ended up getting into a PhD program, but the $40,000 in private loans she’d taken out at NYU ballooned  — yet another untold cost of taking out loans for an MA in order to get into a funded program.

“I have a good academic job now that makes me feel like I won some sort of lottery,” K told me. “But my years of financial precarity in academia have taken their toll on me psychologically. I will finally pay off my private loans in the next year, 16 years after graduating from the MA program. I’m not sure my experience rises to the level of other programs, but I do think it existed in some kind of liminal space between, say, a program with a clear path and infrastructure meant to support students’ PhD goals, and a funnel for easy graduate tuition dollars to the university. It does show, I think, that predatory lending companies make excellent late-stage capitalistic bedfellows with universities, whether the academic programs are predatory or not.” 

In 2006, Bryan, the first in his family to attend undergrad, was recruited by Draper after receiving a rejection from NYU’s journalism school. He dropped out after a year, but the debt he took on during that time “nearly ruined” his life. Another student, attracted to Draper’s promise to “create your own program but have community and support” took on upwards of $130,000 in debt in the 2010s, met with an advisor once a semester to okay classes, and was constantly “making the case” to professors to allow her to join the class. “You were constantly having to justify your worth and existence,” she said. 

Bryan eventually went on to law school, and has spent time thinking about how he was lured by Draper’s vague promises. “Many of the students were super smart, so that kind of gave it a veneer of credibility,” he said. “Like, maybe I had no idea what I was doing, but I was surrounded by really creative and intelligent people, so if there was a problem, it felt like it must have been me, not the program.” 

Lisa, who graduated with an MA in Performance Studies from NYU, knew that her program was just an expensive stepping stone to a PhD, which she eventually received from Northwestern. But that unfunded year in Performance Studies will follow her, she says, for the rest of her life. And like others who attended similar MA programs at NYU and went on to another degree, the debt she took on during her MA (~$60,000) began collecting interest. 

“What feels worse, in retrospect, is how NYU (and similar programs) created this glut of moderately credentialed young people to snap up the tiny number of PhD slots,” Lisa said. “At NYU, they graduated 40 new Master’s students every year in a discipline with maybe a dozen PhD programs in the U.S., and it was common knowledge that the NYU master’s program was the financial engine of the PhD program. The professors salaries, the grad student funding, the fancy speakers, they were all made possible by 40 students paying $60,000 a year. And the one and only way to get into the NYU PhD program? Go through their MA program first.”

All of these programs do have value — as sorting mechanisms, as intellectual communities, and, for those hell bent on a career in academia, as a sort of directed PhD prep. As one professor recently put it on Twitter, elite degrees help “launder” the resumes of PhD applicants and “make them legible to admissions committees,” particularly “international students from unfamiliar schools” and “A students from smaller universities.” The placement rate for MAPSS may be distorted, but they’re still high enough to suggest that it’s an effective funnel for the right student into academia.

So let’s call these programs what they are: a form of pay-to-play, with all of the resulting inequalities that accompany any pay-to-play scenario.

But as Arthur, an 2018 MAPSS graduate, points out, “it is also basically what every MA in my field is selling implicitly — whether or not they’re so gauche as to market themselves it outright. Chicago is able to expand the number of students in their programs every year because, well, PhD programs have shit funding everywhere, there’s not enough spots or jobs in the field overall, tenured professorships are becoming unicorns. We shouldn’t be surprised that MA programs act as a credentialing mediator for this fundamentally unstable system.”

2) The Only Visible Route 

In the arts and other “passion” fields like journalism, these grad programs pop up and disappear, proliferate and shift identities, or rely on accumulated prestige. Filmmaking, Poetry, Acting, Vocal Performance, Book & Paper Arts, Creative Writing, Screenwriting, Publishing, the list goes on — all share the illusion that a master’s degree will, in some way, provide a sustainable route into an industry, even though everyone outside of academia agrees that this route effectively does not exist. 

Some programs, particularly those associated with writing, tout the experience students will gain teaching introductory level writing classes, and sweeten the deal with a tuition remission and stipend. Some promise forums, screenings, and networking events that will put students’ work in front of powerful people. Others, acknowledging that an artist cannot survive without teaching part-time and that teaching requires an MFA, simply neglect to mention how difficult it is for someone with an MFA to find adjunct/part-time work teaching in the arts. 

A Master in Voice, for example, is preparation for a career as a professional opera singer — but there are no full-time jobs for professional opera singers in the United States. Even those people who luck into a part-time gig have to supplement their income by giving lessons to kids. (Here’s a great breakdown of career possibilities and costs for a full-time opera career in the U.S.). MFAs in acting and performance ask students to take on significant debt but do little to change the already low probability of finding sustainable acting work.

To join the first class of MFA students at the Actor’s Studio in its new home at Pace University in New York, for example, Allen borrowed $110,000 from 2007 to 2009 for tuition and living expenses. At that time, the program offered little to prepare students for the industry and had no connection to equity stages where students could gain points counting toward union status (and union jobs). 

“I had no delusions about it being easy to be an actor,” Allen told me. “But I bought into the idea that having training would make a difference — it seemed to me that the industry valued British actors more because they said they were trained, and I believed that being among the group of American actors who got training would be useful in making strides after graduation. But I simply don’t believe that anymore.” 

The current median debt for an Actor’s Studio graduate at Pace: $138,000. The current median earnings two years after graduation: $26,253. (There are similar debt/earnings figures for the theatre arts MFA programs at The New School and Columbia).

Christine, who received her MFA in Books and Paper Arts in 2012, initially conferred with family and advisors about her loans, which would eventually total more than $110,000. They agreed the program was a good opportunity, and she should take it — to them, like a lot of people, more schooling had always been framed as the route to more opportunity. Christine spent hours on the phone talking through her funding options with the department, which was always very encouraging — in part, she now realizes, because a significant portion of the previous year’s class had dropped out. 

Christine thought concentrating on her art, which the loans allowed her to do, would better position her for teaching jobs. But those job didn’t materialize. With interest plus $17,000 in undergraduate loans, she now owes over $187,000. Since completing her MFA, she’s been on food stamps twice. It took years to find any job that paid as well as the waitressing job she had before she began her program. She has a good job now, and will start making regular payments on her federal loans when they resume in September, after the COVID pause is lifted. 

“But I’m unsure if I’ll ever be able to get a mortgage, if I can get married without adding this debt to my spouse’s name, or what the possible tax implications of loan forgiveness will be, if that even happens,” she told me. “I try not to dwell on it too much because so much of it is out of my hands, but it can easily feel pretty crushing.” Her MFA program shuttered in 2015. 

Some programs do provide a way into the field — even if it’s an expensive one. The median grad student debt of the 276 recent graduates of Columbia Journalism School is $66,544. But that grad school experience — and the opportunity to take out loans to essentially live at the center of the journalism industry for a year — can give some participants internship and fellowship opportunities that would’ve been out of reach.

Writing in 2014, Jay Yarow, now a senior vice-president and executive editor at CNBC, argued that “to people balking at spending $100,000 to go to journalism school, here’s what I would say: It can be a power boost that propels you into the industry. It’s sort of like venture capital money. Sure, you could bootstrap and grow slowly, or you could take an investment, burn the cash, and scale quickly, then figure out profitability later.”

Some people — like Yarow, who attended journalism grad school in the late 2000s (“I don’t remember how much it cost. It was relatively expensive, but I got a student loan”) have indeed “figured out the profitability later.” But how many students, like the startups he compares them to, crash and burn? The thing about startups is that you’re playing with other people’s money to ride out a “disruptive” business idea. With grad school, you’re mortgaging the rest of your life to just get your foot in the door.

3) The Career Collateral  

In some fields — particularly social work, library science, and education — a master’s degree has become a prerequisite for finding a job that pays enough to support a family, and a host of programs have popped up (or expanded) to fill the demand. These programs often require significant amounts of debt that, even with the higher income, many students struggle to repay, and some graduates never find sustainable work in the field. (It’s incredibly difficult to find reliable placement data for most graduate programs. You can dig and find average debt load and subsequent earning numbers for larger programs at more established schools through the Department of Education, but because of privacy concerns for smaller programs, there’s no/limited data for thousands of smaller programs.)

Many library jobs, for example, require a master’s in library and information science (MLIS). But the programs both over-enroll for the number of actual jobs in the field and saddle their participants with significant debt and the vague promise that their work in the public sector will make them eligible for the public service loan forgiveness (PSLF) program. Students pursuing a master’s degree in social work face similar problems. One woman, who recently finished her MSW at the highly ranked University of Washington, had been told by social workers and professors in her undergrad program that a MSW was the only way to make the profession “survivable.” (She was told that an early career BSW would make around $25k, while those with a MSW could get $45k). 

“We all developed a sense that this was just an ordeal we had to survive in order to get a job,” she told me. “Most people agreed that there was no chance that they would ever be able to repay their debt,” and crossed their fingers it would be wiped away through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) or a 20-year income-driven repayment plan. 

Momentarily putting aside the fact that PSLF is fundamentally broken and repeated attempts to fix it have failed, it’s worth talking about the so-called “age-benefit.” The pay for librarians with an MLIS is 30% more than for those with a bachelor’s degree. In the long run, you would earn more with the MLIS than you will ultimately pay on an income-based repayment plan, whether that plan lasts 10 years (PSLF) or 20 (at which point the balance is theoretically forgiven). The same is true for a preschool teacher, whose wages with a master’s degree increase 44% — even if that increased median wage is, according to the most recent figures from 2013, just $43,000 a year. 

What these broad wage-premium stats fail to illuminate: the jobs in these fields that don’t require a master’s degree rarely pay living wages and have no route for advancement. It’s not a question of being a lower-paid librarian or a higher-paid librarian; it’s a question of being a staff member who doesn’t make enough to live on or figuring out a way to fund your MLIS. And then, even if you do make it into a program, there are too many people with master’s degrees and too few jobs for them. 

Some of these career collateral master’s degrees can make sense — at least within our current system — when they’re relatively cheap or can be achieved as part of what’s known as a “co-terminal” degree, where your undergraduate degree bleeds into a master’s and you graduate, usually in five years, with both. (In some cases, financial aid carries over to the graduate degree; in others, it does not, but the cost is still less than a two-year master’s  program added onto four years of undergrad).

For teachers, co-terminal degrees provide the master’s pay bump at a considerably lower overall cost than, say, enrolling in an online MEd at a for-profit university and taking the classes at night/on the weekends after a day of teaching. At Stanford, a whopping 30% of undergrads now participate in co-terminal degrees, and 20% of the school’s master degrees are conferred to those in co-terminal programs. But the vast majority of those degrees are in engineering or STEM, where obvious paths forward to high paying jobs exist. 

In humanities programs, the value of these co-terminal degrees can be less clear. If statistics about a wage premium exist, they can be misleading, simply because there are so few jobs explicitly in the fields of study. Some students use a co-terminal degree as a sort of post-bac year: a thing to do when you don’t know what else to do. One instructor at an Ivy League institution told me that over the last two years, she watched several art students opt for co-terminal degrees as a means of delaying their entrance into the job market. A professor at a mid-size liberal arts university in the midwest said that her department had recently launched a co-terminal degree whose purpose — at least in part — is to convince students who, because of running-start credits, could’ve graduated in three years, to stay for a fourth year. 

This scenario might make sense for students who don’t have to take on additional debt — what their resultant MA could “do” for them ultimately matters less than avoiding either the job market or a move back home. That’s a privileged position, but one that can be tempting to other students with less access to funds. 

On Twitter, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom told me that parents love these co-terminal programs — they feel like a form, in her words, of “hyper-parenting,” almost a cheat code for their kids’ futures. But they’re also a pretty pure manifestation of credentialism. Credentialism is (arguably) sustainable in fields like engineering, computer science, or business, where salaries are high enough to cover and eventually eliminate student loan payments — or in pretty much any situation where employers cover the costs.

But when neither of those are the case — as is often true with education, social work, and library science, just to start — we need to have a better conversation. If a student has family wealth, even just middle-class wealth, the debt gauntlet can be survivable. But a student who enters the field without that family support can find themselves with destabilizing amounts of debt, the sort of debt that ruins credit, that closes off future wealth-building opportunities, and/or keeps graduates locked in demoralizing jobs they loathe but cannot afford to leave. 

Some jobs really do need additional skills than what’s provided over the course of an undergraduate education, and it makes sense that those skills should be rewarded on the job market. But there’s a difference between an employer-subsidized MBA and an expensive degree that’s the only way to make a living wage in your field. Some of these programs are cash-cows. And some reflect the overarching devaluation of “feminized” care work and years of cuts to governmental services. After all, 83% of social workers, 64% of librarians, and 76% of public school teachers are women. When society refuses to authorize paying them more for their labor, credentialism offers a backdoor to a wage bump — with the accompanying debt. 

I’ve created some broad categories here, but there are so many degrees that are still difficult to place. Where do we classify an online “Executive JD” from Purdue University Global, aka the name Purdue gave to the for-profit Kaplan University when it bought it and prestige rebranded it? What about an online Master of Legal Studies from Pepperdine that costs $72,000? Blatant Visa mills for international students? Post-MBA “certificates”? A Harvard Master’s in Design Studies? Master’s in Public Health programs that cater to students who’ve been rejected from med school? Master’s programs for departments that, without graduate dollars, might cease to exist? 

Part of the problem is that we don’t have great language to talk about “value” and high education, other than “return on investment” in the form of future salary — which often fails to account for the benefits (or anguish) or a particular degree. With notable exceptions, nearly all of the graduates I’ve spoken with valued their experience. But they also still struggle to judge that value against what they’ve paid for it, financially and otherwise — and our language is even more impoverished when it comes to the experience of student debt.

In the next section of this series, we’ll go into the dynamics of predatory inclusion, the racialization of student debt, and the effects of keeping the ‘hidden curriculum’ locked behind a paywall.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how these trends are operating in various programs and fields not covered here, or just elaboration or push-back on what’s been described. The comments are open below.


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