The Prestige Grap, The Only Visible Path, The Career Collateral
Great piece. This whole series is a brilliant idea, a conversation that needs to happen. As a millenial with a humanities undergrad degree, I was always – and still sometimes am – tempted by the siren song of a humanities Master's degree. School is fun!
How does pleasure factor into this question? It seems insulting to compare higher ed to summer camp, but enjoyment of the experience itself is undeniably part of college's value. We like to talk about education through the lens of its professional implications, but what is the true cost of "the experience" that most of the sources here are describing? Many students without family wealth opt out of the humanities for good reason. For those choosing less vocationally assured routes, the pleasure of learning is part of what you pay for. We can debate whether that is ethical, but it seems worth calling out.
Whether or not we admit the pleasure value, these higher ed institutions are definitely capitalizing on its existence.
Reading this, I can't help but thinking about how capitalism is responsible. Not in the obvious "university needs money, makes bullshit program profitable by lying about opportunities" way, but in the way that our society devalues many of the most essential jobs (food growing/production/service, child and elder care, etc.) in pursuit of runaway profits while also refusing to allow space for learning for the sake of learning.
If the options are work at Starbucks being treated like shit for less than a living wage and being too tired to pursue learning for the sake of learning or taking on massive debt in order to learn and hopefully come out with a white collar job that allows you a modicum of freedom and a comfortable wage, of course the risk is going to seem worth it. Especially if you've always been praised for being "smart" and especially if your smaller community (and family) devalue service jobs and trades.
The simple fact is, we need a lot more food growers and producers than we do MPHs or MLISs, but many seeking graduate degrees have experienced how exhausting, underpaid, and often humiliating service/production work is, and see graduate degrees (even with exorbitant debt and no promise of a good job on the other end) as the path out.
I don't know how we steer away from this race to the bottom. It seems like it's too late and too far gone and politics of greed and hatred are too effective at capturing people who are feeling desperate and agrieved to even imagine a different world.
I'm reading this series of articles with fascination. I have a Master's in Social Work and returned to school a year ago to pursue a PhD, something I never planned to do. I went part-time for four years to complete my master's while working full-time, so that I could do a combination of paying out of pocket and accessing tuition reimbursement from my generous employer. It was a brutal glut that I nearly quit several times the first couple of years out of exhaustion. Yet I'm really glad I did it that way - both to graduate debt-free and to have marketable work experience to bring to the table after getting my MSW. Several of my fellow students who went straight through with a bachelor's and master's had trouble finding a job due to lack of experience, and took jobs that were well-known for burning out their employees within the first couple of years. My educational experience in the MSW was mixed; I often felt several of the adjunct teachers I had would turn us loose in a political discussion as their agenda for class that day, and there was a lot of venting and bashing in discussions.
My PhD program has really redeemed my experience of higher education. The classes are well planned and discussions are facilitated. I'm thinking and writing at a much deeper level. I love learning so I'm grateful for the experience to go back to school, but I'm only able to do so because of my employer's tuition support - and because this is a non-traditional PhD that is focused on working adults who are already established in their profession. Even then, I'm not sure how marketable this degree is outside of my employer, who values it for the research skills and opportunities. But going back to school as an adult in my 40's with life experience, a stable job, and contentment in myself as a human being is a much better experience for me than it would have been had I gone through a traditional PhD program in my 20's.
This series is so validating -- thank you! Lately, I've seen critiques of student debt forgiveness begin to attack people with master's degrees. Getting a master's degree seemed like the responsible thing to do in 2011's competitive job environment.
I grew up low-income and was an undergraduate during the 2008 crash. I found myself turned away from jobs in places like retail stores and coffee shops because they were giving preference to people with bachelor's degrees. To me, that was one among many clear signs that I would eventually need a master's degree to find stable employment, especially employment that could provide the health benefits I needed.
I got a social sciences master's in a one-year program, with the aim of working for a nonprofit/NGO and working toward PSLF. I succeeded in launching my career in nonprofit communications, with more than one employer citing the master's degree as giving me the edge. I've worked more than six years in 501(c)3's, but only some of that time has been accepted toward PSLF. I even lost time toward it because my loan servicer mistakenly included my account in a batch of defaulted loans and my payments were suspended while they worked to recall the loans from the Dept. of Education.
Meanwhile, I have never consistently made enough in this field to keep up with health care costs, housing, car maintenance, and make a dent in my student loans. So I've accrued $17,000 of interest and have no guarantee that continuing to work in that field would result in the public service loan forgiveness I banked on when I took on the debt. The master's degree hasn't even given me a higher salary for having greater qualifications. It's only qualified me to make what was once a middle class salary that can no longer support the cost of living. I know for a fact that the degree did help me get jobs (starting with one making $27,500/year), so I wonder where I would be without having gotten it.
And while the degree got me jobs, it was in no way necessary for doing the actual work -- most of what I do day-to-day, I taught myself on the job.
Even legit grad programs (like JDs) serve as money makers for universities. Tuition has gone up, and they promise placement in high paying jobs. But at most law schools only the top 10-20% (or less) can access those high paying jobs. The rest make much less, and have crushing debt.
And that doesn’t even touch on the lowest tier/ unaccredited law schools that barely place anyone, charge are expensive, and also have low bar passage rates.
I'm a huge fan of this series - as someone who is a career advisor at a top private research university, I'm constantly navigating this universe of power, pedigree, debt, and merit. Often times, these elite master degrees are just meant as drivers of status and prestige, less about actual curriculum or professional development. The issue is - prestige is still worth it for professional degrees, even in education, policy, and more.
You want a job at a name brand think tank or nonprofit? That name brand masters degree might help.
Let's face it - the meritocratic system we have is broken. Daniel Markovits' "The Meritocracy Trap" says it best. The only real way to reform our meritocratic system is a huge reinvention & reinvestment of our higher ed system.
The underlying issue for me is that politicians decided to pass the cost of education to the student rather than society at large. In the late 1950s (1954-1961), I paid no tuition at Brooklyn College, one of the New York City public Colleges. Except for the last year, I went at night to support myself but paid only some kind of minor student fee. On graduation in 1961, I was completely funded for grad school in anthropology (a PhD) by the federal government. My field research was similarly funded. Schooling was considered a social good and a social cost.
Sometime, I think in the early 1970s, politicians destroyed these kinds of social commitments, transforming social costs onto individuals through the student loan system.
One consequence of these changes is that independent (or private) schools have often flourished on the backs of student loans, while state schools more dependent on the government have floundered. Some state schools even recruit more non-state that state residents in order to increase their funding, again at the expense of individuals rather than making education a social good and cost.
This series really speaks to me. As a Canadian, I unintentionally dodged a bullet when I wasn’t able to borrow the money for one of those Only Visible Route MFAs. At the time it felt like giving up on my calling, but as a non-American I didn’t qualify for the government loans and I literally got laughed out of a Canadian bank when I told them how much I needed! In the end I stayed at my on-campus staff library job and used a tuition waiver to pay for both an MA in English and my Library Science masters and got a one of those coveted Librarian jobs, but only because I had two graduate degrees and fifteen years of experience!
Am I the only one who read Culture Study each week and wants to start a "response blog" where I just share a story from my whole life as anecdotal evidence that the system AHP is critiquing is, in fact, destroying people's lives? (and possibly as proof to the people in my own world that I'm not a failure...the system was designed to do this?!)
The big unanswered questions for me is - so what do we do? As the parent of a current undergrad at a liberal arts college, an over-educated humxn with crippling student debt (that has destroyed my chance of any kind of financial security), and as someone who discovered her love of and skill with writing late in life, what is the better choice?
I literally just told my daughter, Emma, a week ago that I've been considering applying to MFA programs because it seems like you have to have an MFA to have any chance at publishing, working in publishing, and/or getting paid to be a writer.
What I find most interesting about this is:
⓵ Even in the circles I am in and with the writers I follow, who are literally talking about this being no guarantee of a successful career as a writer, they all have MFA's and are successful writers. So the lack of a viable alternative to "Getting an MFA absolutely 100% does not guarantee that you can be a writer, as a profession, and support yourself. However, not getting an MFA absolutely 100% guarantees that you can't." It also has this sense of "The people who make it as writers w/ an MFA are the unicorns; the 1 in a millions. The people who make it with an MFA had the right credentials, teachers, networks, mentors, etc. and worked hard enough to become successful."
⓶ When we were discussing it, she asked me what was holding me back from applying. My answer was not, as you might hope, that I wasn't sure it would change the outcome of my writing career. It was, instead, that I wasn't sure I could get into a good enough program to change the outcome of my writing career. So even with $300K in student loan debt from my prestigious J.D. and my not-as-prestigious B.A., Grad Certificate, and LL.M., my concern seems to take root in whether I can get into a high-enough ranked program, which would indicate that my deep gut criticism with my current situation is that I wasn't at good enough schools (deep gut meaning what my soul believes regardless of the facts my head believes).
⓷ I've succombed to the financial situation that is my life and will always be my life, literally giving up hope to change it. One way this plays out is that I'm taking on all the debt for my daughter's education (the part that wasn't covered by her scholarship and by grants) through PLUS loans, outside of the interest deffered part of the Staffords. So she'll graduate with less than $15K in loans (which seems reasonable) and I'll add roughly $50K (plus interest accruing) to my own debt profile. Another way is that when I think in numbers that high - I have $369K in student loan debt and have almost never made over $35K in any given year - it no longer matters. So taking on another $50K for Emma to have "the best chance at success" is no problem. Taking on another $200K to get an MFA is no big deal. I am never going to pay any of it off, and due to what's already there, I'm never going to own a home or stop filing bankruptcy every ten years, or build any real wealth.
And I still hope that she can - my daughter - if I get her into the best schools and I shoulder her debt...
Don't misunderstand this to say that I do not KNOW that the system is at fault. As Emma pointed out, this is not a "byproduct of late stage capitalism," Itt is the system doing what it was designed to do - keep most Americans in the cycle of poverty so we don't overthrow the system. The great celebration of those who make it out of the cycle is the smoke and mirrors that tells us our system is rooting for us instead of actively working to crush us.
Knowing that does not trickle down to me, one humxn who is a mom, knowing what to do or how to help my child.
This series is so good, and it has caused me to reflect quite a bit on my own educational journey. I have two master's degrees from a large public institution -- I did a dual three-year program to get both. I'm a city planner, and it's interesting that you have not explicitly mentioned my profession which is very similar to library science in that the master's really is the entry-level degree, as few BA programs exist for planning, and often not having a master's is a real barrier to promotions and advancement in the field, even though as primarily public sector employees, planning is not all that lucrative.
When I decided I wanted to be a planner, I knew I'd have to get a master's after talking with many practicing planners in the field, but they also gave me really good advice related to choosing a program and avoiding debt. I also added on an MPA to my master's in planning through this advice primarily because one piece of advice I got was that the MPA program provides much better financial aid and tuition support than the planning program at the university I attended -- I think this is also in no small part because the MPA program is a standalone program in its own school and there is no PhD in public administration offered, so all fo the resources the school has go into its MPA program. As a result, I was able to get tuition remission graduate assistantships with small stipends for all three years of my program, which I further supplemented with part-time work outside of the university and full-time summer internships.
I have no regrets about doing my program -- without the credentials, I certainly would not have landed where I have in my career, nor would I have advanced as quickly as I have in the three years since I finished my program. But as a first-gen college student, if I had not lucked out and found really great mentors in the field to talk to before I applied to and went to graduate school, I easily could've ended up in a lot of debt. I applied to a prestigious Ivy League school for the same dual-degree program I did at my large public school, but the Ivy offered no financial aid whatsoever and the debt would've been $200k for the same credentials I got debt-free, but they were pushing and selling their brand and network as huge assets to my future career. What they left unsaid, and what made the decision so easy for me, was that for the type of work I want to do in the public sector, I never would've made enough to pay off that kind of debt, and the only way to make their network useful would be to pivot into private sector management consulting as many of their graduates do, which is absolutely of no interest to me.
Wow, fascinating. This rings so many bells for me. In the mid 2000s I made what was for me a poor choice to attend a terminal MA program in English in the northeast. A requirement of the curriculum was a semester long course in careers in the field taught by the head of the department that was essentially presenting all the reasons why we should only continue in the field if we were dead set, fully obsessed to the point of lunacy with being a tortured academic who spent a decade looking for a job while the value of their degree plummeted. Sounds great,, right?? Week after week we had barely paid adjuncts come in and talk about their careers cobbling work together, and then the occasional prof from big name schools lecture us on their time at Yale and how they were so lucky to get a job here. It was ridiculous and honestly showed what a farce the degree actually was. Very few of my cohort went on to apply to PhD programs. I ended up dropping out for a bunch of reasons, wishing I'd never applied to any of these programs in the first place. It makes me sad because the humanities do have value but the system is an absolute mess and the students are taken advantage of - for example, the cohort of English grad students pays the salaries of the grad program profs and is the labor force for all those English 101 courses no one wants to teach.
This varies by state, but in some states the MA level qualification is basically required to teach K-12. In New York, you can begin with a BA, but you need to obtain your MA to get your full license. (And if you only have a subject level BA, you'll do the MA/MAT program to get your license to begin with.) This has been true for a long time, certainly since I was in college 20 years ago. I went to a SUNY that did offer initial teacher certification alongside your BA, but not all colleges do. The MEd is a second master's that's not required, though it gives you salary points.
Now, would I choose Teachers' College over Hunter for my MAT? Probably not, no, not based on either the return on investment or the experiences of the many teachers I've known. And that's before we get into the many programs of dubious quality marketed at teachers who want to climb the salary scale.
You also can't get your LCSW in New York without the MSW.
In this 3rd category, I think there's also a pretty toxic mix involving the devaluing of pink-collar professions.
I’ve always felt supremely grateful that I decided to forgo my dream of getting a Master’s in journalism from Columbia. I ended up getting a job at a local paper working with a bunch of people who graduated from the program and we all made the same amount of money, but I wasn’t $60k+ in debt.
I'm older -- late 40s -- and Texas public university educated. I did my MA in English (at a small liberal arts public university in Texas) because I had no idea what else to do. I knew that I was never going to be a university professor, but I hoped that I could sort myself out over a couple of years. I did, and I spent 10 years outside of academics as a business writer and editor. During that time, I did start adjunct instructing at a local community college, and when the 2008 recession killed my employer's company, I transitioned to "full time" adjuncting for a couple of years before landing a full time faculty position at suburban community college campus. I'm actually finishing up a master's--an MEd concentrating in TESOL--,at another state university in Texas. But my ambitions have always been at the community level, and I completed the bulk of my schooling before tuition and fees exploded.
This is not a pushback on the essays at all. I find them horrifying and important. As a community college instructor, my goal is to steer students onto paths that result in the least amount of debt. I encourage participation in honors programs, avoid "institutes," and so on. My professional academic world is wonderfully unrarefied. As a parent of a high-achieving college freshman, however, I almost failed in helping my kiddo avoid the traps. They received a partial acting scholarship to attend a small private university with no real reputation for its program, and were it not for COVID intervening on their first year (when we had them stay home and take fun classes from the community college), that's where kiddo would be.
The break offered perspective for us all and cut through the excitement, and now, my kid who loves acting but isn't going to ever make money at it, is heading up to a state university to figure out what they want to do--probably a language with a teaching degree and the opportunity for study abroad.
These deep looks into the realities of the designer/prestige programs are so important. Of my friends with PhDs, all are colleagues at one or another community colleges. While I wouldn't say any of them feels like failures, these jobs don't do much for exorbitant loans.
Worst decision I ever made was to get a MA in "Museum Studies" from George Washington University in DC; it cost me about $120,000 in student loan debt to network and intern with Smithsonian Institution staff who worked as adjunct instructors (which GWU has offered to me on multiple occasions - because now I am one of those Smithsonian staff -- it will pay me about $200/class for a semester. No thanks!!!!!!). It took me 7 years to find a permanent job 🙃
Between my husband's law school loans and my loans (shout out to the graduating college class of 2008!), our monthly IBR payments were about $1500 before the pandemic student loan moratorium, which means we have saved about $30,000 since the beginning of 2020. THIRTY! THOUSAND! DOLLARS!
I could go on and on but just know that every time I "guest lecture" a "museum studies" graduate course, I tell them to run for the hills lol
Never has someone so clearly articulated my feelings about master's programs. Over the past several years, I have doubted my decision not to pursue one, but learning about the financial side of these programs is eye opening and affirming. Thank you for this series.