Higher Expectations: Is a Master’s Degree a Requirement for a Middle Class Salary?

Vox.com has a fascinating look into the changing domain of secondary and tertiary education over the last 50 years in the new post, “Master’s Degrees Are as Common Now as Bachelor’s Degrees Were in the ’60s.”  The post summarizes research done by the U.S. Department of Education on the rise of the Master’s degree over the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.  Here are some of the highlights:

2012 most popular masters

  • 8% of Americans, approximately 16 million people, hold a Master’s degree as of 2012, a 43% increase since 2002.  Is some of this educational attainment occurring as college graduates and young workers seek shelter from the poor labor market? One would suspect so, but increased domestic and international competition, especially in technical fields, is driving some of this as well.
  • In 1971, Education was by far the most common Master’s degree held, some 37% of all Master’s. Business was 2nd most common, at just 11%. Engineering Master’s were held by 7% of those with advanced degrees.
  • By 1981, the Business revolution had taken hold and MBA programs started to boom.  Business Master’s grew to 19% of all advanced degrees, with education still leading the way 32%.
  • As of 2012, Business accounts for the largest share of the Master’s holding population at 25%, with education dropping to 2nd at nearly 24%. The health professions Master’s, commonly held by physician’s assistants and other non-doctors in the medical field, has boomed over the last half century.  Today Master’s degrees in health professions account 11% of total Master’s holders, the third most common degree.
  • Master’s degrees, though sometimes expensive to obtain, still provide good investment return in terms of increased salaries.  In most fields, Master’s holders earn a premium of $15-25,000 per year over employees possessing only a Bachelor’s degree.

masters salary bump

To sum up, the push to credentialization is happening at a rapid pace.  Whether driven by employer standards and more qualified applicant pools or by those seeking shelter from a poor labor market, the Master’s revolution has taken hold.  If you are the middle class parent of a high school student and expect your child to earn a similar salary to your’s, odds are your son or daughter will have to consider a Master’s degree.  If one wants to be competitive for the graduate school admissions marketplace, then one must have strong college grades (3.0-3.5 GPA), developed skills in communication and technical areas, and achieve solid scores on graduate admissions tests.  That is an ambition that demands proper planning and guidance.


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