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Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Value of an M.A.

This article by Stephen Trachtenberg appeared in the NYT on July 02 2009. It examines the value of postgraduate studies with such deep humor. The issues raised here are important for both educators and students. More importantly, the point he makes about degree inflation and the devaluation and inadequacy of the baccalaureate in the job market is profound. Is the MA supply or demand driven?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and professor of public services at the George Washington University. He is also chairman of the Higher Education Practice at Korn Ferry International.

"The M.A. degree is neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat. I had a classmate at Columbia who remained on after receiving his B.A. degree to earn an M.A. degree on a fellowship while waiting for his fiancé to graduate from Barnard. Another classmate who started a Ph.D. program was informed after a year that he had no real promise but if he went away quietly they would give him a booby-prize: the M.A. He became an M.D.

What’s so bad about reading a lot of French literature at someone else’s expense?
Does earning an M.A. (distinguishable from an M.B.A. or other professional degree) make any sense from a cost-benefit point of view? It does allow one to upgrade one’s alma mater. If you originally matriculated at a college you are vaguely uneasy about, taking an M.A. at a more elite institution allows you to kick down and kiss up, henceforth letting you tell people you “went to school” in New Haven. And it does, of course, ornament a resume.

Earning an M.A. degree can be fun; it can provide knowledge; and can stretch the imagination. A cynic might conclude that the M.A. degree is the stepchild of the university community, is increasingly a commodity offered by universities in order to earn tuition dollars devoted to the Ph.D. programs. But in the marketplace, it adds to one’s personal narrative. It makes one more interesting.

Degree inflation increasingly obliges more degrees to compensate for the devaluation of earlier degrees. Jobs that once were filled by high school graduates and later by college graduates today often require a master’s degree. This is largely optical, but one deals with the world he or she lives in. Still, just as the double and triple undergraduate major is a form of gilding the lily, a form of product enhancement, meant to seduce the hiring partner or the human resources director, the growing interest in the M.A. reveals the inadequacy of the baccalaureate."

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