10/08/2012 12:53 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Is More (Advanced) Education Always Better?

When did the Master's degree become so commonplace, and so meaningless? It seems that the master's degree has replaced the bachelor's as the minimum requirement for a career pathway job. On the one hand, politicians and education advocates urge all Americans to get a bachelor's degree; that's their ticket to the American dream. But recent college graduates also get the message that a BA is not enough -- from employers, peers, and graduate schools themselves. They must continue on to graduate school. But is more education always better? And given the skyrocketing cost of tuition, can we afford to consider graduate school -- with the exception of fields like medicine and law where the classroom knowledge is really required to perform on the job -- a necessity, or is it really more of a luxury?

It seems, on a purely anecdotal level, that too many recent college graduates automatically default to graduate school without first exploring the job market and gaining real-world experience. They opt for more school -- and more debt -- for a variety of reasons. They are scared away from applying for jobs because of the stories they've heard about poor employment prospects, and they decide the best route for them is more education -- without necessarily having any clear career direction or specific job goals. They feel that credentials may give them the advantage they need to edge out the competition, and in some cases they may be right. But what will happen when the PhD becomes the new standard?

By increasing the number of bachelor's degree holders, we are standardizing the baseline educational requirements, and by over-inflating graduate degrees, we are discounting the value of BAs. This is expensive, and in many cases wasteful: students accrue more debt and miss opportunities to gain experience in their chosen field. I can't tell you how many times I've heard twentysomethings complain about the debt they've accrued, only to end up not capitalizing on their graduate degrees and spending years on the sidelines when they could have been accumulating job experience and saving for the future -- not to mention contributing to the economy.

You could argue that it's OK for someone to enroll in graduate school in order to further his/her intellectual interests. But let's face it -- most students today are enrolling in college to further their careers and make more money, according to the Higher Education Research Institute's annual freshman survey. And who can blame them? If you're going to shell out your life savings, you want to see a return on your dollars.

For recent college graduates who know they want a career in medicine, or academia, or other fields in which a terminal degree is required right away, it makes sense to enroll in graduate school directly following their undergraduate educations. However, for recent college graduates who enroll in graduate school simply as a way to avoid having to face the job market, and who have not decided for sure on a career field, it makes more sense to gain some real world experience first. Business schools often require several years work experience as a qualification for admittance, and more graduate schools should make that a practice.

This is a large topic to cover, and in my next blog I'll be exploring the issue of whether colleges should prepare their graduates for the workforce, and if so, how. I'll also be asking questions such as: Does graduate school make you more knowledgeable on the job? Does it prepare you in some other way for the workforce? Or is it simply the credential that employers seek? Can employees learn enough to advance in their careers through experience alone, and if so in which fields? And, while I know the data on graduate student outcomes are scarce, I hope to find some kind of indicator that reflects the number of advanced degree holders in law, business, public policy, and the social sciences who actually "use" their degrees, and their return on investment. These are hard things to quantify, but on an anecdotal level I'm hoping to ask the experts and recent graduates the questions that we who are involved in policy research and those who are in academia are afraid to ask.

In the meantime, we urge youth to just obtain that BA, that is all they need to succeed. Yet I personally recall before recently obtaining my Master's degree being referred to as "just a BA," and have been told repeatedly that I really need a PhD to get ahead in my chosen career field. I'm still trying to figure out exactly how the additional degree will add to my knowledge of the field to a greater extent than would actually working in the field. For now, I'm going to focus on saving for my kid's education instead of investing more money into my own. By the time my toddler reaches college, it's estimated a college degree could cost us $300k. At that rate, I'll make sure he stops at the BA.