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Do master's degrees really pay off?

By Minauti Dave

It is the dreaded question that every parent asks: So what are you doing after you graduation? Often the answer is: Whatever pays well. In some cases this could mean staying in school for a year or more to bump your bachelor's degree up to a master's.

In fact, you may have heard those nasty rumors floating around campus that a B.A. is a dead degree in the real world because of the demand for higher education -- not to mention higher pay. Put simply, "The higher the degree the greater the earnings," says Peter Syverson, vice president of research with the Council of Graduate Schools.

In 1996 students with a master's earned an average of $46,332 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- 24 percent more than a college grad with a bachelor's degree.

For Harvard University sophomore Josh Weaver, a professional degree is inevitable, but money doesn't play a huge role. Weaver is studying Cognitive Neuroscience and says he is definitely going to pursue either a master's or medical degree. "Money is important, but I don't want to be rich. I want to be secure and modestly happy," he says.

However, happy doesn't pay the bills. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that between the ages of 25 and 64, a master's recipient earns about $240,000 more than someone with a bachelor's degree. This translates to a lifetime salary of $3.3 million.

Although money talks, it may not be what pushes some students to get a master's degree. Weaver makes a point that for certain careers, especially in natural sciences and law, an entry level degree for college graduate is one step beyond a B.A. Career Services director at Penn State University, Jack Rayman agrees, and says that in some cases, "You just don't get a job unless you have a PhD."

For senior Sean Flynn, more coursework is not the answer when he graduates from Georgetown University this year. "I'm tired of school but I can envision myself doing it in the future," he says. The English major is confident, a bachelor's degree from a reputable university, and his internship at the Washington Post, will help him land a job as a newspaper journalist.

For burned out undergraduates who would rather take the degree and run, there is hope. According to a 1999 study done by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, companies are expected to increase annual salaries for graduates with bachelor's degrees this year by 4.7 percent.

"In general the opportunities for recent college graduates are excellent. ...Of course how long that's going to last, I don't know," says Camille Luckenbaugh, employment information manager for NACE.

The following is a breakdown of average estimated earnings for 2000 graduates in four career fields - all of which reflect the salary surge:

- Computer and engineering: $45,698

- Accounting: $34,356

- Management Information Systems: $38,938

- Liberal Arts: $31,617

Despite all the talk about hefty salaries for master's degree graduates, enrollment at graduate schools is decreasing little by little every year, Syverson notes. Statistics from the Council of Graduate Schools shows enrollment at some 500 graduate schools decreased by one percent, and two percent reported no change between 1996 and 1998.

"This is not a precipitous drop. Nobody is panicking about it. I think it's of concern, but not of great worry. ... It's being caused by this very attractive labor market," Syverson says. In translation: College students see lots of good jobs with attractive salaries, ready and waiting for applicants, so why spend the extra time in school to get the master's degree when the dream job's open now.

Nevertheless, Rayman suggests, "If the economy is weak and demand is low in your particular field, it's better to use your time furthering or enhancing your skills than hanging around the water cooler."

Penn State junior Mark Goodwin hopes to get a job as a physical education/health teacher at a high school. Once he is working, Goodwin says his employer will pay for his master's degree. "Once I get a job, I want to do whatever I can do to better my situation." He says with a master's degree not only is the pay better, but so are his chances of teaching at the college level.

"From a teacher's perspective a master's degree would do you better. In any overall major it would help you do better financially," he says.

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