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Among the hats I wear, I’m an educator. I’m also someone who already has one postgraduate degree and is working on another. So when Laura Pappano of the New York Times discussed “The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s,” it hit close to home on a couple of fronts.

I first became aware of the upward push of credentialing when one of my students, not a particularly hardworking or brilliant one, mentioned that he was thinking of going to grad school. Thinking that maybe he was a nonmajor who was actually a smart and involved student in his home discipline, I asked him “In what?”

His reply? “I don’t know, but you have to have a master’s to get a job these days.”

This was immensely irritating to me, because he seemed all ready to go to grad school without having the slightest sense of how it works—even something so basic as the fact that it doesn’t work like undergrad where you figure out your major later. And, honestly, it offended me a little personally, since it felt like a lack of appreciation for my education.

But thinking back to that master’s degree of mine, maybe I should have been aware sooner that lots of people go to grad school in a way that feels to me like not really meaning it. Most of the people I went to school with, in fact, weren’t planning to be academics.

Particularly for the students in their early 20s, many of them were just used to being students and kept going. Or they wanted to have more time to figure out what they wanted to do with themselves. For this kind of master’s student, grad school was a place to take a time out on growing up.

This probably sounds patronizing, but it’s not. Just because I knew I wanted to be an academic as soon as I got over my teen-angst desire to be a poet in a garret (so, like, when I was 18?) doesn’t mean everybody is as certain about their path, as evidenced by the wide range of ages among my colleagues in my PhD program. If you don’t know where you’re headed, it’s definitely better to pull over than to keep driving.

Another subset of my MA colleagues had, in the snarky-fabulous words of a friend,

a very narrow interest in one subject and they saw getting a sociology degree as a conduit to being able to study the subject that they really cared about personally. Those were the students who were totally disengaged in all of our classes because they really only wanted to study that single thing and instead, they got stuck with 2 huge books of Weber or Bourdieu or Foucault.

And I do think that desire to study a particular thing is valid, even if I’m not sure getting a master’s degree is the right way to go about it.

However, quite a few of the students in my MA classes just wanted to have a piece of paper that showed they were smarter or more dedicated than a BA because, as the NYT article suggested, that’s not enough anymore. In the communication department, for example, one was an office worker—I think maybe an HR manager?—trying to improve her options by getting a master’s with a focus in organizational communication.

This last group I find troubling. I feel like there are things you legitimately need a master’s degree to do, but there are also all kinds of things you don’t, and you shouldn’t get one just to get one, particularly since student loan debt never, ever, EVER goes away even if you declare bankruptcy.

I mean, seriously, there are things you don’t even need a bachelor’s degree to do. We need plumbers and roofers and all kinds of other tradespeople, and those are jobs that are way too important to be as socially devalued as they are. That’s a problem. That’s a place where we need a cultural intervention to change how we think about those careers.

Additionally, a surprising number of young adults who really aren’t cut out for academics feel compelled to get a college degree anyway. Which also might sound patronizing, but I don’t mean to say that these students aren’t bright; what I mean is that there are different ways to be smart and we’re increasingly tending to put everyone into only one box labeled Bachelor of Arts (or Sciences). Again, here’s a site where an intervention is sorely needed.

These are complex issues that have, I’m sure, inspired voluminous publication among researchers of education. They deserve careful, measured attention beyond what I’ve got to give to a blog entry. I’m no expert, and the question of college becoming de facto compulsory affects broad swaths of the population—not least those who don’t go and then find their possibilities radically curtailed.

If the expectation of universal college degrees is a First World Problem, degree inflation to the master’s is definitively a Bourgie People Problem. However, even though wealth does not “trickle down,” norms and the hoops one has to jump through to succeed do. This means that, just as college went from being middle class to being the ticket to the middle class, the master’s degree may well follow suit.

Eric A. Hanushek, whom the NYT piece describes as “an education economist at the Hoover Institution,” argues that “We are going deeper into the pool of high school graduates for college attendance,” which makes a “bachelor’s no longer an adequate screening measure of achievement for employers,” and I find this incredibly telling.

Hanushek means to make an argument about the students who are not in the top 10 or 25 (or maybe even 50) percent of their high school class, such that people who get college degrees aren’t only the spectacular students anymore.

However, that class rank correlates quite strongly with other categories in a way that matters. The kids at the top, who traditionally had access to professional jobs, are disproportionately middle class and white, but now the college pool is expanding beyond those privileged categories.

That means that, whereas once the B.A. separated out the middle class kids from the working class ones, that’s no longer true now that everyone’s going to college. The rush to the M.A. begins, then, to seem a bit like “OMG, poor kids are getting bachelor’s degrees! Better raise the bar!”

As the Times article says, “browse professional job listings and it’s ‘bachelor’s required, master’s preferred,'” and it makes me wonder whether what they really mean is “upwardly mobile required, middle-class preferred.”

Hanushek argues that there’s “some devaluing of the college degree going on,” which makes the master’s more valuable as an indication of ability. As Pappano argues, “perhaps all this amped-up degree-getting just represents job market ‘signaling’ — the economist A. Michael Spence’s Nobel-worthy notion that degrees are less valuable for what you learn than for broadcasting your go-get-’em qualities.”

This devaluing of the B.A. and signaling ability with the M.A., then, is a trend that’s likely to continue. After all, as the Times article pointed out “Nearly 2 in 25 people age 25 and over have a master’s, about the same proportion that had a bachelor’s or higher in 1960,” and that’s probably not a historical coincidence as much as an indication that the former will follow the latter’s trajectory.

So, who knows? Give it 50 years, and we might well be having this conversation about the PhD. (Though the life expectancy for when I was born has me dying sometime around 2058, so I might not be around to see it.) That aspect of history repeating itself means that Hanushek may then be less hyperbolic than he intended when he quipped that “in 20 years, you’ll need a Ph.D. to be a janitor” as part of his condemnation of “credentialing gone amok.”

Now, as I said above, there are things you legitimately need master’s degrees to do. Generally, those are professional degrees: the MBA is helpful in learning how to run a business, the MSW helps you be a social worker, the MFA is good for being an artist or architect. The degrees that are proliferating are variations on these degrees: a “master’s in public history (for work at a historical society or museum), in art (for managing galleries) and in music (for choir directors or the business side of music).”

That is, there seems to be something of a “shift of graduate work from intellectual pursuit to a skill-based ‘ticket to a vocation.'” Pappano is pretty critical of this: “What’s happening to academic reflection? Must knowledge be demonstrable to be valuable?” she asks. “Or have we lost the ability to figure things out without a syllabus?” I am sympathetic to this, as this has been my gut reaction—to my student, and to my M.A. colleagues.

But, upon further reflection, if these degrees mean we can stop the professionalization of the bachelor’s, I might be in favor of it. That is, there’s an increasing push to turn the undergraduate curriculum into a factory for white-collar workers. There’s a tendency toward teaching students “skills” that they can immediately apply in the jobs they (apparently won’t) get after graduation.

But college is a time to learn how to think. Not what to think, despite the exactly one student evaluation form every semester concerned that I am “too liberal,” but how.

As the product of a really good undergraduate education (Cal has consistently been somewhere in the top 5 in the world in the numbers I have. And, we beat Stanford in 2010. Go Bears!), I had a leg up on people I encountered when I worked in the business world.

Yes, I walked into my first office job without specific knowledge about business, but I knew how to think critically and ask questions, which ended up serving me pretty well and maybe actually being the “skill” set I needed to work that professional job after all, despite the tendency toward vocationalization.

That’s what we owe undergraduates. To extend the platitude, it’s not to give them a fish, but it’s also not to teach them how to fish. We have to teach them how to figure out how to fish. It’s second-order. Or maybe third-order. Something. And if they then want to go and get specific skill training in a master’s degree instead of doing research, I suppose I can be down with that.

As long as I get an asterisk next to mine that shows I did do research.

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