By Richard Vedder
The New York Times has an opinion dialogue this morning on the value of a master's degree. It makes for an interesting read.
Four persons, including yours truly, were asked if the master's degree was worth getting. The answers were surprisingly similar and mildly negative. Mark Taylor, chair of religion studies at Columbia, wrote a great piece where he notes the financial problems of higher education and questions the value of master's study on cost-benefit grounds (he sounds like an economist, and a very good one at that). Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, famed president emeritus of George Washington University, is rather frivoulous in his assessment, ending up saying, roughly, if you are having fun and someone else is subsidizing you, go for it. Maybe you will pick up a spouse along the way. Liz Weston, personal finance guru, agrees with me: for many students, the master's degree is questionable on cost-benefit grounds, but for others, it can be a winner.
As Trachtenberg observes, we are in a world of degree inflation. Jobs once awarded to persons with high school diplomas now routinely go to persons with bachelor's degrees --mail carriers and policemen, for example. In some cases, a master's degree is often required, even though the content of the degree has little or nothing to do with the job in question. Are we over or under-invested in higher education? In a forthcoming book, my colleague Andy Gillen and I are going to argue that we are on balance OVERINVESTED. That raises the question: what is the optimal amount of education per person? It varies with individuals, academic disciplines, and place of residence. But it is a question that should be asked, and answered, more often.