Sarah-Jane Lorenzo writes for the Martin Center about a pressing issue in higher education.

In the past 20 years, the number of students earning a master’s degree has more than doubled. Over 42 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients now go on to earn their master’s. This degree proliferation raises a serious question: Are master’s degrees on track to become the new bachelor’s?

If so, the extra years of schooling may not benefit graduates much.

Graduates with their master’s, for instance, are less than half a percent more likely to be employed than those with only undergraduate educations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, although master’s degrees are associated with an average salary increase of nearly $12,000, earnings benefits vary greatly by discipline. Data from suggest that master’s graduates in some fields (such as literature and history) do not increase their earnings at all. For students in those fields, earning a master’s degree may most notably lead to a large amount of debt. The biggest boost from a master’s degree accrues for students in science and engineering fields.

While employment and earnings data do not suggest that a master’s degree boxes out bachelor’s recipients from getting jobs, master’s degrees may have different benefits beyond measurable employment data. …

… The sharp increase in master’s degrees indicates that undergraduate degrees—once the hallmark of intellectualism and achievement—are now losing their relative value. What was once exceptional has become a basic requirement. Despite the extra expense, the growing market for master’s degrees suggests that students see value in earning one. Master’s degree recipients have increased during economic recession and expansion alike, hinting that this is a generational phenomenon associated with the change in overall education attainment. While the intellectual benefits of graduate education are an undeniable draw, the substantial increase in master’s degree attainment implies that market-based motivations also are at play.