Can a Master’s Degree Pay Off?

Last Updated September 24, 2018

Professionals looking to advance their career options and boost their earning potential often determine that pursuing a master’s degree is an investment in their future.

Federal statistics show that median weekly earnings were higher in 2016 for full-time workers with a master’s degree ($1,380) compared to those with just a bachelor’s degree ($1,156) – an annual difference of more than $11,000.

Similarly, a higher educational level was associated with a lower unemployment rate: 2.4% for master’s-degree holders vs. 2.7% for bachelor’s-degree holders in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

At the same time, the U.S. workplace is assigning more of a premium on a college education. Since the early 1970s, the portion of jobs requiring at least a master’s degree has jumped by more than 60%, with about 1 in 9 positions now calling for graduate-level or higher qualifications, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports.

The BLS has projected that the fastest job growth (18.4%) nationwide from 2012-22 will be in occupations where a master’s degree generally is the minimum educational requirement. Most of those new jobs will be in healthcare and social assistance, the federal agency reported in 2013.

More Students Choosing Online

With the rising value of an advanced degree, working professionals have increasingly seen the appeal of online learning when it comes to balancing work and family obligations with career and educational goals.

More than 6 million U.S. college students, or about 30%, were enrolled in at least one distance education course as of 2015, according to The Distance Education Enrollment Report published in 2017 by the Digital Learning Compass consortium. That’s an annual increase of almost 4%.

Nearly 3 million of those students were taking all their courses online.

To meet growing demand among nontraditional students, more nationally ranked and regionally accredited universities are offering degree programs 100% online, with the same rigorous curriculum as their campus-based courses.

More than two-thirds (71%) of academic leaders nationwide consider the learning outcomes in online programs to match or exceed those of classroom-based courses, the Babson Survey Research Group reported in a 2015 survey.

Growing Familiarity with Online Learning

Rising enrollment and program growth increase familiarity with online learning among employers and hiring managers, helping counter any negative perceptions related to the readiness of graduates for the workforce. Whether a prospective employee studied online or on campus, human resources professionals will likely focus on the quality and reputation of the degree-granting institution.

Accreditation is a prime consideration. To be eligible for employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement programs, many companies require employees to enroll in schools with regional accreditation, the highest standard for U.S. universities.

Prospective students should also be aware that admission into a graduate-level program often requires a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited university. Accreditation also helps determine whether prior credits will transfer.

So, can a master’s degree pay off? The answer will be determined by many factors, including an individual’s experience, training and qualifications, as well as market conditions and the specific industry. But what’s clear from research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Center on Education and the Workforce, and other organizations is the growing importance of a graduate-level education in the job market.

More than 1 in 4 employers are recruiting master’s degree-holders for jobs that traditionally required an undergraduate degree, the global recruitment firm CareerBuilder reported in 2016.

Nearly one-third of employers had upped their educational requirements during the previous five years, with most saying an evolving workplace was driving the need for “higher educated, higher skilled labor,” the CareerBuilder survey found.