Enrollment in American graduate degree programs is increasing, even as undergraduate enrollment declines continue in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With rising numbers of graduate students, there has been increased attention on understanding the value of these degrees, especially master’s degrees. When more workers attain higher credentials, the value of this credential could be diluted, causing the typical worker to earn less than they did a decade ago. But the growth in graduate degrees could instead signal a growing economic need and increased job openings for workers with specialized skills that can be attained through graduate education.
Using data from the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey and student survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, this brief examines graduate degree attainment and workers’ earnings over the past 30 years. I use a broad, national lens to describe aggregate returns regardless of field of study, though research indicates that returns by field of study vary substantially.
Despite increasing numbers of workers obtaining graduate credentials, the data show overall earnings for workers with these degrees have held steady, or slightly increased, over time. These results could point to growing labor market demand for workers with graduate credentials, rather than a dilution of the value of graduate degrees attributable to oversupply. But findings also show the increasing amount of debt that students take on to attain these degrees. Between 2000 and 2016, the median debt among borrowers completing a graduate degree nearly doubled, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Although typical earnings for graduate degree recipients have remained level, the cost of a graduate degree, particularly in the form of student debt, has risen sharply, biting into the overall return on investment for graduate education. Combined with other risks, such as the possibility of not completing a program or enrolling in a program that produces lower-than-typical earnings, these results indicate that policymakers should still ensure graduate programs are producing an appropriate return on investment.