Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

You Shouldn’t Have to Pay for That IR Master’s

Institutions like the State Department need to scrap credentialism.

By , an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Advocates for student debt cancellation in front of the White House
Advocates for student debt cancellation display a hand-painted sign in front of the White House in Washington on June 15. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for We the 45 Million

In 1903, the polymath Harvard University professor William James published a screed decrying the trend toward requiring professors to attain the then-new Ph.D. degree. Researchers may need the degree, James argued, but someone teaching undergraduates should be hired on the basis of their talents and capability to impart knowledge through instruction—skills at best uncorrelated with possessing a doctorate.

The essay’s distinguished author and its arresting title—“The Ph.D. Octopus”—guaranteed it a lasting readership. Its fame persists, even though it had no effect whatsoever. Over the succeeding century, doctoral degrees became an all-but-universal qualification for holding an instructional position in most disciplines—despite any evidence that professors trained as researchers deliver the instructional goods.

But when it comes to equating credentials with competence, there’s a more pressing problem: the proliferation of pricey master’s degrees and the increasing demand that candidates for critical jobs have them. That’s a credentialism that’s helping turn many careers—including some in U.S. government service—into something only the privileged or the lucky can afford.

In 1903, the polymath Harvard University professor William James published a screed decrying the trend toward requiring professors to attain the then-new Ph.D. degree. Researchers may need the degree, James argued, but someone teaching undergraduates should be hired on the basis of their talents and capability to impart knowledge through instruction—skills at best uncorrelated with possessing a doctorate.

The essay’s distinguished author and its arresting title—“The Ph.D. Octopus”—guaranteed it a lasting readership. Its fame persists, even though it had no effect whatsoever. Over the succeeding century, doctoral degrees became an all-but-universal qualification for holding an instructional position in most disciplines—despite any evidence that professors trained as researchers deliver the instructional goods.

But when it comes to equating credentials with competence, there’s a more pressing problem: the proliferation of pricey master’s degrees and the increasing demand that candidates for critical jobs have them. That’s a credentialism that’s helping turn many careers—including some in U.S. government service—into something only the privileged or the lucky can afford.

Once an exclusive credential, master’s degrees are now increasingly common. Since 1970, the number of master’s degrees conferred by U.S. institutions of higher education has more than tripled, from 235,564 in 1970-1971 to 820,102 in 2017-2018 (the most recent year for which data is available).

A recent Wall Street Journal article about the straits of students with master’s degrees (headlined “Financially Hobbled For Life”) kicked off a contretemps about whether the degrees are overpriced or outright predatory. Like earlier spates of discourse about graduate school debt, the Journal article and subsequent commentary focused on extreme cases, such as a Master of Fine Arts student who earns at most $60,000 a year carrying $331,000 in student loans. That focus reflects some parochialism: The number of humanities degrees awarded has actually gone down in several fields—like English literature and language—since 1970.

But the main problem isn’t students who, for whatever reason, blow tens of thousands of dollars on a creative arts degree. It’s the fields that now effectively demand a master’s degree even when they’re not needed—adding burdens of time and cost for the potential employee, not the employer. That’s especially relevant for fields in international relations and foreign policy, where salaries tend to be low-ish and the cost of credentials seems to be rising.

During the rebound from the Great Recession that began in 2008, the laid-off and the underemployed turned to master’s programs to make themselves more competitive during a slack labor market. Employers could be choosier and often chose the higher-credentialed applicants, ratcheting up demand for master’s degrees and helping to hollow out corporate and governmental training programs for new hires.

As a result, traditional programs like MFAs or master’s in history or political science have been displaced by narrower, sometimes absurdly practical degrees. Demand for these vocational M.A.s is surging. The fourth-quickest-growing degree, increasing more than fortyfold since 1970-1971, is in “Parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies,” a category that includes kinesiology and golf course management. The third-fastest-growing category is “Homeland security, law enforcement, and firefighting,” which includes everything from classic criminal justice degrees to emergency management to cybersecurity degrees. And the fastest-growing programs, an increase of over 177 times compared to 1970 enrollment numbers (albeit to only 355 students), are in “Military technologies and applied sciences,” highly specialized degrees in subjects like command and control systems and operations, directed energy systems, and radar communications and systems technology.

Narrow doesn’t mean useless. Yet master’s programs’ turn toward narrower training raises the question of why students should bear the cost of their credentialing. Employers could easily, if not altogether cheaply, provide the necessary skill development for such narrow specializations. This would shift some of the costs back onto employers, but the trade-off would be that they could likely train workers to fit their needs better than general-purpose university programs. (Can you really learn how to run a golf course better by paying for lectures than by spending the same amount of time being paid to care for the greens?)

The emergence of a master’s degree as a near-requirement for breaking into certain fields has other problems. As one former defense journalist observed on Twitter, the national security field draws almost exclusively from a few pipelines. Graduate school is one of those. Elite master’s programs like Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Harvard’s Kennedy School help students move into that field and such related ones as diplomacy, foreign aid, and development.

Compared to the elite programs that the Wall Street Journal scorned, these degrees help students succeed. Yet they also constitute barriers to entry. They cost a lot of money, which itself deters students from lower-income brackets, and they produce a similarity in temperament, background, and worldview that undermines aspirations to diversity in foreign policy. And as academically rigorous as such programs are, some of them, at least, provide less vocational training than the federal government—and the public—might expect. Even in the best-case scenario, the system works only up to a point.

In principle, the problem of master’s overproduction is fixable, especially in the foreign-policy and international relations sphere. Training for the civilian side of the government could be reorganized to better address the needs of the federal government in an era of great-power competition. Enrollment in foreign-language master’s programs that would seem to be necessary for a globalized world has collapsed in relative and absolute terms: In 1970-1971, 5,480 students received master’s degrees in foreign languages, but in 2017-2018 only 3,261 students did. Initiatives like federal scholarships for future diplomats and language study could be expanded, but this will help only at the margins.

What would be better for international relations and foreign-policy career tracks would be a concerted push to rectify when and for whom master’s degrees are needed. Federal agencies could adjust their hiring requirements to broaden intake from the ranks of young college graduates and then pay for their master’s degrees only if their job requires them, similar to the military’s program for graduate degrees, or even open a civilian equivalent of the service branches’ war colleges.

This should be part of a broader federal push to slow or even reverse the growth of master’s degrees (including switching loan-funded programs with directly funded ones) and to make programs’ value (or lack of value) more transparent. If master’s programs are run like businesses, then better consumer protections are needed. Shifting the need for graduate degree back to careers that really require such additional training and shifting more of the cost of training for the workforce back to employers will produce a fairer and more stable labor market—and, in fields like foreign policy, likely a more effective workforce as well.

Such a policy would meet resistance from those who benefit from the status quo, including universities, employers, and legislators eager to save money on training on the backs of future federal workers. That’s why the most effective way to break the grip of the M.A. octopus would be the emergence of a persistent tight labor market that forces firms and agencies to hire relatively less-trained workers who receive on-the-job training. Disrupting the cycle of credential inflation would make it much easier for workers to start their careers without an additional load of debt—a policy goal that should receive a serious hearing.

Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.