Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why get a master's degree, anyway?

Years ago I saw a poster that said simply, "Change your mind." It was an advertisement for a meditation class. Clever, succinct and almost a dare, the phrase could just as well advertise what happens when a university gives its students its best.

In a troubled economy, questions about value and worth are especially urgent. Such questions extend to all fields, including higher education. There's been debate in the press recently about the cost and value of college in general, and there's been debate about the master's degree in particular.

At the end of June, the New York Times asked a panel of experts -- two professors, one personal finance consultant, and a former university president -- what an MA is worth (you can read their responses here). It's an important question, except that the answers in the Times use a narrow understanding of "worth." The respondents talked mostly about whether or not an MA will help the recipient earn more money. In that context, they concluded that a master's degree is a waste of time.

But there are many ways to evaluate "worth" beyond the limited measure of dollars.

A person stepping into a master's program has made a commitment to be part of a community of scholars, which in and of itself is pretty exciting. If she's sincere in her commitment, going to school is not a "hobby" or a casual endeavor. It is consuming, the way training becomes consuming for a serious athlete. Already the student is drawn out of herself and into a larger world. There's something heady, even a little intoxicating, about a classroom full of people trying to understand how, for instance, a new interpretation of French postmodern feminist literature can influence the controversy about Muslim women wearing religious headscarves in Paris. Does such insight guarantee the student a higher salary when she's finished her degree? Nope. But does it change, even in a small way, her perception of the world around her? It certainly can. And does this matter?


It points to the most significant benefit of taking the degree, and recalls the gentle exhortation of that poster from the past. A true education cannot leave a student unchanged. Over time, she comes to perceive more detail, nuance, interconnection, and potential in everything around her. Whether she's studying landscape ecology or American colonial history or Anglophone literature or early childhood education or molecular anthropology, her world becomes wonderfully more complicated the more she studies.

She will also be changed by the work required to do well. The countless hours reading, researching, attending and participating in classes, listening to colleagues differ or find consensus, influence her thinking and her sense of connection to and responsibilities within the larger world.

Then there's the writing. Any master's program worth its salt (from the Latin sal, the root of the word "salary") requires students to write. And write. And write. No matter what comes after the MA, a student who becomes a competent writer graduates with a skill marketable across nearly all job categories. We're back to the monetary rewards of the degree, but this particular point wasn't mentioned by the quartet who wrote for the Times. I'll even make the claim that if a student (at any university) does not become a better writer by the time she has earned the master's, then that university has failed her.

It's true that an MA at a private research university can be expensive. It's also true that a direct link between that degree and a higher-paying job is sometimes elusive. But it's hard to argue that there is no link at all. The person who emerges from the classes and the research and the writing with that master of arts is not the same person who first enrolled. Her journey through the process has changed her mind -- and thus changed her world -- forever and completely.