The master’s degree bubble has already burst


The master’s degree bubble has already burst


Weren’t master’s degrees supposed to become the new bachelor’s degree?

At least, that’s what the headlines told us. And it makes perfect sense: Master’s degrees in professional fields help colleges and universities fulfill missions to lead regional economic development, expand access by reaching adult students, and support career switchers. Plus, master’s degrees have been growing at a steady clip in almost every field…until now.

In the throes of the Recession, conferrals of master’s degrees and professional doctorates grew across nearly all disciplines. This represented an acceleration of overall growth in the master’s market that stretched back to the ’90s, a time when master’s degree programs in professional fields were only just becoming more common.

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Fast forward to 2014 and things start to change. A lot. After the effects of the Recession subsided, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) revised its projections for master’s degree growth lower and lower. In fact, every year for the past five years, NCES has lowered its expectations for master’s degree growth—those are the dotted lines in the chart below.

In 2014, what were bullish predictions of over a million master’s degree conferrals annually by 2024 steadily dropped to a projected 840,000 master’s degree conferrals by 2029. That’s almost 200,000 fewer master’s degrees conferred. And if we assume that, on average, a master’s program still takes two years to complete, every potential conferral represents two potential students. That’s almost 400,000 fewer master’s students projected in the market, and what we’ve estimated as roughly $7.2B less master’s degree tuition revenue in the market overall.


fewer master’s students projected in the market

When we look at actual master's degree growth patterns by field, the picture is still sobering, but more complex. Up until 2011 nearly every major master’s degree and professional doctorate field was growing. But the market split after 2011. Fields like computer science, engineering, and the health professions started to experience breakaway growth, while most other fields declined, as shown in the chart below.

The breakaway growth in some master's degree programs might seem like a bright spot, but high-growth programs in computer science, engineering, and health care fields are also some of the most expensive to deliver. The costs to recruit faculty, secure clinical placements, and update technology and facilities make it challenging for many institutions to offer these programs or to prevent costs from outpacing revenues.

Chart showing master degree enrollment across fields. The high-growth seen in fields like computer science, engineering, and health care fields are also some of the most expensive to deliver.

In spite of these challenges, with the right investments in the right programs, it is still possible to grow master’s degree enrollments—but not without understanding the threat of competition on both the local and national levels. Subscribe to keep up to date with our upcoming posts that explore the competitive landscape for master’s degrees and which types of programs offer the best chance of capturing share in crowded markets.

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