Of course, there are predatory master’s programs. The programs featured in the WSJ story do seem bad. They are taking advantage of students by exploiting their aspirations. It’s a prime example of how aspiration and inequality are explored by institutions, as Tressie McMillan Cottom described in LowerEd. It might not be unfair to call these programs scams. But we probably want to be careful about defining any program that exceeds the debt-to-income ratio of 1 as a scam.
When I was playing around with the WSJ tool, I think I noticed something. Many of the institutions whose programs fell beyond the threshold fell into three catalogs. My categories are anecdotal, based on my subjective observations. And it’s not a complete accounting of every program. So take it for what it’s worth (you can be the judge of that).
For-profit colleges: Not a big surprise. There is lots of evidence about how for-profits have high costs and don’t provide a great return to students regarding post-graduation earnings.
Highly selective privates in desirable cities: Here’s looking at you USC, Columbia, NYU. These programs, especially in arts and helping fields, irritate the public and reform. And justifiably so. These places charge extraordinarily high prices for programs in areas where the pay is low or the outcomes are uncertain. The students want to live in a good city. They want the halo of a degree from a prestigious institution. These places are trafficking in desperation and desire. They are laundering LowerEd through Gothic spires. Of course, not all their master’s programs are doing that. But some of them are. That’s the thing.
HBCUs and other under-supported universities that support marginalized students: Of the ten business administration programs that exceed the threshold, 3 are public HBCUs. Friends, 30% of MBA programs are not found at HBCUs. Not even close. The prominence of HBCUs points to something other than a scam perpetrated by the institutions. Public HBCUs have been chronically underfunded for 150 years. Black people are discriminated against in the labor market. The racial wealth gap means that Black people often have to borrow to get an education. What we see here could be a structural problem. One that you can’t fix by regulating scams.
Credentialism is an issue.
But it might not be a scam. The need to get an MBA to advance in business is possibly not justified by what students learn in MBA programs. It might be about social capital - the networking that happens in MBA programs. It might be about signaling. Education credentials could be about school district mandates or salary schedules, which might not result in better teaching. These debates are old, and they are legitimate. We should try to understand how credentialism distorts education and labor makers. But this is not a new scam.
What should we do?
I don’t know. Would you please not ask me? There are several policy fixes to address predatory master’s degrees. Grad PLUS could be capped or eliminated. Gainful employment regulations that make federal loan availability contingent upon a good debt to income ratio could be imposed on all sorts of master’s programs (including at non-profit and public institutions). Or some risk-sharing arrangement could be imposed where the school has to pay back part of the loan if a student defaults. I’ll leave that to the real wonks.
In addition to the technocratic solutions, however, I think we need to keep things in perspective. Master’s degrees are a long-standing part of US higher education. Most master’s degrees are in very well-established fields that have been around for a long time. In most programs, most students who borrow do just fine, have a good income relative to their debt. Graduate debt might be a problem, but dragging all master’s programs seems an unnecessary response.
Probably the root causes of credentialism and the exploitation of aspiration and desperation are things we should be worried about. But saying “master’s degrees are the problem, let’s regulate them out of existence” isn’t really a solution to those problems.
Maybe my reasonable personal expense is a cash cow master’s program clouds my judgment. But let us slow down before we declare master’s degrees the second biggest scam in higher education.
Edited on July 20 to correct a spelling error.