BOSTON — Evan Medeiros had hit a plateau. Three years out of college, he was a successful analyst at a Washington, D.C., think tank. His job was good, but he wanted a crack at more responsibility and influence.
His solution: head for graduate school. "I think a master's degree is just universally required - especially in my field," he says.
Forty years ago, a high school diploma could garner a well-paying job. But much of the job growth today is in computer programming, engineering, and teaching - all of which are progressively requiring more schooling. Many students also like the opportunities a professional degree, such as law or business, can offer them.
"Today a graduate degree is what an undergraduate degree was to your parents and what a high school degree was to your grandparents," says Art Levine, director of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.
Robert Zemsky, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education and a graduate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, concurs. "The college degree isn't what it used to be. Having this commodity doesn't make you any different or more coveted within your cohort group."
Ranks of students grow
As a result, growing numbers of students are considering an advanced degree. In a study conducted by the American Council on Education, two-thirds of undergraduate freshmen surveyed intended to pursue a master's degree. By 2000, it is projected there will be 15-1/2-million graduate students in America - over 28 percent more than in 1980.
An increasingly competitive workplace is fueling the increased attendance at graduate programs. "People think they need it for credentials," Mr. Zemsky says. "Most don't regard pursuing a master's degree to be leisure time."
In addition to growing numbers, the face of the student body is changing. For one thing, graduate students are now older. In 1993, 6.5 million, or 45 percent, were between the ages of 25 and 34, 36 percent were over 35, and only 19 percent were 25 years or younger, according to the US Department of Education.
One reason for the high proportion of older students is that American adults today tend to change professions multiple times and look to further education to facilitate the jump.
Mr. Levine says a typical gathering of graduate students will include professionals from bankers and Wall Street analysts to Peace Corps volunteers searching for new careers.
There has been another change as well: Women now account for 57 percent of the graduate population, up from 48 percent in 1976. "Women are now the most credentialed element of society," Mr. Zemsky says.
But attending graduate school is not cheap. The average full-time graduate tuition in 1995 was $11,079.
Mr. Medeiros is avoiding high debt with a Fulbright scholarship, but educators are raising red flags about the growing number of graduate students who are saddled with a heavy debt burden for many years after graduation.
Depending on the field a graduate enters, of course, an advanced degree can be worth it in the long run. As of 1992, the average annual income was $74,500 for an individual with a professional degree; $41,000 for someone with a master's degree; and $32,000 for a bachelor's degree holder, according to the US Department of Education.
But Zemsky counsels attending graduate school soon after college.
"The opportunity cost of attending is much lower," he says, explaining that many college graduates don't get good jobs until their late 20s and often have to be content with temporary and intermittent employment.
By going to graduate school within a few years after college, young adults are not missing the window of opportunity to move up the promotional ladder.
Brad Tinkham, who graduated this year from the University of Michigan, decided to plunge right in to graduate school. Mr. Tinkham will be studying optoelectronics at the University of Texas this fall.
"Money isn't the motive really," he says, "it's getting into the field of my preference."
Indeed, Levine cites two key reasons for pursuing another degree: the love of the field, and needed credentials. "If neither of these is true, there is no reason to go to graduate school," he says.
Time off doesn't hurt
But not everyone suggests going directly from college to graduate work. Work experience, in fact, is often key to admission to a graduate school, especially in the business field.
"If a student isn't sure and still has all the qualifications, it's okay to put it off a year - and they're probably better off," says Marianne Wisheart, associate director of the recruiting program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
Levine agrees. "Students who come with work experience arrive with a better background and they're more fun to teach."
Heather Marsh took a year off to work at a military base in Japan before attending Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C. Her motive is her "passion for injustice against women and society," she says.
Medeiros followed suit, acquiring work experience that, combined with his graduate study, may give him the edge he is seeking when he starts job-hunting.
"The first year out of grad school is going to be much more productive than another in D.C.," Medeiros says.