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Cover Story

Bachelor's degree: Has it lost its edge and its value?

Undervalued and overpriced, the beleaguered bachelor's degree is losing its edge as the hallmark of an educated, readily employable American.

By Lee LawrenceCorrespondent / June 17, 2012

Doubts about the value of a bachelor's degree creates new routes to careers. This is part of the cover story project in the June 18, 2012 issue of The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine.

AP/File/Illustration by John Kehe/Staff

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New York

The children of white middle-class, college-educated parents, Hugh Green and Turner Jenkins are just the kind of kids everyone would expect to be stepping out into the world one sunny June day, bachelor's degrees in hand. But they both veered from the traditional American educational route.

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One decided that a bachelor's was never going to be enough, while the other concluded it was unnecessary.

Mr. Green enrolled in an accelerated program that will keep him at Emory University in Atlanta for a fifth year and earn him a master's degree. Mr. Jenkins is immersed in a culinary training program in Gaithersburg, Md., that he hopes will launch his career as a chef.

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Once the hallmark of an educated and readily employable adult, the bachelor's degree is losing its edge. Quicker, cheaper programs offer attractive career route alternatives while the more prestigious master's is trumping it, making it a mere steppingstone.

Studies show that people with four-year college degrees earn more money than those without over their lifetime, that they are more likely to find jobs and, once employed, are almost twice as likely to be selected for on-the-job training.

This has prompted a stampede through college and university gates.

But studies are like photographs: They record the past. They say nothing about the clear and present danger that the bachelor's degree is losing value.

"As more and more people get a bachelor's degree, it becomes more commonplace," says Linda Serra Hagedorn, immediate past president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education and associate dean and professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

And, she adds, "not all bachelor's are equal." In many communities around the country, the bachelor's is not enough to make you stand out. " 'A bachelor's in what?' that's the question," Professor Hagedorn says.

"Further blurring the line of what a bachelor's degree is and what it really means," she notes, are new attitudes and options in postsecondary education, such as the explosion of online and for-profit institutions, the proliferation of graduate degrees, and a much publicized malaise over the quality and value of undergraduate education.

Bartenders with bachelor's degrees

"A bachelor's is what a high school diploma used to be," suggests Caryn McTighe Musil of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

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