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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.

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Initiative, talent, and the willingness to work don't necessarily correlate with high test scores, he says.

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"But certificates?" Mitchell's eyes widen. "I would scrutinize a certificate."

Mitchell is equally emphatic about the degree hierarchy: "An associate's is not worth anything," he says. "A bachelor's is better. And a master's better still."

Leapfrogging the bachelor's

For some like Kusler, this was a given. Her aim all along was to work with children as a physical therapist, and there was no way to do that without a graduate degree.

But even in occupations that do not formally require postgraduate education, some employers have begun using graduate degrees as a filter.

"There's been some slight shifting to hiring more advanced degrees, particularly the master's – not MBAs, but generic master's," says Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. He notes that a number of his organization's members are now hiring people with a master's in engineering for jobs he'd assumed require only a bachelor's.

Mr. Koc speculates that "many individuals who pursue a master's degree do not pursue it directly out of college. They tend to work first," and that makes them more attractive.

There is, however, also the undeniable fact that the supply of Americans with master's degrees is exploding. There are 50 percent more people in the job market today with a master's than there were in 2000. And the rate of growth is accelerating: When the economy is in turmoil and jobs are scarce, graduate enrollments typically rise.

This, in turn, fuels the feeling that Green, the accelerated master's student at Emory University, has: "The master's seems like what you have to have to get where you want to go."

With few good jobs immediately available and cuts in such postgrad havens as the Peace Corps, many are postponing these experiences to get their master's sooner rather than later.

This explains why increasing numbers of schools let qualifying seniors take graduate courses that count toward the completion of their bachelor's while also earning graduate school credits.

Typically, this means that instead of spending four years as an undergraduate plus two years in graduate school, students earn both a bachelor's and master's in five, thus giving the bachelor's a run for its money.

Neither the NCES nor college associations tally the number of such programs; but Duane Larick, dean of North Carolina State University's Graduate School in Raleigh, looked into this when preparing a presentation about his own institution's program. He concludes that most institutions "have come up with some mechanism for a high-achieving undergraduate to pursue [an accelerated] master's."

C's the degree – credential inflation

Ironically, the push for master's degrees underscores the increasing need for the bachelor's while highlighting its weaknesses.

In theory, four years of undergraduate study nurtures critical thinking and the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing workplace.

But US college education has come under heavy criticism of late, and a bachelor's degree no longer guarantees that someone has actually acquired these crucial skills.

"There is this credential race going on," says Richard Arum, coauthor of "Academically Adrift," "where there is less attention to the substance of the education and more to the credentials that are useful as signals in the labor market."

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