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A Manufactured Controversy about Master’s Degrees

June 1, 2015

Despite the off-putting title of this Chronicle article by Leonard Cassuto (i.e. “The Degree for Quitters and Failures: A look at the melancholy history of the master’s degree”), I really wanted to be engaged by it. Instead, I found myself questioning and arguing with it almost immediately. By the end I found it nearly useless—except as a potential provocation for better future analyses by frustrated readers like me. My disagreements began here:

In discussions of graduate school, the master’s degree gets lost easily because there has been little conversation about it. Educators “want to talk about Ph.D.s,” said Carol Lynch, a former graduate dean and program officer at the Council of Graduate Schools. “They don’t want to talk about master’s degrees.”

Discussions with whom? How were they framed? What reasons are given by the students for not wanting to talk about them?

And because the M.A. gets so little notice, there’s no agreement about what it should do. It’s not so much that the degree lacks meaning as that it has too many meanings — though in the end, that’s much the same thing.

So little notice from whom? What programs were being measured? Who’s asking “what it should do”—the faculty or the students? What does notice have to do with meaning? And if they have anything to do with each other, wouldn’t a multiplicity of meanings be indicative of potentially more notice?

Master’s programs have one thing in common, though: They don’t offer graduate-student aid to the vast majority of their students. More than anything, that suggests the main purpose of the M.A. in today’s graduate-school universe (read: cash cow).

The first half of that statement is not absolutely true. It may be generally true, but my own spouse received grad student aid as an MA student. It may be rare to receive research or teaching aid as an MA student, but let’s be more nuanced about the when-and-where of that category. As for the second-part of the statement, I’m liable to believe it, but I’d have to know more numbers to affirm or deny the proposition. Cassuto’s article, however, contains zero statistics to back up the claim. (Full disclosure: I’m employed as a graduate adviser by an institution that offers a number of MA and MS programs, and have been advising graduate students since September 2012. I may be inclined to minimize any purely capitalist arguments about offering the credential.)

From this point Cassuto forwards some history about the MA credential that to me, as a historian with a professed interest in the history of higher ed, seemed rather uncontroversial, at first anyway. Pointing to Johns Hopkins is standard practice in most narratives on the history of graduate higher ed. My sources on this matter are not near at hand (as I write this response). And Cassuto does not name, in his piece, all of the historian(s) on which he’s basing his narrative/analysis. He does name a 1938 article by Philip L. Harriman as his source for numbers of MAs awarded from 1900 to the 1930s.

On Cassuto’s history, however, he gathers his assessment of the credential’s “melancholy history” by citing, in essence, the words of Ephraim Emerton in 1894, Ira Remsen in 1908, Frank J. Goodnow in 1923, and J.P. Elder in 1959. With that historical “quadrangulation” (of sorts), Cassuto jumps to the present—assuming their skepticism and extrapolating their doubts. No positive assessments are included. No analytical energy is given to replies or questioning of the generalizations of those four data points.

In the present, Cassuto continues his chronicle of woe:

Today, the meaning of the master’s degree — especially in the humanities — remains confusing. Apart from the fields of engineering and education (and of course, business), the degree is misbegotten. It also carries a stigma because of its continuing association with high-school teaching.

So now we’re too it. Not only has Cassuto dishonestly cherry-picked his historical evidence, but the Master’s is now a lesser credential because of its association with the teaching profession. Cassuto has diminished his intellectual integrity with a blanket denigration of teacher training and credentialism. Color me unimpressed with the analysis in this piece. But I’ll continue because I like to give an honest hearing until the bitter end.

Cassuto’s assault on Master’s programs continues:

Some universities have sought to tap the “personal growth” market with M.A.s in “liberal studies” and other broad designations. From the universities’ perspective, those programs are designed for a different kind of growth, the kind that you see on the bottom line.

Cassuto *may* be right (or wrong) about the “growth” ethic of universities (per my comment above), but where’s the analysis of student/consumer demand here? Is it not true that these programs would cease to exist if enrollments were too low? In my experience no academic program, however intrinsically valuable, survives enrollment problems. And why denigrate the already embattled humanities program market? Worse yet, why kick continued education in the liberal arts at a time when critical thinking in America is under assault by alternative politicized media?

Cassuto continues:

Besides functioning as a steppingstone toward the doctorate, however, the master’s also serves as a balm of sorts for failed doctoral candidates. It’s common to describe those master’s recipients as having “washed out” of their Ph.D. programs. That phrase demands close reading: It renders such students as human stains. No wonder the master’s degree has a respect problem.

Again, no statistics are offered. No specifics on programs wherein the door-prize Master’s is an actual thing. If this only affects say five percent of the grad student population, or maybe 1-2 percent of Master’s given annually, does that justify saying the Master’s has a “respect problem.” So much for Cassuto’s close reading ability.

Cassuto’s analysis ends with a whimper in that he discusses an entirely different realm of problems. He switches from reputation issues to economic disincentives. Namely, that in the 1950s and 1960s an economic incentive came into being in relation to graduate science PhD programs. Flush federal funds for the sciences caused students in the sciences to go for the PhD rather than stop with an MA. Cassuto takes that example and extrapolates to all graduate programs, of all subject types.

Finally, Cassuto’s breezy and dishonest discussion culminates in the following closing statement:

When overall funding of higher education waned in the 1970s and afterward, master’s programs everywhere found themselves starved for support because, once the flood of money slowed, doctoral programs sucked up whatever was left.

Some science departments did away with the M.A. entirely, as did others in the humanities. The value of the degree waned. Always hard to classify, it became a degree that the professoriate stopped caring about at all — and it shows. …Generations of neglect have damaged the master’s degree so that it means all manner of things to all people — and nothing much to anyone.

Here we have a flat-out contradiction. Nobody cares now about the Master’s, but Cassuto doesn’t reconcile that with notion, presented earlier in his piece, that Master’s have become merely a cash cow for universities. If it is a revenue source, everyone up and down the higher ed chain would care about them. Cassuto can’t recognize the contradiction because his analytical tools are limited. Had he given some thought to the rise of neoliberalism in universities, as well as the reduced vision of legislatures about higher education as a common good and consequent diminished funding, Cassuto could’ve discussed the rise of the Master’s as a potential income source in relation to funding scarcity.

As a coda, Cassuto offers the following: “But there is a notable exception to this sad tale of an abused and neglected academic credential. Next month I’ll focus on the professional master’s degree, a story of both triumph and woe.”

Now he tells us that the entire discussion above excluded “professional master’s degrees.” As if others, in education or history or literature, were not professional endeavors. [Author bangs head on desk.]

What is one to do with this piece? I don’t know, other than to declare it dishonest and probably politically motivated. I can’t quite see Cassuto’s agenda, however, through his thin evidentiary forest of historical confusion. I don’t know that either this piece or his next will forward anything but a manufactured controversy about the Master’s credential. – TL


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  1. Sanantone permalink

    I hope this doesn’t come off sounding too harsh, but the article by Cassuto, an English professor, was poorly-written. It was so confusing and misleading, that multiple people complained in the comments. There were several problems with the article.

    First of all, Cassuto uses master’s and M.A. interchangeably. Secondly, Cassuto only addresses the humanities (and briefly sciences) and compares them to business, education, and engineering programs. Not only did Cassuto imply that he didn’t even think to consider the many careers that require a professional master’s for licensure (mostly healthcare careers), but he also did not make one mention of the social sciences. Thirdly, Cassuto failed to address the M.S.

    In reality, both the MS and MA degrees in the liberal arts (humanities, math, science, and social science) act as a gateway to the PhD or research-oriented positions outside of academia. As stated in his comments in the article, a master’s degree is the requirement for many non-academic positions in the natural sciences. If one reviews Georgetown University’s report on employment with various degrees, salaries increase and unemployment rates decrease significantly with a graduate degree in the social sciences. As a matter of fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the master’s is usually the entry-level degree for political scientists, sociologists, economists, and industrial/organizational psychologists.

    Furthermore, there are MA programs that are specifically designed to meet licensing requirements. One can find these programs in the fields of speech-language pathology, counseling, and marriage and family therapy. Even an MA in psychology can be used to become licensed as a psychological associate.

    • Sanantone permalink

      Correction: As stated in the comments on his article.

    • Sanantone: Thanks for the comment. My apologies for this much delayed reply. I try to avoid the comments sections of online publications, excepting a few (e.g. the S-USIH blog). I’m with you 100 percent on Cassuto avoiding the relevant differences between the MA, MS, licensure Master’s, etc. He denigrated teacher’s MA credentials (presumably the MAT), which is just a ridiculous move—since few academics know what they entail. It was just a bad piece all the way around. – TL

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