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Years ago, having any type of undergraduate degree opened up doors to society’s better jobs. While associate’s and bachelor’s degrees still offer college graduates plenty of career options today, these degrees don’t have the power they used to. Now, having an undergraduate degree has become the norm and graduate education is growing in importance.

Social and economic factors have impacted the educational system in the United States, and some say this has led to an increase in the demand for graduate degrees. More people are looking for an edge in the competitive workplace and are turning to graduate-level education to get it.

According to the report “The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States,” by 2018, 2.5 million new jobs are estimated to need advanced degrees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs requiring master’s degrees will grow by 18% from 2008 to 2018.

The “Path Forward” study, produced by the Council of Graduate Schools and Educational Testing Service, also reports that master’s-level education is the largest segment of graduate education with more than 75% of graduate students in master’s degree programs. 

Employer demand has played an important role in the growth in master’s degrees programs. Master’s degrees are preferred and have become a requirement for entry into many professions.

“In a lot of areas, a master’s degree is being seen as necessary for entry and it increases the likelihood of employment, and that job security can be attractive,” says Belle Woods, spokesperson for the Council of Graduate Schools.

A graduate degree definitely puts people in a better position.

According to W. David Jones, an associate professor for the Accelerated Master of Business Administration (AMBA) program at South University — Savannah, graduate degrees offer benefits to both students and employers.

“There are two primary benefits: one, it sets [graduates] apart from those without the degree because they are seen as having a higher level of skill, determination, and drive,” he says. “Two, they do, in fact, have better skills and a more comprehensive understanding of the business world than those with just an undergraduate degree.”

Global competition and the shift to a knowledge-based economy are also major factors in the growing demand for graduate degrees. In the past decade, major cultural changes have resulted in increased access to higher education in many countries and more focus on the economic benefits of a highly trained workforce.

“It is more attractive for U.S. industries to have a concentration of highly skilled workers here,” Woods says. “There is a large concentration of people with master’s degrees and that can make it attractive for businesses to build here.”

Also, the recession brought layoffs and cutbacks that sent many searching for a way to ensure continued employability and career advancement.

“Everybody from CFOs to bookkeepers are out of work and there is still saturation in the marketplace,” says Jessica Renard, director of Career Services at South University — West Palm Beach. “A graduate degree definitely puts people in a better position.”

Master’s degree programs often have the strongest connection to the workforce because they teach students the skills required for particular fields, according to the “Path Forward” report.

Jones says graduate programs offer training in skills that can be directly applied to work situations. For example, an MBA program can provide students with communications, conceptual, analytical, and information technology skills.

“The MBA is valued by graduates and employers because the skills learned in the program are directly transferrable to a job,” he says.

Renard says graduate education also gives students opportunities to network.

“Students can get recommendations and references and get some practical exposure into the field through internships,” she states.

While grad school can offer many benefits, it is important to keep in mind that a graduate education can cost a student a lot of time and money. Graduate students also have to carefully balance the demands of work and family with their studies.

Those considering a graduate-level program should evaluate their career goals and research the jobs they seek to advance to or enter to determine whether they really need to pursue an advanced degree. Grad school is not necessary for every field and a graduate degree does not replace real-world work experience, networking, and motivation.