A Degree Of Advancement

March 2017

By William Matthews
(read online digital version)

Master’s degrees were once nice to have. Today, they are almost a necessity to reach the upper levels of any organization

It has been two years since the Air Force chief of staff made it explicitly clear to airmen—if you want to become a colonel you’ll have to have a master’s degree.

That same standard applies to officers in the Air National Guard, says Lt. Col. Paul Paim, the program manager for joint officer management at the National Guard Bureau.

And while there’s no written rule, the same expectation applies for the Army and the Army National Guard: If you’re an officer who hopes to advance to the senior ranks, you’ll need a master’s degree.

Technically, a master’s “is not a requirement to be promoted, but it’s highly recommended,” says Maj. Sam Labara, the education services officer for the Michigan National Guard, who is completing a master’s degree in information-technology management.

“Officers are expected to obtain a master’s,” agrees Maj. Angela Bailey, the education officer for the Ohio National Guard. “This is outlined under ‘self-development’ as part of Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-3.”

That pamphlet spells out recommended career-development steps for troops in the Army’s many specialties. In a section devoted to Guard armor officers, for example, it says that captains who are hoping to be promoted to majors “should consider beginning work on a master’s degree.”

“Because more and more soldiers are obtaining a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree is becoming the new norm that helps to distinguish the educational achievements of one soldier from another,” says Kenneth Hardy, the chief of the Army Guard’s Education Services Branch at the National Guard Bureau.

The emphasis on higher education across the military parallels a trend in the civilian world. Increasingly, civilian employers require those they hire to have higher levels of education.

In a 2016 survey, 26 percent of hiring managers told the employment firm Career- Builder that they now hire master’s degree holders for jobs that used to require only a bachelor’s degree. And 37 percent said they hire bachelor’s degree holders for jobs that once required only a high-school diploma.

Why? Partly because they can. The Great Recession made jobs scarce and competition for them fierce. Workers with advanced degrees stood a better chance of getting a job. And seeing this, more young people stayed in college, following up their undergraduate work with grad school. These trends continued long after the recession was officially over.

But jobs have changed as well. Sixty percent of employers say the skills needed for their jobs have increased and, as a result, so have the education requirements.

The same is true for the military, says William Hubbard, the vice president of Student Veterans of America. “The military is much more professionalized than it has ever been,” he says, “which is encouraging.”

But it means the services now need better- educated troops.

The civilian employers surveyed by CareerBuilder said requiring their workers to have more education is paying off. With better-educated employees, they get higher-quality work, greater productivity and better communication. Also, they see more innovation by employees, have better employee retention, enjoy greater customer loyalty and collect more revenue.

There’s a payoff for the better-educated workers, too, which is important to Guardsmen since most of them hold civilian jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2015, workers with master’s degrees earned an average of $69,700 a year, while those with bachelor’s degrees earned $59,100. Workers with two-year associate degrees earned $41,600 on average, and those with only high-school degrees earned $35,250.

And there’s another payoff for employees. Those with master’s degrees experienced a 2.4 percent unemployment rate, while unemployment for bachelor’s degree holders hovered at 2.8 percent. It was 3.8 percent for those with associate degrees, and 5.4 percent for those with only high-school diplomas.

Not All Degrees Are Equal

Employers, however, aren’t looking for just any advanced degree. In a survey of master’s degrees, Payscale.com found that master’s degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) lead to the best-paying jobs.

A nurse anesthetist with a master’s can start out making $140,000. Someone with a master’s in computer science or engineering can fetch $96,000 to start. A master’s in finance can produce a starting salary of $64,000. The list of high-salary master’s degrees goes on, including electrical engineering, chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, nuclear engineering, math, finance and taxation.

At the low end of the scale, master’s degrees in early childhood education may pay as little as $38,000 to start. Studio art, professional counseling, mental-health counseling, music and library science don’t pay much more, Payscale found.

The “wage premium,” which is the salary boost for those who have master’s degrees, undoubtedly is a major factor when Guardsmen are deciding whether to pursue a master’s and in what subject.

But degrees don’t have to be science, technology or math-related to be valuable, says Bailey of Ohio. People who learn how to efficiently manage other people and organizations are also essential.

Among Ohio Guardsmen, a master of arts in business is the most frequently earned master’s degree, he says. The Ohio Guard has 444 members with master’s degrees. Of those, 337 are officers and 80 are enlisted. In all, they make up about 4 percent of the Ohio force.

Across the Guard, the number of members with master’s degrees is also 4 percent, says Hardy of the Guard Bureau.

For Capt. Jason Sweeney of the California Army Guard, the master’s degree that he thought would help advance his civilian job proved to be more helpful to his military career. For several years, Sweeney was a reporter covering crime and local government and other local news for newspapers in the San Francisco area.

He liked the job, but the pay was low and repeated rounds of layoffs undermined job security. Sweeney thought he might do better if he had a master’s degree in journalism.

“I knocked out most of the course work within two years,” but a full-time job, a family and Guard obligations, including a deployment to Iraq, slowed things down. It took five more years to finish the degree.

With a master’s in journalism finally in hand, Sweeney came to a gloomy conclusion. “I don’t think the pay justifies it,” he says.

But when his Guard commander discovered that he was a reporter, he made Sweeney his public affairs officer. That led to a full-time job as a Guard PAO, which led to a pay increase.

And in the Guard, the degree “definitely helps on the public-affairs side. Having media experience and understanding the media environment, newspapers, TV, media in general, it gives me a deeper background” to become a successful PAO, he says.

For Chief Warrant Officer 2 Javi Mack, the master’s degree he is pursuing in human-resource (HR) management is primarily aimed at enhancing his future prospects in the civilian workforce.

After barely graduating from high school at age 20, Mack joined the Army to be a mechanic. One day, while working under a Humvee in the rain, he decided that wasn’t the job for him.

A new opportunity appeared several years later when Mack happened into a judge advocate general office. Fascinated, he asked what the employees there did, and “it sounded interesting,” he says, so Mack decided to switch career fields and become a paralegal.

After his dismal performance in high school, Mack wasn’t really interested in more school, but when he saw an offer from eArmyU for a free laptop if he completed 12 credit hours, Mack decided to give it a try.

“My only goal was to obtain the laptop,” he says. But once he did, he decided to complete his associate degree. As a paralegal, he soon realized that a bachelor’s degree in criminal-justice administration would be useful, so he began work on that.

When Mack switched from the active-component Army to the Ohio Army Guard’s Active Guard and Reserve program in 2007, he was still working on the bachelor’s degree. His new job was in recruiting, which is an HR field. He went on to become a warrant officer, completed his bachelor’s degree while deployed in 2013 and began thinking about his future after the military.

Human resources seemed like a good field for civilian employment, but Mack was concerned about how he would fit in. He would have years of experience in military HR, but none in the civilian world. He would have military discipline, which employers like, “but I’ve got age against me,” he says, and “just a bachelor’s degree in criminal-justice administration.”

To out-compete his civilian counterparts, Mack concluded that he would need a master’s degree with some certifications in human resources. So he’s back at school, learning about labor relations, evaluation systems, organizational development and other HR topics.

He says, “It’s all about backwards planning: Set goals and prepare now for the future you envision for yourself.”

Mack plans to complete the master’s degree in human-resources management this year, then earn one or two human-resources certifications in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, he plans to retire from the Guard, and, after 25 years of active service, tackle the civilian HR world.

New Degree Programs

The growing demand for master’s degrees has prompted universities to create a raft of new master’s programs, such as Northeastern University’s master of arts in homeland security, a program created specifically for members of the National Guard. Georgia Tech has developed a new online master of science in analytics. In January, Buena Vista University in Iowa rolled out a new online master of arts in organizational leadership, and Stony Brook University, part of the New York University system, debuted a master’s in masculinity studies.

Universities have begun to recognize and respond to trends in the business market, the job market and elsewhere, says Hubbard of Student Veterans of America. “That was not the case even just 10 years ago,” he says. However, “we encourage schools to understand” what the degrees they offer can do and won’t do for their students, he says.

And students need to be wary as well. “There are tons of degrees out there. We encourage students to understand what they’re getting into,” he says. “We have concern about the value of some degrees. Certain schools don’t offer strong programs, and when service members get out, they may have a difficult time in the job market.”

For-profit schools have been a particular problem. A number abruptly closed their doors last year amid fraud investigations and financial meltdowns. Hubbard urges caution. “If you get a degree from a school that shuts down, the degree is basically worthless,” he says.

And there is the cost. On average, master’s degrees cost almost $30,000 at public universities and $40,000 or more at private schools, according to Peterson’s, the college guide publisher.

Paying for graduate school is a challenge for many students, but usually it’s easier for Guardsmen.

Thanks to the Montgomery GI Bill, the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the GI Bill Kicker, the military’s Federal Tuition Assistance Programs and various state tuition-assistance programs, grad school for Guardsmen can cost little or nothing.

“It behooves you to get a master’s while you’re still serving,” says Labara of Michigan. That’s because there are fewer funding options after Guardsmen retire or otherwise leave the service.

The details about which Guardsmen qualify for what can be complicated, but here are some of the basics:

  • Federal tuition-assistance programs will pay up to $18,000 for grad-school tuition over four years;
  • The Montgomery GI Bill will add an allowance of up to $333 a month;
  • The Post 9/11-GI Bill pays in-state tuition and fees plus a monthly allowance; and
  • The Army Guard and Air Guard kickers provide up to $350 per month in living expenses

Some schools also offer aid to Guardsmen. Wright State University in Ohio, for example, offers scholarships of up to $2,500 per semester for full-time graduate students.

Appalachian State University in North Carolina offers to “pay for your graduate school and pay you a stipend each month” for students who enter ROTC.

For those who have already accumulated college-loan debts, the Guard offers a Student Loan Repayment Program. The Army Guard will pay off up to $50,000 in student-loan debt; the Air Guard pays off up to $20,000.

There are, of course, eligibility requirements. Current Guardsmen must sign up for at least six more years of service, must be E-7 or below, and must have no more than 14 years of total service. Technicians and AGRs are not eligible.

Newcomers to the Guard must enlist for at least six years in a critical- skills vacancy in a “go-to-war unit” at or below the grade of E-4.

The expense of a master’s degree shouldn’t be a deterrent, says Bailey. Between education benefits offered by the military and scholarships offered by schools, “it is definitely possible for a service member to attend graduate college with little or no out-of-pocket cost.”

WILLIAM MATTHEWS is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Virginia, who specializes in military matters. He can be contacted at magazine@ngaus.org.