The Labor Market Returns to Advanced Degrees

Graduate study has grown rapidly in the U.S. and in other developed countries, but causal evidence on the value of particular degrees is in short supply. In this paper, we estimate the returns to a broad set of graduate degrees. We use a set of NSF surveys that provide education histories and multiple observations for some individuals, which allows us to study the interplay among undergraduate field, graduate education, and occupation choice in determining earnings. To control for heterogeneity in preferences and ability, we use fixed effects for combinations of field-specific undergraduate and graduate degrees obtained by the last time we observe an individual. Basically, we compare earnings before the graduate degree to earnings after the degree. We obtain 5 main results. First, differences across graduate fields in earnings effects are large. Second, the incremental value of a given advanced degree often depends on the undergraduate field. Third, the contribution of occupational upgrading to the earnings gain varies with the BA-advanced degree combination. Fourth, the earnings premium for a graduate degree typically rises with time since the degree. Finally, regression models that do not account for selection bias in who chooses particular undergraduate field and graduate fields are often highly misleading.

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