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Research: Who Pursues Additional Education and Why

The decision to pursue additional education once a degree has been attained is personal and depends on a variety of factors, including career goals, but research indicates that the initial degree and course of study play a major role in determining who goes on for another degree or credential and why.

Non-Career-Related Degrees

In general, those pursuing degrees in “non-career-related” fields, such as the humanities or fields in which an advanced credential is the “norm” (social work, for example), are more likely to opt for additional education upon graduation. Conversely, those who have attained a degree in a career-related field, such as nursing, engineering or computer science, are less inclined to do so. 

In addition, sometimes the degree itself favors more study. For example, depending on the field of study, the decision to pursue additional education is often “baked in” for many associate degree holders; the goal is to transfer to a four-year institution once the associate degree is completed. Among Class of 2017 associate degree holders, approximately 27 percent were pursuing additional education and nearly 6 percent were hoping to continue.

At the bachelor’s degree level, overall, about one-fifth of the graduating class decides to or wants to continue on for more education upon graduation. This percentage has been fairly consistent over the past four years.

Again, at the bachelor’s degree level, those pursuing more advanced degrees tend to be in a discipline unrelated to their career, and in greater percentages. For example, among the college Class of 2017, while 17.4 percent of engineering graduates were pursuing additional education—nearly the overall average—more than 41 percent of those with a degree in the physical sciences (not a career-related discipline) were doing so. Just 7.8 percent of computer science graduates were going on, compared to 37.5 percent of biology graduates.

Graduate Degrees and Further

In many fields, an advanced degree is required: doctors may start out as biology majors, for example, but they go on to acquire their professional degree. 

In other fields, competition and the desire to differentiate oneself provides the push. Starting salary illustrates the power of differentiation: consider the salary differential between a business administration graduate at the bachelor’s level (approximately $52,000) and one who has earned an MBA. (nearly $79,000). In addition, some graduates pursue additional education to refine and develop their skills and better position themselves in the job market. 

After the master’s degree, the pursuit of additional education tends to drop off: Less than 10 percent of master’s degree graduates from 2015 through 2017 decided to go further.

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