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Bachelor's degree: Has it lost its edge and its value?

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Ms. Kusler was by then a junior at the University of Michigan, on track to finish up in four years.

For Mr. Hughes, on the other hand, the journey through college had been tortuous – and, in many ways more typical. He had started off at community college to build his grades, then transferred to Pennsylvania State University in State College on a water-polo scholarship. But when some of his credits failed to transfer, he lost the scholarship and had to transfer back to community college in Michigan.

By the time he met Kusler, Hughes says, "I didn't know what I was doing" and had "stopped out" – a popular term for students putting education on hold as they evaluate their future or get their finances in order.

The restaurant job paid well – in fact, Hughes says, "the servers made more money than the managers" though the managers did get benefits. And, he noticed, "everyone who was a manager had a college degree."

This did not escape his girlfriend's notice, either: "You do hear of people who get a great job out of high school and work their way up," she says, "but then when they lose it, they have nothing to fall back on."

Soon after they started dating, Kusler encouraged Hughes to reenroll and pursue a degree. "Especially nowadays," she believes, "it's a norm to get your BA – doesn't matter what it's in."

That was certainly the case for decades, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, but not anymore.

"It used to be that just getting the bachelor's made you employable," Mr. Carnevale says. But the research increasingly shows "that the BA in and of itself is not what's valuable. Now, it more and more depends on what the degree is in."

Educational programs now "differ so markedly," he adds, "that there are degrees that take less time than a [bachelor's of science] and are more valuable."

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