Sobered by indiscriminate job losses and mounting education debt, consumers of ongoing education are demanding more evidence their newly minted degrees will pay off in the job market. Schools are responding with new curriculum and placement-tracking efforts, and states are beginning to publish better data on earnings rates of graduates, but the fledgling efforts are still spotty.
And even with better salary data, it isn't always easy to draw a straight line from a degree to a paycheck.
Five years ago, at age 60, Julie Stevens began an online master's degree in prevention science at the University of Oklahoma, where she was working in training and technical assistance at a substance abuse prevention center.
With employer tuition discounts, she said she spent about $12,000 out of pocket on the degree, even with traditional retirement age on the horizon.
After graduating from the two-year program, Stevens scored a higher-paying job as executive director of a nonprofit substance abuse center in Texas.
Like other graduates and students interviewed for this article, Stevens felt that while the degree clearly helped her land the job, it's difficult to judge how much.
"I probably would have gotten the job anyway because of my 25 years of experience in the field, but I think the master's degree opened (interviewers') eyes about prevention and gave me an advantage," she said. "It tells people you've accomplished some measure of competency in the field."
Education may still be the key to success for many, but it doesn't unlock every door. Shifting labor market demands and perennially low pay in certain fields inevitably mean some degrees just won't pay for themselves, or they'll have a much shorter shelf life than most workers traditionally have expected. Even law schools have been cutting class sizes because of a difficult job market.
"For years we were told all higher education pays, and since 2008, it's been a bloodbath, because people were borrowing heavily and then couldn't find jobs," said Mark Schneider, a former U.S. Commissioner on Education Statistics who helped create collegemeasures.org, a website dedicated to publishing newly emerging state data on salaries among graduates of various educational programs, from certificate course work to graduate degrees.
"The field you choose matters in terms of return on investment," Schneider said. "If you love music and dance, bless you, but don't borrow $100,000 or you're going to be in real trouble. The number of people who can manage significant debt with a creative writing degree is minuscule."
His rule of thumb: Don't borrow more than you're likely to earn your first year after graduation.
So what post-graduate and certificate programs offer the best chance at a well-paying job?
So-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) were projected to see above-average growth in the next decade in a spring report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, though some academic experts say this demand has been overstated, particularly in the science fields.
Among the predicted fastest-growing jobs were industrial psychologists, home health aides, diagnostic medical sonographers and physical therapy assistants.
Across a wide swath of professions studied in the wake of the recession by Georgetown University professor Anthony Carnevale, graduate degree holders generally earned more and had lower unemployment rates than recent or experienced college grads.
Among fields of study with the lowest unemployment rates were nursing, elementary education, recreation, chemistry and finance. The highest: political science, film, anthropology, architecture and, perhaps surprisingly, information systems.
Schneider's data includes just five states — Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — but matches education data to actual earnings as reported to state employment offices.
Not surprisingly, the data found creative writing, jazz studies and philosophy majors were among the lowest paid master's degrees. But the data also showed biology majors near the bottom of the pay pile, perhaps counterintuitive after all the discussion of an emphasis on STEM careers, he said.
The highest-paid master's degree holders were those who majored in nurse anesthesia, banking and petroleum engineering.
Anecdotally, schools themselves say demand is hot for continuing education or advanced degrees in so-called Big Data and health care.
Northwestern University's School of Continuing Studies launched a new online master's degree in predictive analytics in 2011 that has grown to about 1,300 students, said Joel Shapiro, associate dean of academic programs.
"Successful schools are creating programs specifically tailored around critical skill sets," he said. "Our new predictive analytics degree has been outrageously successful, far exceeding our expectations. Our students span a wide age range, and many have already been a director of analytics but never really had formal training, and others just wanted to get involved in a quantitative, hot field."
One such student was Matt Marzillo, 28, who enrolled in the master's program while working for the university. He still has two more classes to finish, but was hired about six months ago by Advocate Health Care.
"The education alone isn't why I got hired, but I wouldn't have been hired without it," he said. After starting as an administrator in the school's procurement office, Marzillo now works in Advocate's supply chain management area, analyzing purchasing data and other business intelligence.
Demand is also strong for the school's programs in medical informatics, public policy and global health, Shapiro said.
At the University of Oklahoma, both the undergraduate and graduate schools have created degrees that develop skills that can be ports to several different careers, said James Pappas, vice president of university outreach.
"We had a lot of psychology and social service undergraduates saying that current master's programs weren't specifically addressing the area of prevention but were focused on remediation," he said. That led to the school launching the prevention science master's degree.
New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies stresses student involvement in internships and networking events right away, rather than waiting until they get close to graduation, said dean Dennis Di Lorenzo.
"Everything we do is with an eye toward professional growth," he said. "It's all about tying the educational experience to industry needs and workforce development. While we don't promise placement, over 95 percent of our students are in jobs in their preferred field postgraduation."
What to do if your dream career isn't in high demand? Few philosophy majors can quickly switch to petroleum engineering, after all.
"Some fields are just perennially competitive, like history or English. It's really hard to get jobs in those fields, and salaries are less than in technical fields, but some people go into them anyway and are good enough to beat the odds," said Burt Barnow, a George Washington University professor. "Still, I urge people to find out how many people finished the program, where they got jobs and for how much money. And if a school can't give you the answers, maybe it's not the right school."
Despite several federal efforts at more disclosure of job and earnings outcomes, it's too soon to tell if the data will mean much in helping people choose careers, said Debbie Cochrane, research director at The Institute for College Access and Success.
"People from all angles are demanding better information about what students are actually paying for education and what that return on investment will be," she said. "We have to improve the quality of the data, and until then it behooves people to ask the tough questions of any program, including what the likelihood of employment is after graduation.
"Not all professions or fields can be fully measured by the earnings of graduates, and certainly not the early earnings of graduates," she said. "We have to think through these tough questions."