HR Administration

Costly Degrees in HR Could Be Wise Choice vs. Certification

By Susan Hauser

Nov. 19, 2012

With graduate studies in human resources or business costing from about $25,000 to more than $50,000 per year, why make the financial investment? Why not just snag a certification as an HR professional and call it good?

Because in today’s business climate, where expectations of HR professionals have never been higher, that’s not good enough.

So says Christopher Collins, associate professor in Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “The job is so much more complicated than it was 10 or 15 years ago. The demands placed on HR generalists in particular have grown so they have to be so much more in tune with business strategy, operational strategy and finance than ever before.”

Such are the skills and training acquired in a master’s program, Collins says. At Cornell, the proof is in the fact that the scores of corporate recruiters who come to campus each year tend to pass over the undergrad HR students in favor of newly minted Master of Industrial and Labor Relations with a concentration in Human Resources and Organizations.

And, Collins says, “There’s probably a $25,000 to $30,000 premium for master’s degree students over undergrads.” That premium could be even greater if the student entered grad school with several years of on-the-job experience, he says.

Collins says someone with an advanced HR degree could probably expect to cover the cost of the degree ($28,260 per year at Cornell) and the lost income during the full-time, two-year course of study after five or six years. He says that graduates of Cornell’s highly rated HR master’s program generally find many opportunities for advancement and salary increases, which could whittle down that payback period.

An employee’s advanced degree also benefits the employer, says Nancy Woolever, director of academic initiatives at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Principles and concepts learned during any graduate program expose the HR professional to viewpoints he or she may not have been exposed to previously. In the long run, this may mean additional competitive advantage for the organization in terms of applying evidence and knowledge acquired in graduate school to better manage the business enterprise.”

Once you decide to take the plunge and go for an advanced degree, the next decision is whether to get what Deb Cohen, SHRM’s chief knowledge officer, calls a “tagged” degree in HR (that is, a master’s with an HR focus) or an MBA. Deciding factors are previous HR experience (if a lot, a more encompassing view of business via an MBA might be preferred) and career goals (if a high-level role in the company outside of HR is a prospect, an MBA is the best choice).

But for those wishing to remain in HR, a master’s degree in HR can help set one apart from other HR professionals, improving chances for promotion or landing a better job at another organization.

“There are a lot of factors that you have to look at to decide which degree best fits for your needs,” Cohen says. “I don’t think there’s a single answer. It depends on your background and what you want to do.”

Another option that is less expensive and much quicker is certification as an HR professional or senior professional. Noncredit certification courses usually take just a few months.

“Graduate education and certification complement each other,” Woolever says, “but it really depends on the individual’s position and career aspirations. Certification provides the professional an opportunity to leverage expertise gained through practice, independent of whether he or she has earned a graduate degree.”

Susan G. Hauser is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Comment below or email

Workforce Management, October 2012, p. 14Subscribe Now!

Susan Hauser is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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