Something happened around the time the economy went sour a few years ago. As employers could be more selective in their hiring and as more people entered the job market with a bachelor's degree, the demand for people with master's degrees went up.
Job hunters encountered help wanted ads with the phrase "bachelor's degree required; master's degree preferred" for jobs that previously required only a bachelor's degree.
And people with jobs are going back for another degree to help them advance in their careers.
Brian Noland, chancellor of the Higher Education Policy Commission, said graduate studies have become more popular in West Virginia in recent years because of a greater accent and focus on a higher degree of skills.
"It gives job applicants an advantage in a very competitive marketplace," he said.
"The accent is on skills, and that's consistent with the national trend."
In the past decade, Noland said, the Legislature has allowed four- year colleges to offer graduate degrees in line with the labor market needs in their local areas.
Enrollment in graduate programs has increased by about 15 percent in the past 10 years and there has been a small increase in the number of students pursuing doctoral degrees, Noland said.
A big push for education is going on in the health care field with nurse practitioners and physician assistants, he said.
"We are a state that requires an infusion of education capital across all levels. That could be certificates, associate degrees, bachelor's degrees or master's degrees," he said.
Liza Cordeiro, executive director of the office of communications for the state Department of Education, recently finished a master's degree in integrated marketing communications from West Virginia University.
She already had a job and she didn't need a master's degree to keep it, but most of the people she works with have higher degrees.
"As the world evolved, I realized I needed a refresher course in what was happening in the world, especially in social media," Cordeiro said. Also, she needed to learn more about marketing and advertising, particularly in research and statistics.
"It definitely has been a good thing, and I almost every day have used the graduate degree."
It was expensive, "but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make," she said.
Now, Cordeiro would advise people graduating from college with a bachelor's degree to go ahead and get a graduate degree.
"If I were hiring, I would look for people who have the extra degree," she said.
Jose V. Sartarelli has been dean of the College of Business and Economics at WVU for about a year. Before that, he was an executive at three Fortune 500 companies, the most recent being Johnson & Johnson. He said the number of people with MBAs and in MBA programs in the past decade has increased as more schools offer the degree, both in the United States and worldwide.
"The supply has been driven by the fact so many schools are offering the MBA," he said. "Obviously, if they're doing that, it's because there is a demand."
Some companies are satisfied with hiring people with a bachelor's degree in a business-related field, Sartarelli said.
"Others, who have had experience with MBAs, seek to upgrade the position and go with master's in business," he said.
WVU hasn't seen a significant increase in MBA applications in recent years, but it is increasing the requirements for admission to the program, Sartarelli said. The changed requirements come despite the recent recession, a time when applications to graduate programs normally increases, he said.
One thing WVU and other schools have noticed is an increased demand from people wanting master's degrees in specialized fields within business, such as finance, accounting or industrial relations, Sartarelli said. These applicants want to stay within fields they are comfortable with while getting ready to test for advanced credentials such as a CPA, he said.