The New York Times has opened up a space for "debate" over the worth of graduate education. The discussion is pretty heavy on the con side. Some pertinent excerpts:
"Not all degrees are equal — a master’s in anthropology or art probably has less incremental earning power than a M.B.A. or advanced engineering degree." --Richard Vedder, director of the Center of College Affordability and Productivity and instructor of economics at Ohio University
"I have had too many students over the years who have gotten masters and even doctorates find themselves in debt big time, unemployed and forced to start all over in their mid-30s. If you do find a program that will enhance your prospects for a job and better life, then before your enroll, you need to figure out how you are going to pay for it and, if you must borrow more money, whether you can really afford to take on additional debt."
"One of the dirty secrets of many research universities is that they treat master’s students as cash cows that fund other activities. To make matters worse, with many faculty members uninterested in teaching, students cannot assume they will get what they are paying for."
--Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University
"The M.A. degree is neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat." --Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public services at the George Washington University
"In some fields, such as business or engineering, a graduate degree typically boosted income by more than enough to justify the cost. In others — the liberal arts and social sciences, in particular — master’s degrees didn’t appear to produce much if any earnings advantage." --Liz Pulliam Weston, author of “Easy Money,” “Your Credit Score” and “Deal with Your Debt.”
"I just finished my M.A. in the humanities, and am unable to find work teaching at a community college (which is what I had planned to do with this degree). Luckily I had a full fellowship, so I don’t have any loans to pay, but I’m back to where I was before I went to graduate school: jobless, broke, and wondering why I didn’t study business administration." --Serapli, from the comments
I have a master's degree in English from Western Washington University. I can't say for sure whether it has added to my cache in the job market. While I do have a job that I love (maybe "love" is a tad strong; revision: like OK most of the time) and that could be considered to be "in my field," I didn't get it because of my education. I got it through a friend. Most of the skills I use on a daily basis come from other jobs I've had in the past or are self-taught; I can't attribute them to my M.A. coursework per se. However, I did gain on-the-job, transferable skills like classroom instruction and nonprofit management (of a literary magazine) that inform my current work. In addition, my time at Western was (and continues to be) a great networking opportunity.
As for the cost, it ran me about $3,000 in loans. The rest was covered by my TA-ship. Was it worth it? Yes. Would it have been worth it had I paid for it out of pocket? Probably not. Given my current salary, there's no way I would be able to pay off the debt in anything close to a timely manner.
Certainly, there are other, non-monetary criteria for measuring the worth of an M.A. (or M.F.A.). I'd be interested in hearing about other standards for measure.