In the board game called “Life,” players attempt to amass wealth as they reach certain milestones like getting married, buying a house, starting a family, and retirement. One of the decisions players must make early in the game is whether to go to college or start working. Which path will lead to greater lifetime earnings?
In real life, for college-goers, a similar decision is whether to pursue a graduate degree. While a cursory look at the numbers implies that a master’s degree is worth the investment, what about the student loan debt factor? Also, for some jobs, an advanced degree is a requirement, but for others, it can be an expensive and unnecessary adornment.
This article looks at the factors to consider when weighing the cost of graduate school with its benefits. It gives examples of when a master’s degree is a good idea, and when it is not in the real game of life.
A cursory look at the numbers implies that enrolling in a master’s degree will pay off in greater earnings down the road. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that median earnings jump from around $68,000 with a bachelor’s degree to $80,000 with a master’s degree.
However, considering that 40 percent of the $1.7 trillion student loan debt in the United States is funding graduate degrees, many are reconsidering the need for graduate-level education. Ultimately, what field you want to work in will decide whether or not you should invest in a master’s degree.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if you are considering going back to school.
Of course, advanced education is required for certain occupations like doctors, lawyers, and teachers. If you aspire to a similar professional level, you will command a high salary and easily make your master’s degree worthwhile.
If you are surprised that a career path you are interested in requires a master’s degree, make sure that you are committed enough to do the work. There’s no point in starting a degree only to find that you lose interest or motivation in grad school.
Although the numbers show that those with a professional degree earn more on aggregate than those with a bachelor’s degree. The differential is not the same across the board. For example, below are two tables, one shows the fields where a master's degree pays dividends, such as healthcare and technology. The other shows fields where there may be little benefit from a master’s degree, such as social work and early childhood education.
Nurse anesthesia: $165,000
Telecommunications engineering: $141,000
Finance and economics: $134,000
Electrical engineering: $130,000
Computer engineering: $129,000
Biomedical engineering: $129,000
Mathematics and statistics: $129,000
Technology management: $127,000
Computer science: $126,000
Corporate finance: $126,000
Human services: $46,600
Early childhood education: $49,200
Professional counseling: $51,200
Community counseling: $51,700
Museum studies: $52,700
Mental health counseling: $54,600
Library science: $55,000
Pastoral ministry: $55,100
Art therapist: $44,800
This is not to say that a master’s degree will not increase your earning capacity, just that if you have to take on hefty debt to study for a master’s, your return on investment might not be worth losing two years of salary and taking on debt.
If your company will finance a portion of your studies, and you can study while working at the same time, it might be worthwhile taking advantage of the opportunity.
The job placement rates for graduate students will tell you how in-demand your profession is. If the placement rates are high, the salaries will likely be high too, and the cost of a master’s degree will be worth it. Nursing, software engineering, and biomedical fields would tick this box. The school you are considering should help you find out the job placement rates for that school.
If your employer offers tuition reimbursement, that’s a perk worth taking advantage of even if it will only pay for some of your expenses. Some jobs qualify for student loan repayment assistance, particularly for public service, government, or jobs in the medical field. Many people are unaware of these programs and don’t take advantage of them.
Check out this article from MoneyCrashers, which details some of the debt forgiveness programs available to teachers, doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, physical therapists, psychologists, social workers, veterinarians, lawyers, active military, automotive workers, and more.
Explore scholarships, grants, or fellowships that you might qualify for through your school. Scholarships are more common for undergraduate degrees, but student loan hero lists some useful resources for researching graduate funding, such as FastWeb, GoGrad, Unigo, and Scholarship America.
If you work at an educational institution, you might be able to take courses at a reduced rate. Check with human resources.
Some degree programs can be taken part-time or online. Part-time or online programs allow you to continue to work and earn while you study. It will take you longer to graduate, but some schools offer accelerated degree programs. How quickly you finish depends on how many courses you enroll in each semester. Critically, according to the Urban Institute, online master’s degrees cost less than traditional programs.
Other programs will require you to attend full-time for a year or more. If this is the case, you will have to factor in lost salary and retirement contributions, not to mention the risk of becoming out of touch with industry trends.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree, it might be a better idea to gain a year or two’s work experience in an entry-level job before you decide to enroll in a master's degree program. You might find that what you learn hands-on will help you to advance quicker than an advanced degree.
Gaining work experience will also allow you to decide whether you are fully committed to your chosen field. If you decide to do a master’s, you will be much more marketable if you also have real-world experience.
Depending on your field, there may be licenses, certificates, or other credentials that you could pursue while working full-time that would boost your career opportunities and your value. Consider consulting with a career counselor to find out the best path for you. For example, Microsoft offers certifications for software engineers, including Solution Architect, DevOps Engineer, and AI Engineer.
As the last word, be careful not to price yourself out of the job market. If you have a master’s degree, you are likely to expect a higher salary and might appear overqualified. An employer might prefer to hire someone with less qualifications but more hands-on experience.
Don't let the thought of student debt stop you from pursuing a master's. Similarly, don't invest in one if you aren't motivated or you are better off gaining experience in the field. Instead, take a measured approach and research the pros and cons. The following tips will help.
Talk to people in the profession who have master’s degrees.
Consult a career coach to determine the best career path.
Research the earning potential and job prospects for master's degree holders in your profession in your area.
Find out if you qualify for financial aid or employer tuition programs. Check the conditions of any funding; for example, would you have to pay the donor back if you change employers.
Avoid for-profit universities. Nearly 40% of for-profit colleges in the U.S. have closed since 2010, leaving students with non-transferable class credits and thousands of dollars in debt.