The Real Cost of Graduate School

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Higher education may no longer be a choice. Much like how finishing high school was the minimum requirement for anyone hoping to earn a decent income in previous decades, a bachelor’s degree is like the new diploma in today’s job market. But with competition in the workforce as fierce as ever, and with the ratio of college degrees on the the rise in the professional population, the master’s degree is quickly becoming the new price of admission for advancement in many careers.

Unfortunately, it’s also costly, and as tuitions reach all time highs, more graduates are finding themselves burdened with crippling debt before they even have the chance to get their careers off the ground. Many grad students on the fence have to ask themselves an important question: is it worth it? Some argue that more education always pays off in the long run, thanks to a higher salary in the long term, which is indeed often true. Except when it’s not. The real answer for the true cost and benefit of grad school is much more complex, and—depending on the major and the career—the perks don’t always outweigh the expenses.

In general, the notion that grad school leads to better paying jobs is a correct one. By far, most students who earn their master’s degrees land higher salaries over those who stop at their bachelor’s. The national average salary is for Master’s graduates is $64,800 compared to $58,000 for people who stop after a BA. The unemployment rate is also lower at 3.4%, more than a half point better than the bachelor’s recipient rate of 4%. Those numbers are encouraging, but there are other important factors for a student to consider; chief among them being how much debt the student anticipates they’ll take on in loans, and what the average salaries are for their specific career path at their education level.

The average college graduate borrows $29,400 for a four year degree. To complete a master’s, that number nearly doubles to $56,600. In terms of bang for buck, grad school is much more expensive than undergraduate studies. Grad school students alone account for 40% of the staggering 1 trillion dollars of outstanding student loan debt. The conventional wisdom is that the jump in expense is worth it because grad school pays for itself by opening the door to a higher income. Unfortunately, that’s just not true across the board, and substantial debt can prevent you from making big purchases like a home later on down the road.

In the field of communications, for example, the average pay difference for salaries offered to graduates with BAs compared to graduates with master’s degrees is nearly flat. There is virtually no pay increase whatsoever making the tens of thousands of dollars potentially spent on such a pursuit a questionable one at best. One the other hand, some majors, like engineering, offer significant pay bumps. A master’s degree in engineering rakes in an average salary of $107,600 compared to $80,000 with a bachelor’s.  

It all has to do with the demand for the job and the difficulty of the degree. At the same time, many careers practically expect a master’s degree. The pay increase might not be significant, but the chances of landing a job, in many professions, is exponentially more difficult without one making the pursuit no less important despite a seeming lack of financial benefit.

Many teaching opportunities fall within this category. In public schools, though math and science teachers are always in demand, liberal arts subjects such as history, humanities, English, and Literature are in far less demand and therefore more competitive. For the typical high school liberal arts teacher, getting a master’s is much less about seeking a pay increase and more about being able to land a job in the first place. Fortunately, teaching is a profession where the school of the issuing master’s degree is much less of a factor. Unlike other careers, the importance is placed on having the degree in the first place, and not where it came from, allowing teachers to be much more frugal with their choice in grad school.  
Meanwhile, scholarships, fellowships, and loan forgiveness programs are all methods in which a grad school student can lessen the brunt of debt during or after graduation to bring the totals down. Also, many would argue that financial concerns should not be a factor when it comes to the pursuit of education. Knowledge itself may be the ultimate perk; one that cannot be measured by salaires, and a case can be made that if a student entered grad school simply in the hopes of making more money down the line that they were doing it for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, if knowledge truly is power, any potential grad student deserves to be well informed with the way the pros and cons—and even dollars and cents—of such an important commitment.