Is a Master’s degree worth it? How to pick a grad program and save money on higher education

A lot of master graduates standing next to each other festive uniforms

Whether or not graduate school is worth the cost is a subject that’s rife with controversy. Depending on whom you talk to, getting a Master’s degree or other advanced degree is either a great decision — or a huge waste of time. What’s more, you can find data to support both assertions.

Government data shows that, on average, people with higher degrees make more and have lower unemployment rates than those without higher degrees. The 2016 weekly median earnings of those with master’s degrees was 19% higher than those with bachelor’s degrees, as the below chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Then again, graduate school is pricey: Tuition costs about $30,000 a year at public schools and $40,000 a year for private programs. By the time you graduate, you could owe about $57,000 in combined student loans for your graduate and undergraduate degrees.

While an advanced degree can pay for itself if it launches you into a higher-paying career, one survey has found that a quarter of all grad students either wish they had chosen a different program or had never gone at all.

What’s more, you may not see a pay bump right away. Over time, the earnings increase you can expect from an advanced degree can vary anywhere from $13,000 to $32,000 a year, depending on the area of study. But on average, people with a bachelor’s degree and at least three years of work experience actually earn more than recent grad school graduates.

And while many of the most secure jobs, including most medical professions, require advanced degrees, some experienced college grads have lower unemployment rates than graduate-degree holders, according to a Georgetown University report. So if you’re in it primarily for the money, a graduate degree may not be quite the deal it seems after you factor in lower initial pay and the prospect of paying off loans for years.

Whatever you decide, be sure to think through your decision carefully before making the leap. Here are three things to consider before you decide:

1. Why do you want to go to grad school in the first place?

The most important hurdle before you commit to grad school is identifying what your goals are in getting another degree. A higher-paying job in your field of choice? A way to embark on an entirely new career? A way to defer “adulting” until a little while longer? One you’ve figured out your endgame, you can asses whether getting an advanced degree will help you do that in the most cost-efficient way.

Some of the most common reasons for going to grad school include better job security and the prospect of a well-paying job. In a 2016 survey of MBAs, “personal development,” “developing knowledge/skills” and “salary increase,” were among students’ biggest expectations as well.

Those are all legit reasons. But if you’re after job security or a salary bump, it’s important to assess the job market for your chosen field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes an Occupational Outlook Handbook online, which can give you an idea of the number of jobs and average salary for the position you hope to get once you graduate. It’s also helpful to talk to others who work in your prospective field to find out whether an advanced degree will help propel you toward your goals.

Prospects vary widely. For example: Those who pursued an MBA at one of the top 100 programs in the world saw their salaries double within three years of graduation, according to a 2017 Financial Times analysis. The outlook is shakier for those earning a master’s degree in fine arts, however; while enrollment in those programs is booming, the jobs don’t always follow.

As one 2006 graduate of San Francisco Art Institure’s MFA program told Fast Company in 2015: “I wasn’t able to get a job in my field after school — or at least find one that paid a living wage — so I ended up working in construction for five years until I had enough resources to start my own business. I still owe $54,000 for a degree that I will never use.”

A 2015 Georgetown report shows how even in fields where you do see a salary bumps from getting a graduate degree, the financial benefit can vary significantly for different areas of study:

Georgetown University

Of course, not everyone is driven by money. Microsoft researcher Duncan Watts said he went to grad school for grad school’s sake — calling grad school “an adventure that I was going to have solely for the sake of having an adventure,” as he wrote in an essay compiled in Should I Go To Grad School?, an excerpt from which was published by BuzzFeed. Later in the piece, he summarized higher education’s worth: “Grad school may be a time of great uncertainty about the future, but it is also a time when in the present you don’t have a whole lot of responsibility, you do have a lot of time to think and learn and you are surrounded by an incredible depth and diversity of knowledge.”

If that sounds like something you want and can afford, you may want to take the leap.

2. Is there a better (and cheaper) way to achieve your goals?

Grad school definitely isn’t for everyone. “Sometimes a graduate degree doesn’t make sense,” Dr. Kristen Tolbert, CEO of CareerCoLabs, said in an interview. “It is important to be very clear about your reasons for going to grad school and evaluate the benefits compared to the investment.”

“If you’re just going to grad school because you don’t have any better ideas, you should probably reconsider your plan,” according to Quartz. “There are vastly cheaper — and far less time-consuming — ways to do a little soul-searching.”

Just want to take some time off before you figure out what you want to do with your life? You might find volunteering abroad or teaching children from low-income families here in the U.S. to be more fulfilling. Even taking a six-month backpacking trip to help figure out what you want in life is cheaper and quicker than committing to a graduate school program.

Poprotskiy Alexey/

On the other hand, maybe you want a specific upgrade to your skill ,set in order to be more competitive in the job market or raise your salary. In that case, you may find taking a few targeted classes in your area of interest — be it anything from coding to marketing — to be a better use of your time. Check out Mic’s guide to classes you can take without enrolling in a degree program for ideas.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that career advancement is about more than the type of degree you hold. “The degree in itself does not guarantee a job or professional advancement,” Tolbert said. “For many employers, experience and skill far outweigh the degree.”

3. How much will grad school cost, and how can you save money on tuition?

The cost of grad school varies considerably by program, whether you’re getting a Master’s in Business Administration or a Master’s in Public Health.

The biggest cost difference is public versus private school, with public schools being much cheaper. For example: At New York University, the largest private university on the East Coast, 15 course credits (the typical course load for a semester) for a liberal arts master’s degree costs more than $25,000. At the University of Central Florida, the largest public university, the same Master’s for someone paying from in-state costs just $5,544.

Other factors include the number of credits needed to complete your degree, the cost of living where you study and how much financial aid you can get.

Most graduate students foot the bill through a combination of loans, scholarships and grants, and teaching undergraduates to offset tuition costs. Look for the “free money” first. UCLA has a comprehensive lists of hundreds of different kinds of scholarships, grants and fellowships, from the $38,400 Marshall Scholarship to study in the United Kingdom to the $75,000 NRC Research Associateship Programs “for scientists and engineers at all stages of their career.”

Next, fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and apply for a loan from one of the federal loan programs like the Direct Loan or Perkins Loan. Federal loans usually offer lower interest rates than private loans, and if you take out a Direct Loan, you may be eligible to have your loan forgiven if you work in the public service sector for about 10 years.

Lastly, you can save on tuition by working as a teaching assistant at the school where you are taking classes. Expect to work about 20 hours a week with duties ranging from grading papers to teaching classes. While pay varies, you can earn anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 a year, according to an estimate by Fastweb. TA jobs can be competitive, so apply as soon as you get accepted into a program.

Some grad students get more creative with their financing. Mrs. Frugalwoods, a finance and lifestyle blogger, advised in a blog post how she paid next to nothing for grad school: “There is one fool-proof trick for getting your higher education paid for: Work full-time for the university you’re attending.” That’s thanks to something called tuition remission — which means the school pays for your entire education, as well as the education of your family members.

Once you’ve figured out your financing options and annual budget, you can use this calculator from LearnVest to determine how long it will take to pay back your grad degree. It takes into account your current and expected earnings, age and the amount of debt you intend to take on (and at what interest rate). Then it tells you how much more (or less) you’ll earn in your lifetime by going to grad school. For many, that’s exactly what they’ll want to know before making a final decision.

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