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Is Grad School Worth the Time and Money?

Marybeth Bock, MPH

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Pretty much everything about college is more competitive today than it was for previous generations.

College-bound high school students feel way more pressure to have a stellar application. Many families spend an excessive amount of money and time on extracurricular activities, standardized test prep, help with essay writing, and college visits. We sigh with relief when the application process and college decision are finally over with.

But within a year or two, many college students are faced with another significant decision: Should they go to graduate school or just concentrate on finding a job right after college?

Why Are More Students Considering Grad School?

There are certain careers that have almost always required advanced degrees, such as becoming a doctor, lawyer, practicing therapist, or a professor. But in today’s competitive workplace, many more employers are looking for advanced degrees that set some job applicants apart from others.

Prior to the pandemic, the number of people enrolling in college had been rising, effectively devaluing an undergraduate degree. In the U.S., 42% of the population has a college degree, a figure that was a mere 4.6% in the 1940s. Globally, a report from the United Nations showed that the number of students earning a university degree has more than doubled in the past 20 years.

The value of a master’s degree today is equivalent to the value of an undergraduate degree 30 years ago. So, it’s easy to understand why more college students are now considering going to graduate school. The number of grad students in the U.S. has tripled since the 1970s, and according to some estimates, 27% of employers now require master’s degrees for jobs that historically only required a bachelor's.

Pros and Cons of Pursuing a Graduate Degree

How can your college student determine if the time, and especially the money, required to obtain a graduate degree will pay off? There are both positive and negative factors for them to consider.

Pros of Attending Graduate School

In general, people who've earned graduate degrees are paid more than those without. While a 25% increase in earnings is the average boost people experience, the ROI (return on investment) is very dependent upon what grad degree is obtained.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ annual Salary Survey analyzes which master’s degrees create the largest increase in earnings, known as a differential. This year, they reported that a master’s in biology creates the biggest salary differential, with graduates earning approximately 86.5% more after their advanced degree.

Rounding out the current top five highest salary differentials are degrees in Communication Disorders Sciences, Business Administration/Management, Computer/Information Technology Administration and Management, and Communication and Media Studies.

At the other end of the list, a graduate degree in accounting only increased the salary differential by four percent. Therefore it’s important for a college student to look at a particular career trajectory to understand if the differential and the starting salary are worth the further education time and costs.

According to the College Board’s 2020 Trends in College Pricing Report, the average cost of one year of a master’s program (including tuition, fees, room and board) is about $20,000 for in-state students at public institutions and around $42,000 at private, non-profit institutions.

Graduate school is a good move for a student who is deeply passionate about a certain field or job. Some kids know from a young age that they want to be an English professor like their grandmother was, or they’ve dreamed of becoming a renowned reptile expert. Or, while taking general education courses during their first year of college, they discover a passion for sustainability and want to design alternative-fuel vehicles.

People perform better and learn more when their studies align with their passion. If your student can nurture and advance their curiosity and interests by pursuing a graduate degree, their expertise will set them apart from other job candidates and increase the chances that they end up in a career that they will truly enjoy and stick with.

Cons of Attending Graduate School

Unless a new college graduate has an available and hefty financial resource, they will likely go into some debt temporarily if they head right to graduate or professional school. Students need to carefully research what their return on investment will be since there is so much variability when it comes to salary differentials.

Scholarships and grants are usually harder to come by for graduate students as well, although some are chosen to be teaching or research assistants. These positions can provide some tuition reimbursement or stipends for housing and meal expenses, depending on the school and the graduate program.

Graduate students are often considered independent, rather than dependents of their parents, so less financial aid is given on average. Grad students are not eligible for subsidized loans and interest rates are higher for grad school loans vs. undergrad loans. Along with higher interest rates and borrowing limits, some grad students end up with a lot of debt.

Basically, if your student isn’t fully committed to the subject they’ll be studying, it probably isn’t worth the risk to go into debt for what might end up being many years.

In addition to the high price tag of a graduate degree, it could also simply be a waste of time for your student, especially if they just want to gain more knowledge or are still unsure of what specific job they want to apply for.

We all know that there is a huge difference between learning something in theory and learning something by actually doing it. Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, points out that “most Fortune 500 firms end up investing substantially to reskill and upskill new hires, regardless of their credentials. For instance, employers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all pointed out that learnability — having a hungry mind and being a fast and passionate learner — is more important than having acquired certain expertise in college.

Along the same lines, many employers complain that even the best performing graduates will need to learn the most relevant job skills, such as leadership and self-management, after they start their jobs. Oddly, this does not stop employers from paying a premium for college qualifications, including graduate credentials.”

Students should remain mindful that today there is a wealth of learning opportunities that can be accessed online for free or low-cost. If your student has the discipline and self-control, they can learn things like coding, digital drawing, and video editing, among other skills, just by watching YouTube videos. There are also education platforms like Coursera and Udemy which offer thousands of free courses and many affordable professional certificates so that new college graduates can upskill on their own.

The decision to go or not to go to graduate school is unique for each college student.

Many students decide to wait a few years and test out the job market first, and some are lucky to get hired by companies who will pay for graduate degrees with the promise of a certain number of years of employment afterwards.

The good news is that there are many more options today for those who want to save time and money while getting an advanced degree.

The pandemic has ushered in a new era of online educational opportunities, and numerous reputable schools now offer accelerated one-year online master’s programs as another alternative to a costlier campus experience.

It’s not always easy to predict what your student’s return on investment for grad school will be, but they should take ample time to research programs and finances and talk to career advisors at their college to help them make the most informed decision for their individual circumstance.

Like any important decision in life, this one requires plenty of investigation and some risk taking.

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Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adult students and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. Marybeth has a bachelor's degree in psychology from UCLA and a master's in public health from San Jose State University. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing. You can find her work on multiple parenting sites and in two books.
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