When Grad School Is Worth the Bill
Many see grad school as a waste of money – and it isn't the right choice for everybody. But for some, it's a very worthwhile investment.
In recent years, a common refrain on education has been that a master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree. College grads compete for low-level jobs against people with decades of experience.
Many students are taking the leap into a master’s program without thinking of alternatives or costs.
As an admissions coordinator myself for a time, I cringed whenever I had to explain to an eager applicant that tuition would cost nearly $80,000 with no opportunities for graduate assistantships and very few scholarships. But I knew our program had value. We were in a new tech field, offered paid internships that covered the majority of tuition, and were accredited to a well-known school.
When and Why Graduate School Will Work For You
First, you must assess how the program will fit with your career path. Second, decide if the program is worth the extra tuition money. This will help you avoid falling into the graduate school trap.
Think like a hiring manager. For example, a friend of mine wants to get her graduate degree in teaching after three years of temp work. While it will open up more opportunities and advance her skills, going for a master’s may be a mistake because potential employers are required to pay more for advanced-degree teachers than those with bachelor’s degrees.
If my friend was a full-fledged teacher and employed full-time for a few years (perhaps having tenure at the school), the reverse would be true. She would already be on track for a promotion or a raise. Therefore, graduate school would make sense for her career path. It would be a continuation of her career, rather than an add-on to an unstable job.
Sylvia Lawrence, a hiring director at a Fortune 500 company, explains, “Employers want to see linear movements. Changing careers is great, but unless you can prove that you have thought it through, made plans, and have the basic skills and experience, your graduate degree looks like you took the easy route.”
In other words, it makes more sense to pursue an advanced degree when you can use it to make yourself more valuable to your employer.
Placing A Value On A Graduate Program
Graduate schools are no longer rigid in class schedules and offerings. A great graduate program will offer part-time options over extended periods. Night classes allow you to keep your job while improving your credentials. And there are amazing online programs that are actually worth the money. Look into online programs offered through public schools such as Pennsylvania State University — World Campus, 97 percent of whose students are already working in the field as they study, and therefore can make up the difference in cost.
Those desiring the full university experience should also consider the prestige factor.
Where you go to school matters, especially in business and law schools. Comparing Wharton with a “low-level” school could mean a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential future pay. Wharton MBA graduates command $125,000 per year. Compare that to a smaller, lesser known schools like Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management where the average salary is only $51,466.
FOR MANY POTENTIAL GRADUATE STUDENTS, TUITION IS THE MAIN DETERMINING FACTOR.
For those who cannot bring themselves to shell out over $100,000 for an MBA or roughly $50,000 for a top-tier master’s program, there is always the option of a state school. One great example is the University of Houston. At Houston, tuition is $465 per credit but commands an entry salary of $72,200. These programs are often the same quality as those at private schools. They also have automatic name brand recognition at schools such as the University of Illinois or University of California Los Angeles.
There are also fields like biotechnology and engineering that require advanced degrees.
Without a master’s, you may not qualify for management positions or other promotions. Top schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and California Institute of Technology, offer a great education, prepare students with skill over fluff, and have job placement to match tuition cost. MIT’s students will pay $67,750 in tuition for 2015. However, those completing their highly sought-after engineering program have a mean salary of $90,505 and an 80 percent full-time placement rate in the field.
Realistically, there is some value in almost any graduate school. This is true for people who are looking for jobs that require a specialized education. It’s also true for those who want to move up in their careers, or who plan to change directions without needing another four-year undergraduate degree. The long-term value of a program that matches your goals and offers great ROI shouldn’t be underestimated.