Should I Go to Grad School? When to Get a Master’s Degree
Many see grad school as a waste of money, and it certainly 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 many as nine in 10 students believe a higher degree will equal higher earnings, according to a report by Sallie Mae, and 63 percent of students are beginning graduate studies within 12 months of getting their undergrad degrees.
As an admissions coordinator for a time, I cringe whenever I have to explain to an eager applicant that tuition would cost nearly $80,000 with no opportunities for graduate assistantships and very few scholarships. In fact, only 15 percent of fees are covered by grants and scholarships each year, according to the same Sallie Mae report.
Yet I know our program had value. We’re in a new tech field, offer paid internships that cover the majority of tuition, and are accredited to a well-known school.
It’s also important to note that 86 percent of students pick colleges based not on fees, but on reputation and convenience. The average fees students pay for grad school are $24,812.
Why Should I Go to Grad School? Finding the Right Reasons
First, you must assess how the program will fit with your career path. Second, decide if the program is worth the extra tuition money. Think like a hiring manager. This will help you avoid falling into the grad school trap.
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 teachers with advanced degrees than for those with bachelor’s degrees. This might deter somebody who would otherwise love to hire her.
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.
“Employers want to see linear movements,” says Sylvia Lawrence, a hiring director at a Fortune 500 company.
“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 education programs that are actually worth the money. Look into online programs offered through public schools such as Pennsylvania State University — World Campus, where 97 percent of the 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 for business or law. 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 school like Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management, where the average salary is only $51,466.
Current Tuition vs. Future Salary
For many potential graduate students, tuition is the main determining factor. For those who can’t afford to shell out over $100,000 for an MBA or roughly $50,000 per semester for a top-tier master’s program, a state school is always an option.
One great example is the University of Houston. At Houston, tuition is $815 per credit for a masters in business, but commands an entry-level salary of $96,492. These programs are often the same quality as those at private schools. For instance, both the University of Illinois and University of California Los Angeles have automatic name recognition.
Some fields, like biotechnology and engineering, 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 the California Institute of Technology offer a great education, prepare students with skills over fluff, and have job placement to match tuition cost.
MIT’s students paid $49,892 in tuition for the 2017–2018 school year. However, those completing their highly sought-after engineering program have a mean salary of $108,973 and an 87-percent full-time placement rate in the field.
On top of this, the entry-level salary difference between having a bachelor’s and a master’s is huge. On average, there is a $12,000 yearly difference in salary, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So Should I Go to Grad School or Not? The Bottom Line
Realistically, there is some value in almost any graduate school. This is especially 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 direction 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.