When Graduate School Is Worth It
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 with people who have decades of experience.
Many students are taking the leap into a master’s program without thinking of alternatives or costs.
As an admissions coordinator 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 Grad School Will Work For You
First, you must assess how the program will fit with your career path. Second, decide whether 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 teachers with advanced degrees than for 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.
“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 terms of 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’s 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. 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 with a smaller, lesser known school such as Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management, where the average graduate salary is $51,466.
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, state school is always an option. At the University of Houston, for example, tuition is $465 per credit but commands an entry salary of $72,200. These programs are often of the same quality as those at private schools. The University of Illinois or University of California Los Angeles also have automatic name recognition.
Some fields, such as 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 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 the school’s 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, or 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.