Are you considering graduate school? If so, you’ll want to make sure that you’ll be getting the most from a graduate degree.
It’s a major commitment of time and resources, especially if you’ll be footing the bill or taking time out of the workforce. Graduate tuition and fees for the 2019-20 academic year averaged $12,410 for public institutions and $28,430 for private, not-for-profit institutions, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
As you weigh your options, here are a few things to think over.
Start with a plan
In 2001, 11.0 million Americans age 25 and older held a master's degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2021, 24.1 million did, an increase of 13.1 million. Besides seeking higher pay and better opportunities, young adults might enroll in graduate school because of parental expectations, a disappointing job market, uncertainty over what to do after completing an undergraduate degree, or a pure enjoyment of higher learning.
These motivations, without a plan, can lead to undesirable outcomes. So can unexamined assumptions about how a graduate degree will further specific goals. It’s important to gain clarity on how a graduate degree will help you before you go down a path that may not pay off, even when you’re young and may have few responsibilities.
“Not every graduate degree is financially worthwhile,” said Mark Kantrowitz, author of How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid and Who Graduates from College? Who Doesn't? “Look at the [U.S. Department of Education’s] College Scorecard data for your college, academic major, and degree level to see the debt and income data. Most medium and large programs will have data reported; small programs will not have data reported because of data privacy issues.”
For additional data, Salary.com’s salary calculator can help you estimate what you could earn with a graduate degree and a specific job title.
“Also, just look at job listings for your field to see what degree level they require and how much they pay,” Kantrowitz said. “One of the more frustrating things, though, is that many job listings do not specify the salary or a salary range.”
Weigh part-time vs. full-time enrollment
Should you attend graduate school full time while working part time or not at all? Pursue a degree on the side while working full time? Work part time and attend school part time? Planning how you will balance the financial and logistical demands of school, work, and possibly caretaking is key if you want to get the most from pursuing a graduate degree.
Part-time attendance may be especially appealing to older adults pursuing a graduate degree to launch a second-act career. Potential students in this group might have more financial resources, but also greater responsibilities, such as supporting children, a spouse, or an aging parent.
“Some graduate fields of study provide financial aid in the form of an assistantship, which is like a part-time job,” Kantrowitz said.
An assistantship is a teaching or research position that can prepare you to become an instructor or professional researcher. In addition to being compensated for the work itself, you may receive benefits, such as paid medical insurance and a waiver of certain student fees.
But a full- or part-time job may affect how long it takes you to complete your degree, putting you on a treadmill of working to afford tuition while needing to pay tuition for more years and postponing your career change or advancement.
Decide how you’ll pay for your degree
“If you have to take out student loans to pay for graduate school, start with federal loans,” said certified student loan counselor Kat Tretina. “Direct Unsubsidized Loans are a good starting point, followed by federal Direct PLUS Loans. But be careful; there are no borrowing limits on PLUS Loans, and they have higher interest rates than other forms of federal loans, so they can be expensive.”
Direct Unsubsidized Loans are available to both undergraduate and graduate students who are enrolled at least half time, regardless of financial need. The interest rate on these loans was 5.28 percent, and the most you can borrow is $20,500 for the 2021-22 academic year for graduate or professional students. On top of that, you’ll pay a loan fee of about 1 percent of the amount you borrow. You’re also limited to total borrowing of $138,500 in all federal student loans, including any you may have taken out to earn your undergraduate degree.
The interest rate on grad PLUS Loans was 6.28 percent for the 2021-22 academic year. They have a much higher disbursement fee than Direct Unsubsidized Loans: 4.228 percent, or about $423 for every $10,000 borrowed. These loans allow you to borrow up to the cost of attendance as determined by your school, minus any financial aid awards.
That said, student loans should not be the first place you turn to pay for school. (Related: 7 ways to pay for grad school)
“The biggest mistake students make is focusing on student loans rather than other financial aid,” Tretina said. “Many students mistakenly believe that grants, scholarships, and work-study programs are only for undergraduate students, but that's not the case. As a graduate student, you can take advantage of gift aid and work-study programs to reduce the need for student loans.”
Ask about employer tuition assistance
“Some jobs will pay for your graduate degree [e.g., MBA] if you earn at least a B in every class and if you agree to work for them for one to two years after graduation for every year of support,” Kantrowitz said.
Assistance varies by employer and degree type. Things to consider include how much tuition your company will cover, how much flexibility they can provide in your schedule and workload while you take classes and study, and what opportunities they can provide to put the knowledge you gain from your coursework into immediate practice in your job.
Avoid dropping out
In some cases, dropping out of graduate school might be a way of cutting your losses after deciding the program you chose isn’t right for you.
Other times, grad students who want to complete their degrees find themselves dropping out because of a change in life circumstances, lack of financial planning, or insufficient support from their academic department.
“Students are more likely to complete their degree in a program that is more structured and offers more student support than one that’s more self-directed,” said Joshua Lachs, CEO of Moneythink, a national nonprofit working to increase college graduation rates and reduce student loan debt.
One way to add structure in a program that doesn’t have it? Seek out mentors who are more advanced in your program and who have already graduated and are working in your field. They, along with academic advisors, can offer advice on course selection, help you clarify your goals, hold you accountable to your graduation timeline, and prepare you for life after graduation.
Choose your school carefully
Affordability is a major consideration for most people considering graduate school, but it’s also important to look at how successful that school’s graduates become. Check LinkedIn to see where graduates of the program you’re considering are working now. Speak with program alums. And think about what professional networks you’ll gain access to through that program.
“There are trade-offs in any decision, and we actually have some great examples of students we worked with who were weighing a more expensive business school against a more affordable business school,” Lachs said. “We showed them how even though one program was more cost-effective in the short term, it might make sense to take out more money to attend the more expensive school because its graduation rate and job placement rate were much higher.”
What if you’re pursuing a liberal arts degree?
“Many graduate liberal arts degrees are really great, but some don’t have a great ROI that will help you pay off your loans,” Lachs said. “However, we’re seeing things like art history or philosophy grad programs incorporating a mini-MBA to help liberal arts students understand the business side of their industry and develop those skills.”
One example is Stony Brook University’s combined Master of Arts and Master of Business Administration program in Art History & Criticism, which consists of 21 art credits and 48 business credits. A dual degree program from New York University’s Stern School of Business grants an MFA and MBA for those pursuing film production and financing. The Maryland Institute College of Art offers a design leadership MA combined with a Johns Hopkins MBA that can be completed in two years.
Also look for schools with a robust practicum or internship program where you will put what you’ve learned into real-world practice. Some schools connect students with these opportunities; others require students to seek them out on their own.
Graduate school can be expensive, and earning an advanced degree often takes at least two years. By demystifying school costs, learning about career trajectories, and understanding the potential return on the time and money you’ll invest, you can make a smart decision about whether to pursue a graduate degree and, if so, how to make the most of the opportunity.
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