Is Grad School Worth It?

by Kaitlyn Ranze and Jasmine Mackenzie

Grad school is expensive. With graduate programs costing over $20,000 per year and top schools like Stanford charging around $55,000 for graduate degree options (not including housing/fees/etc), graduate education can be one of the most costly investments you will ever make.

While the cost varies by program, the average student loan debt for a master’s degree holder is nearly double the debt of those with a bachelor’s degree at $72,000 according to research site educationdata.org. Despite this hefty price tag, they’re also growing in popularity.

Graduate degrees are becoming more popular.

Enrollment in graduate programs rose 4.4% during the spring 2021 semester, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

With these price tags however, people are putting off buying homes and having kids to pay off their students. So, you may be wondering, are advanced degrees (master’s, MBAs, law school, and med school) worth the price tag?

Let’s break down the pros, cons, and costs of different graduate programs

But first, let’s be clear: graduate school is not a requirement for a vast majority of jobs. In fact, some high paying jobs like computer programmers, electricians, and sales reps don’t require a degree at all. However, graduate degrees can be an asset to many career paths and can often lead to significantly better employment prospects and higher earnings. Let’s dive in.

Why get an advanced degree?

You could potentially increase your salary with a master’s degree.

When people apply to graduate school, most are hoping to gain a higher annual income. Specializing in your specific field can demonstrate to employers that you have expertise in your area and are able to think critically. According to Nav.it Co-Founder, Maia Monell, “My master’s degree often gave me the extra boost of confidence I needed to fight for a raise, command more meeting time, and ultimately find ownership and leadership at a time when others my age were still trying to figure it all out.”

With a master’s degree, generally, there can be a 25% increase in your starting career’s salary. However, these increases vary depending on the type of degree you pursue. According to research site educationdata.org, 9% of Americans have master’s degrees but it increased their employability by less than 3%.

What you study (and which advanced degree you select) matters

For example, those pursuing a Master of Science (MS), Master of Business Administration (MBA), and Master of Law (LLM) can see an increase of up to 150%. According to U.S. News, those who received their MBA who accepted jobs prior to the pandemic received a median base salary of $115,000: nearly $10,000 more than those without an MBA.

Meanwhile, those pursuing Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) can typically see an increase between 19-25%, which isn’t nearly as much as their aforementioned counterparts. 

Let’s break this down a little further.

Graduate Degrees in STEM

The thing is, you may not need a graduate degree in STEM to earn a higher paying wage. Just look at some of the top ten highest paying undergraduate degrees

Petroleum engineering$87,989
Computer programming$86,098
Computer engineering$85,996
Computer science$85,766
Electrical, electronics, and communications engineering$80,819
Operations research$80,166
Computer and information science$78,603
Statistics$75,916
Applied mathematics$73,558
Chemical engineering$72,713
Source: NACE

However, STEM careers – Science, technology, engineering, and math – are becoming increasingly important across a wide range of industries.

  • The University of Nebraska reports that graduate degree holders in engineering earn about $24,000 more per year than those with only bachelor’s degrees
  • Graduates with graduate degrees in STEM earn nearly twice as much as those with only bachelor’s.  (The College Board)
  • Businesses are increasingly requiring graduate degrees for professional positions. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that graduate degree holders in business earn an average starting salary of $54,000, or about $10,000 more than those with only bachelor’s degrees.
  • By 2022 the U.S. Department of Labor expects there will be 1 million more graduate degree jobs than college graduates qualified to fill them (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The chances of a graduate degree in STEM are high, but it could just be because that field pays off in general. 

Weighing the pros, cons, and costs of attending law school

It is no secret that the economy has gone through hell over the past decade. The fluctuations sparked a rise in the number of students matriculating into law school. This trend came on strong during the Great Recession but continues today as more law schools report record-breaking enrollment numbers. 

However, before you sign your name on the dotted line of a law school application, there are some things you should know about the job market after law school.

Weighing the Cost of Law School

The first thing you might be wondering is whether or not attending law school is worth it financially speaking. Let’s break down the cost and the value of getting your law degree. 

On its current trend, the average yearly cost of tuition will be $51,170 for the 2020 to 2021 school year, with a projected rise above $56,000 in 2022.

Despite costs ranging around the same amount, not all graduates fare the same with regard to their job prospects after graduation. Graduates from some schools do better than others professionally and financially.  

U.S. News & World Report, an overall ranking for Best Value Law School was created based on employment rates, bar passage rates, tuition cost per year, and median private sector starting salaries. 

According to this survey, the 10 law schools where salary-to-debt ratios are highest:

  • Northeastern University (MA): 3.2-to-1
  • Wayne State University (MI): 2.03-to-1
  • George Mason University (VA): 2.02-to-1
  • Washington University in St. Louis: 1.88-to-1
  • Brigham Young University (Clark) (UT): 1.86-to-1
  • University of Texas—Austin: 1.74-to-1
  • Boston University: 1.72-to-1
  • Rutgers University (NJ): 1.63-to-1
  • Boston College: 1.62-to-1
  • University of California—Los Angeles: 1.51-to-1

Getting a job after law school

The next thing you might want to consider is whether or not getting a law degree will help you get a job right away. This is an especially important point to remember considering that the vast majority (94%) of law students graduate with student loan debt, which can be crippling if they can’t find immediate employment after graduation. Fortunately for those who want to be lawyers, according to data collected by NALP (National Association for Law Placement), there were approximately 38% more jobs accepted by law school graduates in the first nine months after graduation, compared to 2009.

The payoff of a law degree: a lawyer’s salary

Now that you know whether or not going to law school will get you a higher-paying job, let’s look at some information on what types of jobs are available for law school graduates and their pay.

Area of Legal Practice Median Starting Salary 

  • Litigation $82,000 
  • Business/Industry $89,000 
  • Government $50,000 
  • Public Interest (e.g., Legal Services Corp., public defender offices) 
  • $54,000 Academia (e.g., law teaching)

As you can see, the highest paying jobs after law school are in litigation and business/industry. These types of jobs are also among the most common with only 22% of graduates taking jobs in government while 19% take on work in public interest areas. 

What if you don’t really wanna practice law – is law school worth it?

Some law students have no plans on following the traditional path that their law degree will lead them on. Some students become entrepreneurs and others want to gain the skills necessary for a career as an artist or writer.

Here are some final thoughts to think about before making your decision about law:

1. The amount of time it takes to become a lawyer can vary from 3 years (if attending law school full time) to 8 years (if attending a part-time evening program).

2. The only way to know if you will be successful is by trying it out for yourself and all that means is that you need to go to law school and see what happens.

3. Think about whether or not you want a high-paying job right after graduating from law school or if working in the public interest is more important to you than making money.

4. Only 2% of law graduates take jobs in academia while nearly 1/5th work in the public sector.

5. The highest paying jobs after law school are in business and litigation. These jobs also require the most experience.

6. The median salary of employed graduates of ABA-approved law schools is $72,000 per year with an average debt load of $112,000.

7. All lawyers are expected to pass the bar exam before they can practice law in any given state but some non-legal jobs do not require passing any exams whatsoever (e.g., tax accountant).

Weighing the Pros, Cons, and Costs of an MBA

First off let’s talk about what exactly an MBA is. An MBA stands for Master of Business Administration. It is a graduate-level degree that has become an essential qualification for many jobs in all areas of business. 

A certain amount of work experience is usually required for admission to MBA programs. Also, many students attend classes at their convenience, outside of traditional semesters or quarters, because it can be difficult to find time to take classes while working full-time.

Why get an MBA?

Earning an MBA can help professionals increase their expertise, enhance their career opportunities, increase their salary, and have access to promotions. Afterall, many employers require an MBA for certain leadership and management positions. 

However, it may not be worth the time, expense, or extra effort unless you plan on working in a business-related field, with an MBA from top business schools can cost up to $100,000.

Average cost of an MBA

However the website MBAPrograms.org reports that the average cost of tuition at a two-year MBA program ranges between $50,000 and $80,000. With so many options from different universities and colleges, how do you decide whether or not the program is worth it?

Just like law schools, not all MBA programs are created equally. In fact, according to Investopedia, “Recruiters and hiring managers are not likely to view an MBA earned from an unknown or online-only educator to hold the same weight as from a top-10 school. For professionals going back to school at a second- or third-tier school could end up wasting their time, money, and opportunity.”

What financial benefits can you expect with an MBA?

Average salary increases after obtaining an MBA

According to a study done by TransparentCareer and RelishCareers, MBA graduates reported an average salary of $36,742 more than their coworkers without a degree. The study further showed the average salary of an employee before they earned their MBA was $79,505, increasing to $116,248  obtaining their MBA.

So how do you weigh whether or not an MBA is the right option for you? 

Consider where you are and where you want to be professionally. While an MBA might help you land your next interview, they don’t guarantee a better or higher paying job. However, if you’ve got work experience and you’re looking to get a boost for your career through growth or promotion, a part-time or EMBA program might be for you.

Weighing the Pros, Cons, and Costs of Medical school or becoming a doctor of osteopathy

From personal experiences and a desire to help others to financial gain, there are different reasons why people choose to pursue a career in medicine. We’ll focus on the financial aspect and let you reflect on your own personal motivations for pursuing medicine.

Also, just to clear this up, the main difference between DOs and MDs comes down to the philosophy of care for their patient. DOs practice an osteopathic approach to care, while MDs practice an allopathic approach to care. Translation? Medical doctors (MDs) focus on contemporary, research-based medicine, and use medications/surgery to treat different conditions. An osteopathic approach to care focuses on the whole body and preventative care. Ultimately, both programs allow you to treat patients and have some big financial rewards for the lengthy course of study.

The cost of going to med school or becoming a doctor of osteopathy

The average cost of medical school is $54,698 per year but the range is pretty wide with huge differences from state to state and in-state and out of state tuition.

Cheapest and most expensive medical schools: 

  • New York University Long Island School of Medicine – $10,170 for both in-state and out-of-state residents. 
  • Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth – $73,659 for in-state residents. 
  • University of South Carolina School of Medicine Columbia – $91,307 for out-of-state residents. 

Meanwhile, doctor of osteopathy schools run the same price range, with an average budget around $50,000 in tuition fees

Time might be the biggest cost of becoming a doctor

Medical school in the U.S. typically lasts four years but is generally followed by a residency and potentially a fellowship, amounting to a combined 10 years or longer of medical training after undergraduate studies.

The payoff of becoming a doctor

Sticking through the program can pay off big. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary among U.S. physicians (DOs and MDs) easily exceeds $200,000. 

David Rhoiney DO, a doctor of osteopathy that writes and runs SurgiFi has this advice for future medical students: “If you’re going into medicine to get rich, the answer is don’t. If you’re going into medicine to do something elite, get paid well, and live a comfortable life then do it.”

Advanced degrees as alternatives to becoming a physician

Nursing Schools and Nurse Practitioners

Cost: $26,490 – $254,260, with schools like Columbia University ranging from $132,000-$264,000, with the average graduating student loan balance being $149,000.

Time in program: four years.

Average salary after graduation:  According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the median nurse practitioner salary is around $111,680 per year.

Physician Assistant schools

Cost:  Varies from public to private school and instate and out of state. The best breakdown we could find was from PALife.com

  • In-state public – $50,289. 
  • non-resident public – $88,6777
  • Private school – $91,639.

Time in program: 27 months

Average salary: $110,518.

Dentistry

Cost: $151,508 (in-state, public school) to $268,348 (private school) 

Time in program: four years

Average salary: $171,530

Pharmacy

Cost: public in-instate university $3,000-$20,500 annually; private in-state$14,800-$82,000 program.

Time in Program: four years

Average Salary: $139931

Optometry

Cost: in-state public residents $42,000-$74,800 while non residents between $89,600-$173,600

Time in program: four years

Average salary: $129,405 

Getting a Graduate Degree in Teaching

Many American school districts pay teachers with master’s degrees substantially more, even though a number of studies – including this one — suggest that having a master’s degree has little if any effect on student achievement.

National Bureau of Economic Research

Ok, ok. We won’t go down THAT road. What we can say is that the evidence is clear: teachers with a master’s degree make more than those without one. Though it varies by how much, based on region, you have a few options in which route to pursue.

Master of Science in Teaching (MST), Master of Education (MEd), Doctorate in Education (EdD), Master’s in School Counseling, and School Psychologists all vary in their financial outcomes, but this is mostly based on region.

The break down

There are arguments both for and against graduate studies. The decision you make when considering graduate school should not be rooted solely in economic benefits but also psychological needs and personal fulfillment.

Anyone who has attended graduate school knows that it also takes time. That in turn comes with opportunity cost. While in school, you may have potentially reduced earning power in the short or medium-term (depending on the path taken). 

Despite all these numbers, nearly two-thirds of people with an advanced degree said they regretted it, according to PayScale. Their biggest factor in regretting their degree: student loan debt.

How to pay for med school, law school, your master’s degree or MBA

One of the most common ways to pay for your advanced degree is also the most costly. Check out this full-length article on what to know about student loans before you apply for them. Then try to look for alternative resources for covering the cost of tuition.

Alternatives to student loans

Teaching Grants

Depending on the department, your school may offer teaching assistantships or research positions that will cover part of your tuition or even pay a periodic stipend. These programs are significantly more common with Master’s programs than they are for medical school or law school.

Scholarships

Scholarships are payments awarded to students based on academic achievements or other requirements set by the scholarship sponsor. Some of the most well-known are based on athletic achievements, but businesses and non-profits often dole out scholarships. 

Some of the best ways to find scholarships

Contact Your School

The financial aid counselor in your university or college will have a list of awards associated with your campus. If you are still a high school student, you can schedule an appointment with the guidance counselor.

Use the Internet to Your Advantage

Make the most out of your tablet, laptop or smartphone and start searching online. Check out sites like FastWeb that let you search for scholarships based on region, interests, and course of study. 

Employer backed Tuition Assistance 

First off, what is tuition assistance?

In some ways, tuition assistance is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when an employer or company offers to cover an amount of the cost of college, classes, or additional training for an employee (whether that’s by covering books, tuition, or fees)

There’s no such thing as free lunch or college tuition with your employer.

Be aware that each company’s tuition assistance policies are a little different. While some employers are willing to reimburse costs for any course you take, some may only pay for courses relevant to your job. Your employer might also have a hard limit on the costs they will cover, the number of classes employees take, or have a set of guidelines regarding online vs. in-person classes.

Also, look into whether your company is paying for the class no matter how well you perform in it, whether you are required to stay with the company for a set period of time after you complete the course, and whether your employer will pay for it or reimburse you.

How to weigh whether or not an advanced degree is for you:

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Will a graduate degree help me advance in my career?

If a degree isn’t required for you to get a promotion, you may not need to take the extra step. According to Nav.it founder, Erin Papworth, “My graduate degree gave me a level of expertise in my field that was a comparative advantage in the job market. It also trained me in a way of thinking about professional problems that was key to my success in leadership roles.”

Also, consider the labor market payoff. Check out the job outlook data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to gauge demand in certain occupations that require a graduate degree. Lastly, check out trends on LinkedIn for perspective jobs.

2. Can I afford to go to graduate school, or will the cost outweigh the benefits?

Certain master’s degrees are more likely to have higher paying outcomes and salaries. If you’re borrowing $80,000 with expected earnings of $30,000, then you may want to reconsider your course of study.

3. Will this fulfill me?

At the end of the day, the goal is to find something that makes you happy.

  Weigh carefully your options and chat with a money coach if you need more help breaking down your options.

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