Are Graduate School Costs Worth the Investment?

Advice & Stories, Affording College
on June 23, 2014

Are Graduate School Costs Worth the Investment?

For people who are meticulous when it comes to how they spend their money, and, ultimately, how they spend their time, the question of whether or not graduate school is worth the investment is one that deserves attention.

The cost of graduate school obviously varies depending on the discipline. However, according to the The Graduate Student Debt Review from the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public-policy institution, the cost of going to a graduate school has been on a dramatic rise, pointing to increasing debt figures as evidence. The report says that, as of 2004, the median level of debt for a borrower who earned an M.A. was $38,000, after adjusting for inflation—but by 2012, that figure had risen dramatically to a whopping $59,000.

While there is some financial aid available like scholarships and grants that help reduce the cost of graduate schools, their availability isn’t so enormous that most students can rely on them. In reality, as shown by a study from Edvisors, the most common means of financing a graduate degree is by taking on some debt. Edvisors found that two-third of master’s degree holders graduated with debt—an average of $41,400 in graduate student loans alone. So we pose the question again: Are graduate degrees worth the investment?

Joseph Childers, dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California, Riverside, says, “The not-so-simple answer is that the value of the degree depends on the person, the type of the degree and their reason for pursuing it.”

“Statistically, it is true that the higher the degree, the higher the earning potential, and that often the most expensive degree also holds out the greatest hope of high return,” Dean Childers says. “But one should ask the reason for considering graduate school. If the answer is only to make more money or delay entering the ‘real world’ in exchange for taking on more student debt, then it might be wise to reconsider.” In other words, if the motive for attending graduate school is to jump into the middle class right from school, or you are afraid of the labor market, the investment is probably not worth it.

Moreover, Dean Childers asserts that, with ever-increasing popularity, many graduate degree—even the so-called “professional degrees”—might soon fail to present opportunities for a major pay bump. “In the case of professional degrees, look at the MBA,” he says. “The degree has become ubiquitous and does little to distinguish its holder, and yet an MBA can cost as much as $75,000 per year. That is quite a price tag for a degree that is declining in prestige and demand. Law degrees are similar, and in many cases, even more expensive.”

Evidently, when looking at the matter of considering graduate school from a financial standpoint, it’s very easy to see it as a waste. However, Dean Childers argues that the presumption that more knowledge and better training are not valuable unless they can be exchanged for more money is fundamentally anti-intellectual.

“In part, this is the problem with how Americans view higher education,” he says. “They see it, basically, as vocational education, as training people for specific jobs rather than as providing them with a strong base upon which to continue to acquire, process and apply new learning throughout a lifetime.”

Having established that earning a graduate degree should not be financially motivated, we’re still left to discern the circumstances under which graduate schooling is worth the investment. “Any time a person values added education in its own right, and can pursue that education without risk to life, limb or the safety of others, it is worth the investment,” Dean Childers says.

However, for those who are particular about the financial returns on graduate degrees, look at it this way: Current considerations on whether graduate degrees are worth the financial investment—the ones focused strictly on monetary returns— do indeed tend to discourage people from going on to graduate school. But in the end, the financial loss of not acquiring the knowledge will affect not only you, but the entire economy.

“The upshot is to potentially price all educational training right out of the market and thus create an extremely unequal society where knowledge is held and disseminated by only a few, and those few will also be the holders of the lion’s share of wealth and power. That’s not a pretty picture,” Dean Childers says.

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