Is a Graduate Degree Worth It?

The decision to pursue a graduate education can be a profoundly important one. It’s a big commitment to the next phase of your life, whether that means ascending to the top of your current profession, embarking on a new career, or learning more about a field you’re passionate about.

However, for most people, this decision also comes down to a very basic financial question: will the graduate degree be worth it? That is, will it increase my earnings enough to pay for not only the program, but also the time it takes to complete it?

The answer is different for everyone, and varies widely depending on your profession as well as factors like whether you take the course on campus or online. Here’s what you need to be thinking about:

How Much Will Graduate School Increase Your Earnings?

Let’s start with the good news: in most cases, a graduate degree means an increase in earnings.

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the median earnings of someone with a graduate degree is $80,000 a year — a nearly 30% increase over the median earnings for someone with a bachelor of arts degree. Similarly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the median earnings of someone with a master’s degree are nearly 20% higher than someone with a bachelor’s degree, and a professional degree program graduate earns over 50% more.

Of course, those median figures obscure a lot of variation between professions. For some careers, a graduate degree can lead to a major increase in salary, and in many cases it is a prerequisite for certain positions. In other careers, however, a graduate degree might not mean much — which means it might not pay for itself.

The Georgetown University study has some data points that illustrate this well. For example, graduate degree holders in biology and life sciences can earn $100,000 a year, a two-thirds increase over the $60,000 a year earned by bachelor’s degree holders. By contrast, graduate degree holders in arts and education fields only increase their earnings by about a third.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is your go-to resource for a deeper dive, with data on educational attainment levels and average wages for a dizzying array of specific positions. Want to be an urban planner? You might want to think about a graduate degree, since over half of Americans working in this field have one, and earn an average of $74,000 a year. On the other hand, less than 10% of insurance underwriters have a graduate education – yet they earn nearly $78,000 on average.

You might have a very clear idea of what a graduate degree means for your salary, especially if your goal is just a promotion within your current company or industry. If you’re not so sure, be sure to consult these types of statistics to get a sense of what a graduate degree might mean for your earnings.

How Much Does Graduate School (Really) Cost?

It’s true: graduate school can be expensive.

The most obvious cost is the price of the degree itself. According to Sallie Mae, the average graduate student pays $24,812 for their degree. Of course, this average obscures lots of differences between costs for various types of degrees, schools, program lengths, and (as discussed below) whether it’s an on-campus or online program. Needless to say, you should have a very clear idea of how much a degree program will cost before you apply!

However, that’s not only cost that you need to be thinking about. That same Sallie Mae study found that over 50% of education costs in aggregate are paid for with student borrowing, which means you also need to consider the cost of financing. If you’re going to be using a student loan to pay for your graduate degree, you need to consider how long it will take you to pay it off with your new salary, and how much interest you’ll be paying in the meantime.

Finally, you also need to be thinking about the “opportunity cost” of your education. Completing a graduate degree program is a major commitment of your time. Some graduate programs might require you to reduce your hours at your current job or quit it entirely, particularly if it’s an on-campus, full-time degree. Factor this in as well when considering how much a graduate degree really costs.

The Online Option

When you add it all up, the cost of a graduate degree can be daunting. Fortunately, the ability to pursue a graduate degree online is proving to be a game-changer for a growing number of students.

With online education platforms like Coursera, you can obtain a graduate degree from world-class universities for a fraction of the cost of getting the same degree on campus. You can also complete the degree on your own time, which can give you the flexibility you need to keep up with your current job. With all of the benefits of an on-campus degree and much lower costs, online options help graduate degrees make financial sense for many students.

So, if you’re considering pursuing a graduate degree, you owe it to yourself to check out online education options before making a decision. Learn more about online degree programs from schools such as the University of Illinois and their full Master of Science in Accountancy program.  Earn the same degree as on-campus students, 100% online, on your schedule.

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