The ROI of a Master’s Degree – Is It Worth It?

The educational landscape is changing, and more people are seeking advanced education than ever before. This makes the job market increasingly competitive, which only drives more people to get advanced degrees.

Are you one of the many people thinking about getting a Master’s degree? People enroll in Master’s programs from all walks of life. Some come straight out of their undergraduate experience, others go back to school after several years in the workforce, and some even pursue higher education after they’ve retired.

If you’re one of the many people considering going back to school for your master’s, you’ll probably want to take a long, hard look at whether or not it’s truly for you. The experience of graduate school is, for many, a major disruption in your life. Plus it requires a massive investment of time, energy, and money.

Here we try to nail down a few things you should consider as you determine whether or not a Master’s degree is worth the investment for you.

 

WHAT ARE THE REASONS FOR GETTING A MASTER’S DEGREE?

The answer to this question will be different for every person. But you should still make sure you stop and really ask yourself, as it will be virtually impossible to determine whether grad school is worth the investment unless you clarify what you want to go for.

Many people get a master’s degree because they want to increase their earning power. This is obviously a relatable goal. However, the effect of the master’s degree on your earning power isn’t guaranteed to be meaningful for everyone (more on that soon). It differs by industry, school, and individual.

Many others obtain a master’s degree because they want the opportunity for advancement in their field.

It’s true that many jobs require certain kinds of accreditation. And other jobs where a master’s degree isn’t exactly a formal requirement may tend to favor applicants with more education. Further, in certain industries, the networking you do in grad school is one of the sources of greatest career benefit for you.

 

One final reason to get a Master’s degree for many people is that higher education provides the means by which to pursue certain kinds of research. If you’re motivated by research, then you should investigate the kinds of people who do the kinds of research you’re interested in. Do they all conduct that research under the auspices of a university? And do they all pursue Master’s degrees, if not doctorates?

WHAT ARE YOUR REASONS FOR NOT GETTING A MASTER’S DEGREE?

These are as unique to each person as the reasons for getting a master’s degree, but the importance of the question is just as universal.

For one thing, the master’s degree is not the terminal degree (that is, the highest possible degree) in every field. It may be that the kind of job you’re looking for privileges people who have Ph.D’s in your field. Or it may be that the degree doesn’t offer any obvious advantage in the field you’re interested in.

Just as the master’s degree is not itself a guarantee of greater career opportunity, it’s also not a guarantee you’ll earn higher wages. One of the only things it is almost certainly guaranteed to do is cost you money. This varies enormously depending on the program and on the amount of financial assistance you get. But the costs of the degree are something you should pay close attention to.

 

SO WHAT ARE ALL THE COSTS?

 

There are many costs associated with a Master’s degree besides just tuition. We take a look at some of them here.

Application fees: This might seem like a negligent part of the overall expense of graduate school, but it’s one of the first costs most eventual Master’s degree candidates face. And it can be substantial. For example, Harvard Business School charges $250 per application. If you’re planning to apply to several schools, you could easily spend several thousand dollars on master’s program applications. In addition, you’ll have to spend a substantial amount of time and efforts to decide which MBA program is the best one for you.  

Also, don’t overlook the fact that the application process can be quite grueling. You will have to make a significant investment of time, energy, and even anxiety just in order to apply.

Standardized tests: The costs associated with standardized tests can also be significant, even if they are often overlooked. The GRE–the most common non-specialized standardized test for graduate school–costs $205. This doesn’t account for hidden fees (the GMAT, for example, charges $35 for an Enhanced Score Report) or for the fact that many students take these exams more than once.

Test prep can also be an immense expense–many students invest thousands of dollars in expensive testing test prep classes like Kaplan, and one-on-one tutoring. However, technology is catching up with this industry and you can also find online GMAT/GRE courses that use AI to help you score higher.

NOTE: There are some scholarships available that help waive application and test fees for certain kinds of students. This can be worth investigating if the cost of admission is prohibitive for you.

Moving: Will you be changing locations in order to go to graduate school? Moving always ends up being much more expensive than you think it is. Paying for labor and transportation can range from several hundred dollars for a local move to several thousand for a long-distance move. Plus there are inevitably extra costs associated with moving, such as buying new furniture (or even new clothes, if you’re moving from one climate to another).

Lost Income: If you’re planning to go straight to graduate school after finishing your undergraduate degree, you might not fully appreciate how difficult it is to go from earning a substantial living to earning less or no money at all. The prospect of lost income is one of the most difficult components of many adults’ decision to pursue a Master’s degree.

It can be very difficult to take a step backward in your standard of living after you’ve taken a step forward. Many students went from being broke undergraduates to earning a very comfortable wage right out of college. The idea of going back to being broke students is very difficult for some to bear.

For others who have started families, or who are in otherwise financially tenuous situations, the idea of giving up your living might seem impossible, especially if it necessitates taking out loans to survive.

As you calculate the costs of lost income–whether you be giving up actual current income or hypothetical income should you join or remain in the workforce instead of going to school–don’t forget to include retirement contributions and health insurance, as well as any other perks or financial benefits.

Tuition and fees: This is probably the most significant cost associated with graduate school for many students. However, this cost is highly variable.

There are ways to earn a Master’s degree without making a life-altering financial commitment. For example, many programs offer admitted students scholarships, research assistantships, and other kinds of arrangements that help subsidize the costs of an education (in whole or in part).

You can also explore scholarship availabilities outside the schools you’re applying to. Focusing on public universities that can offer you in-state tuition is another way to keep costs down. Many online universities offer less expensive Master’s-degree programs than their real-world counterparts (though you’ll want to do extra research, as there has been some controversy regarding the value of graduate education from online, for-profit institutions).

NOTE: Some students manage to continue working even as they earn a graduate degree. This is more common in some kinds of Master’s programs than others. For example, some people who have already achieved some seniority with their current organizations, go to school at night or part-time while maintaining their employment in order to finance their living and education. Some lucky professionals even have the costs of their education subsidized by the companies they work for. You can explore if this option might work for you. Though beware: these kinds of arrangements typically involve making longer time-commitments to one company than you might care to make.

Cost of living: Don’t forget that, in addition to tuition, you’ll still have to keep yourself sheltered and fed. And you’ll also have to pay for utilities, and entertainment, and gym memberships and…

The cost of being a functional human being always adds up. This will be an especially significant expense if you have family and loved ones you are helping to care for.

And don’t forget that there will be many “optional” activities and opportunities you may want to participate in once you get to grad school. This includes extracurricular group projects, networking events, and more. Don’t forget the $15 bottle of wine you’ll have to buy if you want to go to your colleague’s potluck, or the tuxedo you’ll have to rent if you want to go to that big gala your advisor invites you to.

Stress: Many successful and highly-motivated people enable themselves to take on difficult tasks by simply not allowing themselves to envision how difficult the task will be once they sign up. Many people fail to appreciate how big an investment of psychological energy grad school will be. The material will always be challenging–occasionally mystifyingly so. There will be sleepless, anxious nights. Your personal life will likely have to take a back seat sometimes. This is an especially important thing to consider if you have a family, or if you have difficulty dealing with certain kinds of anxiety.

 

So how does it add up?

Many Master’s programs’ websites offer information on the average cost of attendance, which includes many (but not all) of the standard costs of living, in addition to tuition and fees. (NOTE: This doesn’t include some of the up-front costs identified above, such as application fees and test prep costs.) For most students, according to FinAid.org, a Master’s degree ends up costing $30,000-120,000. For some particularly expensive programs, including many of the top business schools, students can easily end up paying over $100,000 a year.

DOES THE JOB YOU WANT REQUIRE A MASTER’S DEGREE?

There are some jobs that you essentially cannot perform without a master’s degree of some kind. This includes various kinds of physical and psychotherapy. STEM fields virtually all require at least master’s degrees, and many teaching jobs do as well.

You should try to come up with a few people who are successful in your field and who have taken advantages of the kinds of opportunities you want to open up for yourself. See how they got where they are. And be sure to do your homework on the industry. Every industry’s relationship to education is different.

There are some kinds of Master’s degrees that may not open you up to any job in particular, though they may make you a more attractive candidate for many jobs at once. This includes, for example, a Master’s in English Literature. This degree doesn’t have many advantages over a Bachelor’s (since most academic jobs in this field would require a doctorate). Though it might make you a more attractive candidate in different kinds of jobs—so the benefits are mixed.

SO WILL YOU ACTUALLY EARN MORE?

This very well may be the most important question, in your mind. Will the degree pay for itself over the course of your career? There are several fields where the answer seems to clearly be yes. This includes business and engineering, where the salary benefits of a Master’s degree are significant.

However, you should also be forewarned that these benefits are not always evenly distributed. For MBAs, for example, the benefits of the Master’s degree go disproportionately to graduates of top-ranked schools.

Looking at the economic landscape as a whole, Master’s degrees do seem to benefit most people. According to a 2011 Census report, the average worker (working for 40 years) can expect to earn an extra $400,000 with a Master’s degree compared to a Bachelor’s degree. Other figures suggest a benefit of $10,000-20,000 annually.

However, there are other fields where a Master’s degree doesn’t seem to promise a rise in pay. Art and psychology are two fields where having a Master’s alone doesn’t make a significant difference compared to simply having a Bachelor’s degree—however, having a Masters degree plus extra experience does help increase earning potential. If your primary concern is increasing your earning power, you should investigate to see what real impacts a Master’s degree makes for your field and job in particular.

 

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Dave is a senior tutor at examPAL, and the head of the GMAT division. Has a degree in PPE - philosophy, political science and economics, and in an interdisciplinary humanities program. An avid traveler, Dave’s goal is to trek through all countries where the GMAT and GRE are taken!

By Dave Green
examPAL
Senior Tutor, Head of the GMAT Division