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Are You Wasting Money on a Master’s Degree?

By William Sharon on September 17, 2013
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Is getting a graduate degree worth it? It used to be that having a BA was enough to land most jobs; it proved you were smart, you were motivated, and that provided you didn’t want to become a doctor or a lawyer, you were ready to handle almost any position. But nowadays sixty is the new forty, “insert color” is the new black, X is the new Y, and a BA just isn’t what it used to be (and our society appreciates clichés to such an extent that the devolution of English discourse to the conversational equivalent of fan fiction seems an inevitability). In light of a recent societal paradigm shift, “A grad degree is the new undergrad degree,” and college students face yet another difficult economic decision upon graduating.

One would be hard pressed to argue that there are disadvantages to having a grad degree, after all, the median income of those with a master’s is a staggering 38.3 percent higher than that of those with only a bachelor’s degree. Of course, the controversy does not lie in this notion, but rather, in the question, “is getting a grad degree worthwhile?”

Students pursuing master’s degrees add an average of $31,000 dollars to their student debt, notwithstanding the additional time commitment required to complete a post grad education. Thus, pursuing a grad degree is nothing less than a financial investment, and therefore the decision to attend grad school is almost unequivocally an economic one.

This grad school cost-benefit analysis poses a predicament, of sorts. If a prospective M.A. wants to earn extra money later, he or she must sacrifice extra money now (or go further into debt). For someone who’s already well off (or has family paying his or her way), the benefit of attending grad school is much more apparent than it is for someone who is struggling to pay the rent; the immediate sacrifice is relatively small compared to the ultimate payout, so if one can pay for grad school, he or she will presumably earn the money back, and more. In fact, in 2009 the median salary of engineers without master’s degrees was $24,000 less than that of engineering MA’s.

The downside of the grad school investment is exponentially more prominent for someone lower on the financial food chain than it is for someone who is fiscally well-off, however. The lifestyle of a grad student in major debt differs wildly from that of his or her debt free counterpart, so despite the promise of more money later in life, the sacrifice required of a poorer person in attending grad school is considerably more significant, even if the ultimate payout for both students is similar. According to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of finaid.org, a student’s debt should not exceed his or her starting salary, and that optimally, it should total no more than half of what he or she makes. While this may not even be a discussion for a prospective grad student with financial security, it could easily be an insurmountable obstacle for one who is less financially stable.

Kantrowitz’ suggestion highlights another component of the grad school debate as well; the degree in question. Consider Veterinary students and Medical students; at Cornell University, for example, Vet and Med students pay a similar amount for a grad degree, and both wind up in about $93,000 of debt by the time they get out of school. The 50 percent of the Vet students who get jobs right away, however, earn an average starting salary of only $75,000, or, to put that in a more relevant statistic, $18,000 less than their total debt.

While the economic aspects of a grad degree are predictable, they are not the only factors worth considering. After all, there is a certain pleasure (or displeasure) to be gained from an extensive education. Students may appreciate the lengthened time in school, the increased knowledge they gain in a field they enjoy, the prestige which accompanies higher education, and myriad other intangibles. Because these categories are “priceless,” there is no definite method for determining the value of a graduate degree, and it is plausible that a prospective veterinarian would benefit from a post grad education, even if the decision to pursue said MA were financially ill-advised.

Are you looking for college advice and tips from successful students? Download the free Uloop & Kaplan eBook, Student to Student today!

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By William Sharon

Uloop Writer
My name is Wil Sharon and I am a junior English major at OSU. I am pre-law, and have a minor in creative writing. I love sports and play baseball and soccer frequently. I hope to one day become a lawyer, though I would also like to publish books.

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