How To

Is Grad School Worth the Money?

education = $ written on blackboard with apple, books

Laid off? Time for Grad School?

So you had a job that you liked (and hopefully not loved) but you, like 9.3 million other Americans, are now jobless. Sitting around in gym shorts sending desperate resumes and cover letters is getting tiring (how many times can you hear the words “hiring” and “freeze” next to each other?), and you’ve always dreamed of being a therapist or photographer or just getting an MBA so you can tell your former Ivy League colleagues to shove it. Should the crappy economy drive you to get a Master’s Degree?

First consider my story: I got a fine degree in the liberal arts. You know the kind, practical, career-oriented and… other buzz words that I am not finding in Nietzsche’s Collected Works. Despite how well prepared I was for the real world (snark!), I decided to go back to school for journalism. After some time in the Illinois corn fields, I had a snazzy master’s degree. But, wait, no one cared about a degree in journalism. And because the “advanced professional” degree basically crammed a four-year program into one, I had the same classes and teachers as students four or five years younger than me, but no internships—those things that get your foot in the door. In fact, on more than a few interviews, I was told that the degree kept me from getting potential jobs because employers were afraid that I’d ask for more money. (And trust me, I’d be doing the same grunt work as a not-yet-jaded 21-year-old.) Ouch.

Some degrees are just a very expensive way of boosting your personal morale when there’s a scary gray area in life—and convenient patch in a university’s bleeding budget–and some are actually empowering career moves. Before you move to the cornfields, please, please do these three things:

Do a cost/benefit analysis

The Council of Graduate Schools sings a pretty convincing tune in its publication Why Should I Get a Masters Degree. The number of degrees awarded in 2007 was up 43 percent over a decade earlier. (Please note that the latest data available is generally for 2007 and 2008, the 2009 school year doesn’t have much released data yet.) According to the publication, a person with a grad degree earns on average $10,000 more per year. He also moves up faster in his career and is more likely to be employed. (The Council also argues, nonsensically, that getting a graduate degree can actually improve your health—in fact, there is a correlation between education and health, but correlation is not causality. Thank you, liberal arts degree, for something useful!) And, yes, the Bureau of Labor Stats agrees, education pays.

The average yearly cost for postgraduate study towards a master’s is $21,900 for a public school and $34,100 for a private one, according to the Department of Education. That is up 60 percent in just one decade. And those numbers are ballooning even more now. A graduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley: $26,000 per year in fees in tuition, plus $1,170 added on after the recent budget catastrophe, bringing just tuition to $27,170 per year of study. Multiply by two, and add about $8,000 to $10,000 per year for living costs. Your loan = $74,340.

That sounds well and good, but there are some degrees that just don’t pay off in the workplace, and some that do. Andrea J. Koncz, Employment Information Manager at National Association of Colleges and Employers, brings up a few professions that do show major pay increases:

Bachelor’s Degree Computer Science – $61,467
Master’s Degree Computer Science – $68,627
 
Bachelor’s Degree Electrical Engineering – $60,509 
Master’s Degree Electrical Engineering – $70,921
 
Bachelor’s Degree Mechanical Engineering – $59,222
Master’s Degree Mechanical Engineering – $66,961

Cartooning? Editing? Sports announcing? Check salary.com, and be prepared for the worst.

Understand that it’s now more competitive, especially at the cheaper schools

Grad school applicants always rise in a poor economy; The Council of Graduate Schools reports that applicants were up 4.8 percent in 2008, after being up 8 percent in 2007. This trend is making it harder to get into school because of the increased competition.

Because of the economy, people are also going after the perceived value of public schools. Public schools were almost twice as likely as private schools to report increases in enrollment for 2009-10 (47 percent vs. 26 percent).
So, basically, you might be looking at as tough of a market for school as for jobs. Even if you are willing to invest despite skyrocketing costs, you may not even you your foot in the door, so best to apply to many schools.

Know the difference between wishful thinking and inspired thinking

If you always had a dream to do something, and you’ve got the excuse and time to finally do it, wonderful. The blog Unemploymentality brings up a good point if you are feeling blindly for that inspiration, though. They says that if you claim the maximum amount of unemployment, you’ll clock in around $21,060 per year, while the average grad student stipend is $18,779. You’ll be counting less change as a couch surfer. Another ouch.

And more to the point, buying into yet another dream that graduate school is selling you could just be deferring the problem of unemployment another year or six, all the while acquiring more and more debt. A great article from the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that you bite the bullet and get some kind of experience, even if it is in a field that you think is “above” your education. All experience leads somewhere and teaches important skills, even if they aren’t the ones you think you need.

At least one self-made woman and career advisor, Penelope Trunk, advises to stay away from graduate school. She says it forces you to overinvest in something while the reward is just too risky. Trunk says, you’re better off working on a chicken farm. Literally.