There are plenty of reasons to go to graduate school—and not all of them are about money. You might want to learn for the sheer joy of learning, or you might want to get a degree that allows you entry into a satisfying and meaningful line of work.
Let's face it: Nobody gets an MFA for the money.
Money Isn't Everything … But It's Something
Making more money is a key reason a lot of people go to graduate school, especially for professional degrees. The financial benefit of advanced education is also one of the easiest to measure. Here's how.
First, look up the median income for graduates from the program you want to attend. If it isn't any higher than your current income, then you can't justify graduate school based on the money.
If that salary is higher, then it's time to figure out how long it will take for that extra income to pay back the expense of going to school. Here's how to do this.
- Start with tuition. What's the typical tuition for a degree at your chosen school?
- Add in expenses, fees, textbooks, and so forth. Your normal living expenses and rent or mortgage, too.
- Don't forget those loans. If you plan to take out loans, add the cost of interest to your expenses. For a $10,000 federal student loan with a 6.8% rate, that's $3,809 extra if you use the standard repayment plan—which is often the cheapest option.
- Add in money that you won't make while you're studying. If you're going to graduate school full time, that's your entire salary you're not making. (If you want to get fancy, call it the "opportunity cost.")
- Subtract grant aid and scholarships you think you can get. Some degrees have more free money, like grants and scholarships, available than others. Many Ph.D. programs, for example, include teaching work that pays most or all of your expenses. (And remember, loans don't count here. Those are expense.) Your employer may help you cover the cost of grad school as well.
That's how much going to graduate school will cost you.
So, Is It Worth It?
Once you have that cost, compare it to the boost in income you expect to receive. This will help you find out how long it will take to make that much extra money. For instance, if an advanced degree holder can make about $20,000 more per year, and your schooling will cost $100,000, it will be 5 years before having the degree lets you earn back the cost of getting it.
Five years is pretty good, because you'll have the rest of your working life to continue to benefit from having the degree!
If you're borrowing, make sure you know what the monthly payments on your loans will be. That will help you understand how your finances are going to feel after graduation. If you're making a ton of extra money and it's all going to the loans, money's still going to be tight until you pay off that debt.
There's No 100% Correct Answer
Knowing these numbers doesn't tell you everything. It doesn't tell you whether you're actually going to make the amount of money you predict. It also doesn't tell you whether a degree will make you happy with your life or your career.
But it does give you a good estimate of how much a degree will cost, as well as how long it will take to pay it back. Both should be a key part of your decision. And if the numbers don't tell the whole story (they hardly ever do), talk about your options with friends, family, recent grads, and people who hire individuals for the degree you're considering. Grad school is a big decision, and they can all offer valuable insight.