Is a master’s degree worthwhile?

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The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many students like me to go back to school and do their Masters instead of finding a job in all the uncertainty. But the high costs – and debt burden for many – make you ask yourself: Is it worth it?

Boston College in Newton, Massachusetts.

Matt Stone / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald | Getty Images

Enrollment in graduate programs rose 3.6% year over year in Fall 2020 and rose another 4.4% in Spring 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

And while many students think that getting a Masters degree will increase their chances of getting a job, it isn’t always the case. About 9% of Americans have a master’s degree, but this has increased their employability by less than 3%, according to research site educationdata.org. The average salary for graduates with a bachelor’s degree is $ 64,000 per year, while the average salary for those with a master’s degree is $ 76,000 per year, which is only about a 19% increase, according to salary comparison site Payscale .

Among students pursuing a master’s degree, 44% took out student loans, according to Credible, a private financial marketplace focused on student loans. Graduate program costs vary, but the average debt for a masters graduate is about $ 71,000, nearly double the average debt of $ 37,000 for undergraduate students, according to research site educationdata.org.

Millennials “grew up in a world where credit pays college,” said Bradley Custer, senior policy analyst for higher education and the Center for American Progress. “So it’s natural to think, ‘I’m going to use loans to pay for graduate school.’ The price tag doesn’t feel tangible. “

But then reality sets in – you have a large student loan bill that typically falls due about six months after you graduate – whether or not you have a job.

According to PayScale, nearly two-thirds of people with advanced degrees said they regretted it. And the biggest regret was the student loans.

“You got this news that the Masters degree will lead to higher incomes … I think this is the reality we live in that is more difficult to predict in some areas,” said Custer. “People have a lot of debt, they don’t make a lot, and those loan amounts start to grow because that interest capitalizes.”

In addition, they held more other types of debt, including an average of 21% more credit card debt than the national average, according to educationdata.org. They also carry it with them for a long time: the average student borrower needs around 20 years to pay off their student loan debts, and for graduates it can even take more than 45 years for some.

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Financial aid is one way of reducing a student’s costs and debt burden. But for students pursuing a Masters in Business Administration, which is hugely popular, the financial assistance can be quite competitive. In contrast, a Masters in Education is one of the cheapest degrees, and there is a federal loan program for teachers who use the degree to get into public education or an area of ​​teacher shortage. Likewise, social workers in the public sector may be eligible for loan waivers.

Similar to orthodontists, medical assistants and physiotherapists, social workers are a particularly interesting case because a master’s degree in social work is largely compulsory. Many professions in social work are blocked for people without this higher degree, with a master’s degree being the minimum training requirement in supervisory, clinical and specialist practice. What it really means is that someone who aspires to social work will have to pay an average of an additional $ 19,000 on top of a bachelor’s degree to even get into the field.

Lynn Moss graduated from Ramapo College with a Masters in Social Work in 2018.

Photo: Kevin Crissey

For Ramapo College 2018 graduate hospice social worker and Masters graduate Lynn Moss, one of the best decisions of her life was going back to school at 45 to get that degree. This is Moss’ third Masters degree and the former teacher earned her first two advanced degrees in the 1990s to make more money from education. While her master’s degree in education made her a versatile and therefore competitive candidate, she said it was her degree in social work that allowed her to take her career to a new level at 18.

“I have to do what I love to do at this stage in my life. I just want to be happy and I have the advantage that I enjoy going to work every day. I don’t regret a minute of it,” Moss said.

Moss is not alone in her pursuit of a Masters as part of a career change. Lephate Cunningham III, 24, graduated from New York University with a Masters degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communications in 2020 after working as an actor in New York City with a musical theater degree from Rider University. Cunningham said he was inspired to rethink his own life during the pandemic and now has the space to take his studies seriously to get his money’s worth.

“Hopefully finding a better career to put you in a better financial position … sometimes putting your hopes and dreams first, it is worth the risk,” said Cunningham. “But if you are hesitant, just think about it. Because that’s a lot of money that you have to borrow. ”

Lephate Cunningham III is expected to receive his Masters in Public Relations and Corporate Communications from New York University in 2022.

Photo: Madeline Chandler

Although Cunningham was able to get a bachelor’s degree without a student loan, he chose to take out loans for his master’s degree in addition to internal and external scholarships.

“If you think you can grow, then take the investment [but] Don’t settle for what credit is offered to you, “said Cunningham.” If you hesitate at all, really think about it, because that’s a lot of money to borrow. “

In addition to loans, another way to fund higher education is to find a program that is partially funded by the university. Emma Madarasz, who received her Masters in higher education from the University of Denver in 2017, said she chose her school over more prestigious institutions precisely because it was largely funded by assistantship so she did not have to borrow.

“It is not so important which program you participated in, but what works for your specific financial scenario,” said Madarasz. “Better to wait or try something else while you save money than to take out $ 100,000 to $ 150,000 in loans that you can’t repay.”

The full benefit of many graduate programs comes from classroom learning, so it may not make sense to enroll when the programs are remote and digital due to the pandemic, said Jessica Loudis, editor of the “Should I Go to Grad School” collection of essays. . ? “

“I don’t think it’s worth paying for online classes on a day-to-day basis, and in general, I think programs that aren’t professional are just way too expensive and not worth it anyway,” Loudis said. “Paying $ 80,000 for a Masters degree in history in good economic times is kind of insane, and I think if there’s that added stress on the economy, it just serves to highlight how insane college costs are right now.”

I have just completed my own 12 month graduate degree in journalism. Like Moss, I thought this program would get me started on my dream career and, like Cunningham, I was partially motivated by the pandemic. Now with another degree in my name, I’m excited for the people and experiences I’ve had over the last year, but I wonder if those connections and training could also come from an entry-level job.

When I decided to do my master’s degree, I asked myself a lot of questions: Is now the right time? Is this the right program? Will that put me in a financial position that I can handle? To me, the answers to all of these questions have been yes, but for someone unsure of the answers, it might be useful to reconsider and take a few years to make sure this is it what you really want to do.

At the end of the day, the goal is to find something that makes you happy.

“I wanted to be happy and I’m so glad I got a Masters degree in Social Work,” said Moss. “It was the best I’ve ever done.”

CNBC’s “College Voices” is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money, and starting their careers during these extraordinary times. Kelly Heinzerling is currently doing her Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is an intern on CNBC’s creative services team, mentored by Michelle Fox, and the series is edited by Cindy Perman.