NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Should You Go to Grad School?

July 18, 2011

In today's difficult job market, many bright students are turning to grad school.  Historically, graduate school has repaid students' investment handsomely -- and, for some, that may still be the case.  But students should recognize that rising education costs and long years of study make inroads into the value of that investment, says Jenna Ashley Robinson of the Pope Center for Higher Education.

  • Over the past 20 years, graduates with master's degrees have earned about 1.17 times the amount earned by graduates with bachelor's degrees only.
  • Those with professional degrees have, historically, earned between 1.4 and 1.9 times that of those with bachelor's degrees -- averaging about 1.6 times as much.

Averages, however, don't tell the whole story.  It takes time -- often a lot of time -- to recoup the money and years spent on earning a graduate degree.

  • For example, suppose that a high school graduate could be a home care aide and start at $21,014 a year.
  • With a bachelor's degree in psychology, that graduate could become a social worker and earn $29,281.
  • But given the amount spent on college ($109,172) and the income forgone ($21,014 for four years), the social worker will be age 47 before he or she recoups the lost income.
  • Interestingly, by getting a Ph.D. in psychology and becoming a social psychologist, the higher salary ($50,461) means that the additional cost ($242,000) will also be recouped at age 47.

A student must weigh many factors before deciding whether to pursue formal education beyond a bachelor's degree.  Foremost should be interest in the field and intellectual curiosity.  But there are also economic considerations.  What is the state of the job market?  Is a bachelor's degree enough to pursue a particular career?  How much will graduate school cost?  How much income is forgone by pursuing more education?  In sum, the decision to get an advanced degree shouldn't be cut and dried.  Each student must weigh the pros and cons carefully before choosing a path.  Economic, intellectual and social factors should all play a role, says Robinson.

Source: Jenna Ashley Robinson, "Should You Go to Grad School?" Pope Center for Higher Education, July 10, 2011.

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