Weighing the costs and benefits of a return to graduate school can itself require an advanced degree.
It's a decision that plenty of Americans grapple with after they enter the workforce. In the fall of 2015 — the latest National Center for Education Statistics data available — there were 616,412 Americans age 25 and older enrolled full time in a post-baccalaureate program, and another 701,205 enrolled part time.
A return to school could open the door to a more lucrative career or generate a salary bump in your current field. For example, physician assistants with a master's degree earn 44 percent more than those with a bachelor's degree, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data. The master's degree wage premium is 43 percent for preschool or kindergarten teachers, while financial services sales agents with an advanced degree earn 89 percent more than those without.
"The biggest hurdle is obviously the financial cost of it," said certified financial planner Erin Durkin, director of financial planning at EP Wealth Advisors in Torrance, California. "Masters' programs are expensive."
That expense can throw a wrench in your financial plan — especially if it means a few years where you're not earning and instead, incurring additional student loan debt, she said. In a recent survey from American Student Assistance, 55 percent of young workers said they would like to go to graduate school but can't afford to take on any more student loans.
"Financial aid for graduate school is mostly going to be in the form of loans," said Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy for college and scholarship search site Cappex.com. "You can end up with too much debt."
More than half of students in a master's degree program borrow; depending on the program, average graduate debt runs $36,100 to $47,000, according to 2012 NCES data. (See a breakdown below.)
Minimizing that debt, while juggling your other financial needs and goals, requires advance planning:
Crunch the numbers to make sure that going back to school makes sense. It may not if you don't anticipate a big earnings increase or you have to take on substantial debt to fund that degree, said Kantrowitz.
"To the extent that you're borrowing to fund your education, there's the presumption that you're going to be making enough to pay it back," he said. "What is the payback period for the debt?"
If you're hoping to juggle school and work, check to see if your employer offers any education programs, said Carol Sladek, a partner at benefits administrator Aon Hewitt. Nearly 9 in 10 companies offer education reimbursement, according to the firm's database — and the median reimbursement maximum is $7,500 per year.
Under IRS rules, the first $5,200 in employer-provided educational assistance each year is tax-free.
But tuition reimbursement often has strings: Companies may require your studies be relevant to your current job, and stipulate a minimum GPA in order for you to be reimbursed. (You'll still have to pay the tuition upfront.) Plus, you'll usually have to remain with the company for a year after completing the coursework — or repay those funds, she said.
Other work perks on offer might include scholarships, matching funds for 529 contributions and loan assistance after you graduate. Some companies, including Starbucks and Wal-Mart, offer employees free or discounted tuition at partner universities.
It can also pay to ask for more flexibility to handle the time commitment of going to school, Sladek said. Nearly a third of the companies in Aon Hewitt's database let employees compress their work week (say, covering their 40 hours in four days rather than five), while 58 percent offer flexible hours.
If your field doesn't require a degree from a university with brand-name recognition, cast a wide net to find an affordable program. Don't discount online degree programs, which can make it easier to go back to school part time while you continue working — and are often cheaper, to boot.
"There's so much more flexibility to study when the kids go to sleep, before work or after," said Durkin, who graduated from Southern New Hampshire University earlier this year with a master's degree in accounting.
Should you leave the workforce to pursue your degree, look for accelerated programs and other opportunities to wrap up your studies quickly, Cappex.com's Kantrowitz said. Assistantships or fellowships can help offset tuition or cover your cost of living.
"We see a lot of clients who are planning now for grad school," said Durkin.
Ideally, that means saving to cover the costs and replace income, she said. You might fund a 529 account for yourself — taking advantage of the tax breaks — or use leftover funds from a child's college education. Look for other assets you might tap, such as home equity, she said.
Retool your budget to handle those extra college expenses and any reduction in income. Consider how you'll need to amend any goals, like catching up on retirement savings or putting off a home purchase, Durkin said.