College Voices

Is a master’s degree worth it?

The Covid-19 pandemic prompted a lot of students, like me, to go back to school and get their master's degree instead of trying to get a job amid all of the uncertainty. But the high costs – and debt load for many – makes you wonder: Is it worth it?

Boston College in Newton, Massachusetts.
Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald | Getty Images

 Enrollment in graduate programs rose 3.6% in fall 2020 from a year earlier and continued to rise 4.4% during the spring 2021 semester, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

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

Among students pursuing master's degrees, 44% took out student loans, according to Credible, a personal finance marketplace focused on student loans.  The cost of graduate programs varies but the average debt for a master's degree holder is about $71,000, nearly double the $37,000 average debt of those with bachelor's degrees, according to research site educationdata.org

Millennials "were raised in a world where you use loans to pay for 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 feels intangible."

But then reality sets in –you have a big student loan bill that starts coming due usually about six months after you graduate – whether you have a job or not.

Nearly two-thirds of people with an advanced degree said they regretted it, according to PayScale. And the biggest regret was student loans.

"You have received these messages that the master's degree is going to lead to higher income … I think that's the reality we live in that in some fields it's harder to predict," Custer said.  "People have high debt levels, they're not making very much, and those loan amounts start to grow because that interest is capitalizing." 

What's more, they held more of other types of debt, including an average 21% more credit-card debt that the national average, according to educationdata.org. They also carry it with them for a long time: The average student borrower takes about 20 years to pay off their student-loan debt but for professional graduates it can take over 45 years for some.

More from College Voices:
College graduates are struggling to make up for the 'lost year' created by the coronavirus pandemic
Why Black and Latinx women are more likely to struggle with impostor syndrome—and how to overcome it
Women in STEM: 3 Challenges we face ̶ and how to overcome them

Financial aid is one way to mitigate the costs and debt burden a student will incur. But, for students pursuing a master's in business administration, which is quite popular, financial aid can be quite competitive.  By contrast, a master's in education is one of the least expensive degrees and there is a federal loan forgiveness program for teachers who use the degree to go into public teaching or a field with a lack of teachers. Similarly, if social workers go into public service, they may also be eligible for loan forgiveness.

Much like orthodontists, physician assistants, and physical therapists, social workers are a particularly interesting case as a master's in social work is largely compulsory.  Many jobs in social work are closed off to those without this higher degree, with a master's acting as a minimum educational requirement in supervisory, clinical, and specialty practice.  What it really means is that in addition to a bachelor's degree, someone pursuing social work must pay on average another $19,000 to even enter the field.

Lynn Moss graduated from Ramapo College with a master's in Social Work in 2018.
Photo: Kevin Crissey

For hospice social worker and Ramapo College master's 2018 graduate Lynn Moss, going back to school to get that degree at age 45 was one of the best decisions of her life.  This is Moss's third master's degree and the former teacher earned her first two higher degrees in the 90s in order to make more money in education.  She said, while her master's degrees in education helped make her a diverse, and therefore competitive, applicant, it was her degree in social work which allowed her to revive her career in a direction she didn't know about when she was 18.

"I got to do what I love to do at this stage in my life.  I just want to be happy and I find the benefit is that I love going to work every day.  I don't regret one minute of it," Moss said. 

Moss is not alone in her pursuit of a master's as part of a career change.  Lephate Cunningham III, 24, pursued his master's in public relations and corporate communications at New York University in 2020 after working as an actor in New York City with a musical theatre 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 situation ... sometimes it's worth the risk, if you are putting your hopes and dreams at the forefront," Cunningham said. "But if you're at all hesitant, just really think about it.  Because that's a lot of money to be borrowing." 

Lephate Cunningham III is expected to receive his master's degree in public relations and corporate communications from New York University in 2022.
Photo: Madeline Chandler

Although Cunningham was able to earn a bachelor's degree without taking out any student loans, he made the decision to take out loans for his master's, in addition to seeking out both internal and external scholarships.

"If you think you can grow, then take out the investment [but] don't settle for what you're being offered in terms of loans," Cunningham said.  "If you're at all hesitant, really think about it because that's a lot of money to be borrowing."

 Besides loans, another way to help pay for higher education is to find a program that is partially funded through the university.  Emma Madarasz, who earned her master's 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 through an assistantship so she didn't have to take out loans.

"It doesn't matter as much the program that you went to, it matters what's going to work for your specific financial scenario," Madarasz said.  "You're better off waiting or trying to do something else while you save up money to go, than you are taking on $100,000 to $150,000 worth of loans that you're not going to be able to pay back."

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

"I think in terms of the day-to-day, it's not worth it to pay for online classes, and generally I think programs that aren't vocational are just way too expensive and aren't worth it anyways," Loudis said. "Paying $80,000 to get a master's in history is kind of insane during good economic times and I think when there's this additional stress on the economy it just sort of serves to call out how crazy higher education costs are right now."

VIDEO3:2703:27
How families can appeal for more college financial aid

I just finished my own 12-month graduate program in journalism.  Like Moss, I thought that this program would offer me entry into my dream career and, like Cunningham, I was partially motivated by the pandemic.  Now with one more degree to my name, I am happy for the people and experiences that I've had the past year, but I wonder if those same connections and education could have come from an entry-level job, as well. 

When I decided to pursue my master's, I asked myself a lot of questions: Is this the right time? Is this the right program? Is this going to leave me in a financial situation I can handle?  For me, the answers to all those questions were yes, but for someone who is unsure of those answers it might make sense to reconsider and give yourself a few years to make sure this is 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 that I did get a master's degree in social work," Moss said. "It was the best thing I ever did."

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 launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Kelly Heinzerling is currently pursuing her master's degree in journalism at Northwestern University. She is an intern for CNBC's creative services team. Her mentor is Michelle Fox. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.