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Deciding if a Master's Degree Is Worth It for You

Deciding if a Master's Degree Is Worth It for You
Melissa Brock
Melissa BrockUpdated August 1, 2023
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During times of recession or when you’re facing a layoff, you may consider going back to school to earn a master’s degree. But given the time and cost involved, is a master’s degree worth it? A master's degree typically takes between one and three years to complete, depending on such factors as whether you attend school full time or part time, go to a public or private institution, and choose online or in-person classes.Here’s what you need to know about getting a master’s degree to decide if it’s the right choice for you.

Cost of Graduate School

The cost of a master's degree typically ranges from $30,000 to $120,000, depending on the major, the school, and the program length, according to The average cost of a master’s degree is $62,650.

Earnings Potential From Graduate School

Master's degree holders typically earn $1,574 per week on a median weekly earnings basis, compared to $1,334 per week for those with a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Individuals with an associate's degree earn $963, while those who have some college but no degree earn $899 per week. Recommended: Financing Your Second Bachelor's Degree

Choosing Based on Your Program Earnings vs Cost

To help answer the question of are master’s degrees worth it, consider the cost of the specific master’s program you’re interested in versus the amount of money you could make after you graduate. In addition, compare the costs of graduate school to the type of financial aid available to you. Can you afford it? Will your employer offer tuition reimbursement or employer student loan repayment? These are important things to know in advance.Be sure to also factor in the location of the graduate school program and the cost of living in that area. Consider putting together a spreadsheet with all the different expenses so you’ll know what to expect. 

Pros and Cons of Getting a Master's Degree

There are benefits and drawbacks to getting a master’s degree. Weigh the pros and cons of grad school before you decide to go that route. 

Pros of Getting a Master's Degree

Some of the advantages of pursuing a master's degree may include the following: 
  • Advancement and new job opportunities: Depending on the program you pursue, a master’s degree could offer you a chance to move up the ladder in your career or enable you to get a better job in a different field. 
  • Deepen your expertise and knowledge in your field of study. These skills could be very valuable in the workforce.
  • Higher earning potential: As noted above, a master’s degree could lead to a higher salary. 

Cons of Getting a Master's Degree

Downsides of earning a master's degree include: 
  • Cost: The price tag of a master's program may be the largest stumbling block to pursuing a master’s degree. The average student loan debt of people who earned a master’s degree is $62,499, according to  
  • Additional years in school: It takes time and sacrifice to successfully complete a master's degree program. You may spend up to three years in a graduate program. 
  • May have to fulfill prerequisites: If your undergraduate program didn't align with your chosen master's program, you may need to backtrack and complete certain class requirements. For example, you might need to take a few business courses if you plan to get your master's in business administration if you didn't take business classes as an undergrad. 
  • May not make financial sense: You might not make that much more with a master's degree. In fact, 25% of people with a bachelor's degree earn more money than half of those who have a master's degree, according to a report from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).
Pros of a Master's DegreeCons of a Master's Degree
Advancement and new career opportunitiesCost of tuition and other fees
Greater expertise, skills, and knowledgeAdditional years in school
Higher earning potentialMay have to fulfill prerequisites
May not make financial sense

5 Lucrative Graduate School Degrees

How much is a master’s degree worth? Getting a master’s degree may pay off for those in certain fields, including these:

1. Business 

A master of business administration (MBA) provides training for business or investment management. MBA earners can work in a wide variety of fields, including health care, technology, marketing, finance, and human resources. The median starting salary in 2022 for recent MBA graduates was $115,000. MBA programs at top-rated universities can range in cost from $55,167 to up to $120,000 per year.

2. Engineering Management

A master’s degree in engineering can prepare you for a career in project engineering, structural engineering, product engineering, electrical engineering, as a systems analyst or engineering project manager, as well as a wide variety of other engineering positions.The median annual salary for master's engineering graduates was approximately $100,000 in 2022. The cost per year for engineering graduate school tuition is approximately $11,000 to $55,000. 

3. Finance

A master's in finance can lead to a wide variety of jobs, including a career as a financial analyst, financial manager, or chief financial officer (CFO).  The median salary for those with a master's degree in finance is $80,000, according to the 2021 Corporate Recruiters Survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council.The cost of getting your degree depends on the program you choose and whether you plan to attend an in-state or out-of-state school, among other factors. For the 2021-2022 academic year, costs were about $9,000 for public state school tuition, while private schools charged an average of $29,670. 

4. Medicine

You can pursue a number of different master's degrees in medicine, including a master's in physician assistant studies, health informatics, occupational therapy, health administration, and public health. These degrees can lead to jobs such as physician assistant, informatics manager (professionals who analyze, design, test, and maintain data health systems), occupational therapist, healthcare administrator, and more.  The wages in the medical field vary when you have a master’s degree. For example, a physician’s assistant had an average median salary of $121,530 a year in 2021. For a genetics counselor, the median annual compensation was $80,150. A master’s degree in science typically costs $62,300, and depends on certain factors, such as the school, the program, and the location. 

5. Nursing

With a nursing master's degree, a graduate may become a nurse practitioner, nursing educator, anesthetist, midwife, manager, clinical nurse specialist, research nurse, and nurse consultant. The median salary for nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists, and nurse practitioners was  $123,780 a year in 2021.The cost of a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) typically ranges from $35,000 to $70,000, but some schools cost up to $100,000, according to an estimate by the Nurse Journal.Recommended: Is a PhD Worth It? Top 10 Highest-Paying PhDs

Strategies for Repaying Student Loans

In addition to the student loans they may take out for graduate school, many master’s students have loans from their years as undergraduates. So how can you work on repaying a student loan?If you have federal student loans from your undergraduate years, you can defer them during graduate school. This means that you don't have to repay these federal loans as long as you're in graduate school at least half-time. There are other options you can explore as well, including forgiveness, forbearance, and student loan refinancing. Here’s more information about each one. 

Student Loan Forgiveness

If you are eligible for it, student loan forgiveness cancels the outstanding debt on your student loans as long as you meet certain qualifications. For instance, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program forgives the balance on your loans after you make 120 qualifying monthly payments. You must also work for a qualifying employer.The Teacher Loan Forgiveness program cancels debt (up to $17,500) if you teach full time for five consecutive academic years in a low-income school district or educational service agency. 

Student Loan Refinancing

With student loan refinancing, you replace one or more of your existing undergraduate private or federal student loans with a new private loan from a private lender. There are advantages and disadvantages of student loan refinancing. For instance, you may be able to obtain a lower interest rate, which could help you save money. However, a major drawback is that refinancing student loans means you’ll lose access to federal programs and protections, such as student loan forgiveness. 

Student Loan Forbearance

Student loan forbearance allows you to temporarily reduce or stop making payments on your federal student loan if you are facing financial difficulties, medical expenses, or unemployment, among other things. You need to apply for forbearance with your loan servicer, who must approve you for it. The downside to forbearance is that your loan debt isn’t canceled, and you will need to pay it off once the forbearance period is over. Plus, your loans may accrue interest while in forbearance, which could increase the overall cost you’ll pay. An income-driven repayment plan that bases your payments on a percentage of your income may make more sense for you. 

The Takeaway

Getting a master’s degree might be beneficial for some people if it can lead to better job opportunities and a higher salary. However, it may not be worth it for everyone. And a master’s degree can be costly. Do some research to find out if such a degree might pay off for you professionally and financially, and weigh the pros and cons of going back to school before you make your decision.

3 Student Loan Tips

  1. Refinancing your student loan can lower your monthly payments and help you adjust your loan term. Compare student loan refinancing rates to find a loan that works for you.
  2. One pain-free way to pay down your student loan sooner: send in your tax refund to put against the principal balance. Since it’s money that has already been taken out of your pay, you won’t miss it.
  3. If you teach full-time for five complete and consecutive academic years in a low-income school, you may be eligible for federal student loan forgiveness.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does a graduate degree cost?
Is a master's degree harder than an undergraduate degree?
What are the downsides of getting a master's degree?
Photo credit: iStock/Igor Alecsander

About the Author

Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock is a higher education and personal finance expert with more than a decade of experience writing online content. She spent 12 years in college admission prior to switching to full-time freelance writing and editing. Her work has appeared on Yahoo Finance, Entrepreneur, Investopedia, The Balance, FinanceBuzz, The Journal of College Admission, MarketBeat, College Finance, Rocket Mortgage, LeverageRx, Benzinga, Morty, Ally, and more.
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