By now, you’ve probably heard the staggering statistics surrounding U.S. student loan debt. With $1.16 trillion in unpaid student loans — a large portion of which belongs to students with postgraduate degrees — you might be asking yourself, “Should I go to grad school?”
It’s a question worth asking — one that could potentially cost (or save) you six figures. According to U.S. News and World Report, 25 percent of graduate students owe nearly $100,000 in loans, while 40 percent of the nation’s student loan debt is made up of graduate school loans.
From a financial perspective, pursuing a graduate education isn’t the right choice for every person. A graduate degree in a lucrative career field might increase your earning ability enough to pay down graduate school loans right away. It’s also possible you spend years and thousands of dollars in interest trying to get rid of that debt.
So before you decide to take on additional debt from graduate school loans, ask yourself the following three questions to find out if you really should.
1. Will My Income Increase Significantly With a Graduate Degree?
Many people go to grad school because they believe they will earn a higher income with a graduate degree. A recent study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce confirms this to be true: On average, graduate degree holders earn 38.3 percent more than those with only a bachelor’s degree in the same field.
However, the earnings opportunities vary widely between career fields. Biology and life science majors were shown to earn 70 percent more with graduate degrees. On the other hand, journalism majors can expect to earn just 19 percent more, though graduate programs from top schools easily run $40,000 per year.
Before you spend the time, energy, and money pursuing a graduate degree, make sure it will be worth your while by completing these steps:
- Research your field and the salaries associated with the jobs you want to be sure loans for grad school won’t eclipse any higher earning potential. Salary.com and Payscale.com are good places to start.
- Contact Human Resources departments or managers who work at companies that hire people in your career field to find our how they evaluate candidates, as well as whether a graduate degree makes a candidate more desirable.
- Find out if your current company offers tuition reimbursement to supplement student loans for graduate school.
- Interview people with graduate degrees in similar positions to the ones you want. Ask if a graduate degree contributed to their work in a positive way and whether on-the-job training could take the place of going back to school.
Doing the proper research and not rushing into a decision is your best bet for getting the most value out of your graduate education. After all, you want to make sure a graduate degree is required for the job you want. You don’t want to become overqualified for the job you want and you don’t want to pay too much for a graduate education if it doesn’t equal a substantial income increase.
2. Can I Afford Graduate School?
This question can mean two different things, depending on your financial status. First, ask yourself if you can afford graduate school right now based on your current income and savings. Can you cover tuition and expenses without having to take out student loans for grad school?
If so, great! But if you can’t afford to pay for graduate school out-of-pocket, you’ll probably need to apply for graduate school loans to cover the cost.
Then the question becomes: Will you be able to afford grad school loan payments when you are finished?
Again, research the salaries associated with the type of job you want to get after you finish your degree. Are the salaries high enough to justify taking out student loans? How long will it take you to pay back your loans? And will it be worth it in the end?
Don’t forget about existing loans you have from obtaining your undergraduate degree, as well as any other debt, when deciding if you’ll have the income to support payments after graduation.
3. Do I Have the Time to Devote to Graduate School?
Graduate school is much more rigorous and time-consuming than those first four years of undergraduate study. Seriously consider whether you not only have the financial means, but the time and dedication needed to complete grad school.
If you plan to go to school part-time in addition to working, do you have the support of friends and family? For example, if you have a spouse and children, your studies will keep you busy most nights and your family time may be limited.
If your job is demanding and requires more than the typical 9-5, getting to evening classes might be difficult (especially if you’re already exhausted). You want to make a good impression on your professors and your employer, so know it could be challenging to balance both.
Attending graduate school is a major life decision that should not be taken lightly. If you do the proper research and feel confident that you will stay with your field of study, it could be a great choice for you.
However, if you are still exploring career options and don’t have a firm direction, you might want to take some time to think about your future before committing to years of post-graduate study and thousands more in student loans.
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