Is Graduate School Worth the Cost?

Seeking more education may feel like a promising option for gaining skills and increasing job opportunities, but prospective students must first determine whether graduate school is worth the cost.

In recent years, increased federal and legislative attention has been paid to the cost of an undergraduate education. But total tuition for some two-year, full-time graduate degrees can cost more than $100,000, and doctoral or professional programs often cost even more.

To afford tuition and living expenses, many students take on debt. Loans issued to graduate students account for 40% of federal student loans awarded each year, although grad students are just 15% of the higher ed student population, according to the 2020 Center for American Progress report on graduate school debt.

So before enrolling in a graduate program and borrowing to pay for it, prospective students should consider their long-term career goals, among other factors.

[Read: How Your Existing Student Loan Debt Affects Graduate School Options.]

“If I’m talking to somebody who is interested in graduate school, my first question is, ‘Why?'” says Jay Mixter, senior consultant at Admit Advantage, an admissions consulting company. “If there is a good story there and if they’ve thought that out, and grad school is a vehicle that would either accelerate their ability to get there or allow them to access the kind of career path that would get them there, then they’ve got a good basis for potentially wanting to go to grad school.”

Weigh Potential Earnings vs. Graduate School Debt

On average, individuals with a graduate degree earn more than those with only a bachelor’s degree.

The median weekly pay for full-time, year-round workers holding bachelor’s degrees was $1,334 in 2021, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Median weekly earnings for full-time employees jumped to $1,574 for those with a master’s degree and to $1,909 for holders of a doctoral degree.

However, experts say, the wide range of costs and debt by graduate program complicates attempts to determine an advanced degree’s worth.

Some industries require a graduate degree to be eligible for certain jobs or higher-level positions within a company. But “even in cases where graduate school is a requirement for a particular career, it may not provide you with the financial return on investment you hope,” Kendra Millay, academic advising team leader and law school admissions counselor at IvyWise, an education consulting company, wrote in an email.

“It is important to research specific fields to determine how saturated that particular job market is and understand what type of salary you can expect years down the road,” Millay says. “From there, a student needs to do some soul searching and make that very personal decision for themselves; you work for a long time, so you should have the career that makes you happy.”

However, it’s not just about having the additional credential to stand out in the job market, says Sheila Akbar, president and chief operating officer of Signet Education, a Massachusetts-based college admissions and tutoring company. The skills acquired while earning the degree are also important.

“There’s a lot of really great content out there from former academics trying to show people how those academic skills are directly impactful and transferrable to an industry or business setting,” she says. “Because just saying you’ve published X number of papers is not going to impress a business person. But saying that you’ve conducted a qualitative interview, drew insights and built a really complicated model to understand it, that will.”

Trends in borrowing at the graduate level paint a stark contrast: While undergraduate borrowing declined $15 billion from 2010-2011 to 2017-2018, per the CAP report’s analysis of federal loans, graduate student loan debt grew $2.3 billion during that period.

[READ: What Is Graduate School and Should You Apply?]

Prospective graduate students should also be aware that the amount typically borrowed can vary by institution type. In 2015-2016, student loan borrowers who graduated with a master’s degree had on average $54,500 of debt from attending public schools versus $71,900 of debt for those who attended private nonprofit institutions, according to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Borrowers who graduated with a research doctorate left with an average of $92,200 in debt from attending public schools and an average of $94,100 from attending private nonprofit institutions, NCES found.

Student loan debt numbers for graduates with professional doctorate degrees jumped into the six figures in both categories. Students at public schools graduated with an average of $142,600 in debt, and those at private nonprofit institutions graduated with an average of $221,800 in debt.

Professional doctorates include fields like dentistry, law and medicine. These fields typically have the highest salaries, which may make the debt and time spent in graduate school worth the cost for some students.

These NCES averages don’t include students who didn’t take out student loans, but do include undergraduate loans that borrowers may have in addition to their graduate debt.

Undergraduate students loans go into deferment while a student is enrolled in graduate school. But experts recommend still making payments while in school, if possible, to decrease the principal.

Consider Financial Aid and Job Training Options

Despite the risk of borrowing to pay for graduate school, experts say a graduate education can still make good financial sense. But students should consider the financial aid available to them before choosing to enroll in a graduate program.

To relieve costs and avoid debt, students can take advantage of scholarships, grants and academic fellowships. Some master’s and doctoral programs are fully funded, meaning students receive a 100% tuition waiver and a stipend.

Other ways to make graduate school more affordable include getting a job at a college that offers tuition remission, or becoming a resident assistant to cover housing fees.

All of these options may help tip the scales to make graduate school worth the cost, experts note.

[Read: Use These 5 Strategies to Pay for Graduate School.]

Prospective students may also want to consider an online graduate degree, which can often be a cheaper and more flexible option than an in-person one. Many offer part-time programs to meet the needs of working students.

“I know a number of people who have not felt like they were in a position to jump in with both feet and take the time off to go to graduate school,” Mixter says. “Starting an online course of study hedges your risk and gives you a lot more flexibility in fitting (school) around your work schedule.”

Potential students should also ask their employer about any tuition benefits they may offer, and those who don’t plan to work full time while attending grad school should consider the lost earnings during the years they will be enrolled, experts say.

“I have observed that Generation Z students feel a lot more pressure to add degrees, credentials and flair to their resumes than my millennial peers ever did,” Millay wrote. “Indeed, the ‘master’s is the new bachelor’s’ expression was less prevalent fifteen years ago. Since graduate programs are often niched and specialized, students should resist the urge to attend graduate school as a way to put off their job search and their entering ‘the real world.'”

Searching for a grad school? Get our complete rankingsof Best Graduate Schools.

More from U.S. News

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Is Graduate School Worth the Cost? originally appeared on

Update 03/17/23: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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