Is Getting an Advanced Degree a Good Idea in this Economy?

This is a guest post by Kate Manning, an independent writer.  Her bio is at the end of the piece.

As a note, this post is focused exclusively on the situation in the United States – the trends in other countries (such as New Zealand) have been significantly different.

The sluggish job market has forced Americans to reexamine their financial priorities. As a result, prospective graduate students must decide if earning (i.e., paying for) a master’s degree constitutes a sound investment. The good news is that research shows that students who do opt to get degrees in areas like business or accounting are generally able to make a return on their investment within a few years.  To receive an even greater return, students may want to explore getting their education at one of the colleges found on this site featuring online MBA courses since online schools are often much cheaper than their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Whatever option students choose, many experts agree that 2012 is a great time to be a grad student.

Last September, The New York Times reported that enrollment in U.S. graduate programs decreased between 2009 and 2010, despite 5.5 percent growth the previous year. According to the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), this marked the first decline in seven years and the drop-off is likely a byproduct of the thin job market. The council’s president, Dr. Debra W. Stewart, said that, historically, the economy and master’s enrollment had an “inverse relationship,” but this is currently not the case. “They’re both down,” she noted, “so the question is, why?”

Stewart warned that fewer grad students would ultimately hurt the economy. She explained that higher education, specifically, graduate education, is a boon to the job market. If degrees are only attainable to the wealthy, then national prosperity will be detrimentally affected. However, she conceded that dubious job availability and high cost of college fees are keeping grad students out of classrooms. Stewart said that “with this recession going on for so long, people who have a job are less likely to want to leave it to go back to school, because it’s not at all clear that there will be a job for them at the other end.”

USA Today Education columnist, Jon Frank, sympathizes with students who face this dilemma but reassures them that graduate education is always advisable, especially now. Contrary to the notion that enrollment is a waste of time during such a messy recession; he reasons that grad schools provide career opportunities that are unavailable elsewhere. Students have an entire campus, in which to network with fellow students, professors and guest lecturers about their prospective career path. He also notes that a master’s degree ultimately makes a candidate more hirable in the eyes of potential employers, which will be useful in the coming years. “One thing that the past 200 years of economic history has taught us is that bad times are followed by good times,” he writes. “We are in a down phase now. Most likely, things will be better in two, three or four years (read: by the time you finish your program).”

In regard to grad school costs, Frank admits the sheer amount can be initially daunting. However, he advises students to view the degree as a long-term investment. Though students may work as long as four or five years before making a return on said investment, this period is relatively brief compared to a 30- or 40-year career. He adds that many students, such as MBA recipients, can make a return in as little as two years.

In addition to the poor job market and college fees, some students are apprehensive about enrolling in a master’s program because they do not see its worth. However, a 2009 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce debunks the myth that bachelor’s degrees are just as valuable as graduate degrees. In many of the most popular areas of study, the difference in median annual earnings between bachelor’s and master’s degree holders was quite significant. In many areas of study, such as business, computers and mathematics, agriculture and natural resources, master’s degree holders out-waged their undergraduate counterparts by as much as $20,000 per year. Most significantly, graduate students who earned degrees in biology and life science made $35,000 more than those who held a bachelor’s degree in the same field.

Graduate degrees are a sound investment, regardless of the economy. In fact, students are encouraged to enroll in master’s programs during times of great financial duress. The economy will eventually improve—and when it does, employers will seek out bright, well-educated men and women to lead the work force toward prosperity.


Kate Manning didn’t expect to find herself at the intersection of business, marketing, and the Internet, but with sound writing and editing skills, she makes the most of it. She’s worked under others’ supervision and on her own for herself.