Is the Path to Career Success an Expensive One?

In a perfect world, higher education would be affordable for everybody. In the real world, however, furthering one’s education comes at a steep cost. In 2011, an estimated 44% of individuals were continuing their education. After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree, scholars look to advance their studies in hopes of a more secure professional life and a bigger salary.

On average, the cost of a master’s degree rings in at a whopping $30,000, but that’s nothing in comparison to the $152,500 price tag of a phD. For a master’s alone, the median debt incurred for the average student totals over $57,000. With such elevated costs and few options for financial aid, academics are left to decide between an advanced education or a life without debt.

“A master’s can be worth it, especially where it directly benefits a trade such as business, teaching or social work,” explained Katie Schellenberg, CEO and Founder of Beyond Tutoring and Learning Lab. Still, not all fields are created equal. “In purely academic fields, a master’s is more costly than it is worth and you are better off obtaining a PhD where the school often subsidizes your education.”

Because federal grants are not available for graduate school and beyond, payment options for students solely consist of loans, scholarships or funding from companies of employment. While fellowships and assistantships are common for graduate students who cannot fund their own education, a large majority of students continue to find themselves drowning in student loan debt post-graduation.

Founder and President of reputationmanagement.com, Bill Fish advises those who are interested in furthering their education to hold off for the right opportunity. “Unless you are going straight through for your MBA, I would suggest holding off until you are in a situation where your company may foot the bill for the majority of the tuition. Seeking additional education is never a bad thing, but if you can get that education paid for by your employer, it makes it all the better.”

Having an employer fund graduate school is ideal, especially since a higher level degree almost always guarantees a larger salary. Individuals with their master’s degree see a $3,000-$15,000 increase in their salary in comparison to employee’s without one— but this doesn’t apply to every profession. Professionals with a master’s degree in communications, for example, maintain an equal salary with employee’s who have only obtained their bachelor’s. It is not until a communications professional earns their phD that they see their salary double.

So here’s the path to success— or at least the one that’s presented to us:

Step 1: Take out student loans

Step 2: Get the degree

Step 3: Get the job (with the big salary!)

Step 4: Pay off student loan debt (with help from that big salary!)

Step 5: Financial freedom

Sure, the formula to financial freedom looks enticing wrapped in a big, shiny bow, but is it truly achievable? The short answer is yes. With the right resources, dedication, assistance and effort, nearly anything is possible, but the real question here is not whether or not financial freedom and subsequent success is attainable, but whether or not the debt incurred along the way is worth it. Generally speaking, the average college graduate has a considerable opportunity for success with a Bachelor’s degree alone, so are the loans commonly necessary to obtain a higher level degree worth the debt? While many professionals would be quick to say yes, factors like family and home ownership should be taken into consideration.

“I’ve seen so many friends and colleagues make the decision to go to night school while holding down a full time job, and most of them are at the point where they are just starting a family,” Fish states. “Besides the time commitment, the financial commitment could be too much for yourself and your marriage.”

Ultimately, the choice to take on additional student loan debt for a higher level degree is a personal one and can only be decided on once all aspects of an individual’s finances and life in general are evaluated. Nonetheless, it is an important question to consider.

According to statistics, 40% of the current national student loan debt problem come from graduate students and beyond. The financial impact of loans is clear, but higher level learning doesn’t always have to come at a cost. MOOC’s, or Massive Open Online Courses, are a rising trend for professionals looking for additional education at low or no cost. Websites like Coursera and EdX provide free courses from universities and even offer paid options which allow learner’s to earn specialized certificates in their subjects of interest.

CEO of College Prep Ready, Ashley Hill, is an advocate for continued education. “I encourage graduate students to pursue scholarships to reduce debt associated with obtaining their degree. The debt is worth it because the skill set learned from graduate school is priceless,” she urges. “Furthering your education to any level is always worth it because you develop skills that can be transferred to multiple opportunities.”

For tips on managing your student loan debt, check out this Saving Thousands article.