We begin by stating what is probably an obvious truth: a recession year leads to a huge spike in graduate school attendance. Test-taking reached all-time highs in 2009 for admittance this year (the amount of Law School Admissions Test-takers rose 20% in October 2009, and 13% more applicants took the Graduate Record Examination). Actual application rates have risen, too — Cornell University’s Law School applications rose by 44%, the University of San Francisco’s rose by 35%, and the University of Iowa’s College of Law applications were up 39%. In general, all-around enrollment increased by 4.7 percent in the 2008-2009 school year.

When jobs are scarce, people panic — and oftentimes, applying to schools can soothe or at least delay the fear of unemployment for a while. But is going back to school actually a good investment, in and of itself? We weigh the factors below.

The Cost


It’s no secret that grad school expenses can be astronomically expensive. The government’s financial aid website, finaid.gov, estimates that the average grad school debt was about $79,836 for a professional degree (law, medicine, business) and $52,000 for a doctoral degree. That number, unfortunately, doesn’t include extraneous “living costs” like dining, laundry, and social activities — and, as a part-time or full-time student, you’ll most likely lose the opportunity for normal work hours and pay. However, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that, while Bachelor’s degree holders earn an average of $52,200 in their lifetimes, those with Master’s degrees or higher earn almost $10,000 more. But you’ll be paying back that higher education for at least ten years post-grad, too.

Your Career Goals


For those pursuing certain careers, graduate school just makes sense. You can’t, after all, be a lawyer or doctor without advanced credentials. Master’s degrees in Computer Science and Electrical and Mechanical Engineering also come with major pay increases. (And some employers pay for such degrees.) But degrees in other fields — namely, the humanities and arts — usually come with increased risk. Many people hope that more education will shield them against layoffs, but even that is not often the case when jobs are plainly scarce. For example: An advanced degree in social studies at a cost of $40,000 a year when the average social studies teacher makes only $40,000 a year might be worth reconsidering.

You’ll need to play psychic — or better yet, do some deep investigating into your job market — to be able to conduct a proper cost/benefit analysis of your potential graduate degree.

Your Reasons Why


Graduate school is more than just a huge investment of money — it’s time, too, and tons of it. Most people need to evaluate their reasons for months, or years, before ultimately deciding whether grad school is the path for them. Wanting to make more money alone is not a good enough reason in an economy that’s uncertain enough as it is (neither is boredom). You need to make sure that the education you seek — whether or not it’s for personal fulfillment — complements your larger life goals; after all, a second (or third) degree is a huge sacrifice that will almost certainly affect your relationships with spouses and other family members, as well as significantly alter your social activities and other hobbies. Always have a clear goal!



Speaking of “your reasons why,” let’s go into some detail about the sacrifices you may have to face during this period. First of all, there’ll be no living like a lawyer or businessman, even if you are in law or business school. Most graduate students are dirt poor. Chances are you’ll have to work some of the time, share a room with one (or two, or three) roommates that you may or may not get along with, go to thrift stores, use public transportation, cut back on entertainment outings, etc. And even if you are a trust fund baby with cash to spare, your time is precious and you’ll probably be using most of it studying than jet-setting. Trust us.

If you can’t imagine not having loads of free time, lush apartments, and tri-weekly restaurant dinners, then graduate school won’t be fun OR a good investment for you.

Post-Grad Woes


Consider the worst: what happens if you graduate and still can’t find a job? After all, with a national unemployment rate of 9.7%, there are thousands of unemployed J.D.’s and PH.D.’s out there. If you can’t find the perfect job right after college, will you be tremendously upset, or grateful for the education? Is increased knowledge without increased opportunities too big a pill to swallow? Remember to look beyond your experience at school and project into the future — you’ll still be paying off loans, paying rent/utilities, and raising families. Is that possible on your average salary prospects? If you don’t know that you’ll still be happy to have attended grad school after all of this, then graduate school might not be a worthwhile investment for you. If you’ll still be happy, then it might be time to break out that stash of application money and those glowing recommendation letters right now.

So, is going back to school a worthwhile investment? It all depends on your perspective.

About the Author: Chase Jenkins is a freelance writer for MyCollegesandCareers.com. MyCollegesandCareers.com helps people determine if an online education is right for them and helps them understand which online college and online courses they can choose from to reach their goals.




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Comments | 2 Responses

  1. says

    Law school is definitely a rip just now. MBA programs are questionable, too: my son’s roommate and RM’s girlfriend finished a program at an expensive private school, and neither one of them could find work.

    However, there are a bunch of students in my classrooms who are back in school simply because they could NOT find work after layoffs. A few are pretty clearly using their student loan money to pay the mortgage; it’s their only way of keeping a roof over their heads, and going back to school at least fills the empty hours.

    Then there’s my son, who after his San Francisco employer closed its West Coast offices in the wake of the dot-com bust couldn’t find a permanent job. After a year of scrabbling together a living with short-term contracts, he came back to his hometown, got a perfectly AWFUL job and an insurance adjuster, and has been living miserably ever after. He truly hates his dreary, low-paying, six-day-a-weekjob — which most certainly does not provide him with “loads of free time, lush apartments, and tri-weekly restaurant dinners.”

    With a depression on, though, he’s afraid to quit; other companies are still not hiring; and he doesn’t see much choice other than to pursue a graduate program that at least has a shot of helping him find better and better-paying work.

    I cringe when I see the cost of his planned master’s of medical science (will qualify him as a P.A.) from a proprietary school. On the other hand, it’s no more than the cost of a good car or an SUV, and if he earns like his best friend is earning and continues his frugal habits, he’ll pay it off without much trouble.

  2. says

    There are other benefits from going to school besides simply earning a degree for the hope of a better job. Finishing up a degree shows prospective employers perseverance. Even if you don’t get a job, you’ll have proven to yourself that you can accomplish a task when you set your mind to it. Attending university can also expose you to a large number of people with different view points. Plus it teaches how you to problem solve and reason logically. Even if you don’t end up working in your chosen line of work, those skills will be useful no matter what you choose to do with your life.

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