Economic Value of an Advanced Degree

Will going to graduate school and obtaining an advanced degree lead to a higher salary?  According to the ETS Commission on Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers, an advanced degree can double or triple your lifetime earnings.

Here are the expected lifetime earnings for each degree calculated by the commission:

Degree Lifetime Earnings
no high school diploma $973,000
high school diploma $1.3 million
bachelor’s degree $2.3 million
master’s degree $2.7 million
doctoral degree $3.3 million

Furthermore, the Commission’s study has shown that unemployment levels are significantly lower for those who hold advanced degrees, as is shown by this chart below:

The ETS is not the only group that has shown the increased economic advantages for holders of graduate degrees; a report from Georgetown University produced similar results.  According to this report, a graduate degree boosted earnings regardless of major, although some graduate majors lead to higher salaries than others.  A graduate degree in the Arts, for instance, boosts its recipient’s median salary by $10,000, while a graduate degree in physical or social science can boost median earnings by as much as $30,0000.

Given the obvious advantages of an advanced degree, why does only 9% of the U.S. population over the age of 25 have an advanced degree?

Even though a graduate degree has been proven to increase salaries, the increase in salary does not always offset the cost of obtaining the degree.  In fields such as journalism and communication, for instance, a graduate degree will only boost earnings by 19 percent, while the cost for top programs in the field is over $40,000 a year.

Other graduate school graduates feel that their time in graduate school would have been better spent acquiring work experience in their  field.  They cite coworkers with less education but more experience who are making the same, if not higher, salaries than they are.

So what does this mean for you?

Before you apply to graduate school, you need to carefully consider your career goals.  Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?  Does this position require an advanced degree, or will the right work experience get you to the same place?  Make sure that you need the degree, otherwise you could graduate with a heart heavy with disappointment and a wallet shockingly light on cash.

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