Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?

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Key Takeaways

  • A master’s degree can lead to higher earnings and career advancement but requires careful consideration of ROI.
  • Specialized master’s degrees can offer a competitive edge but may limit career flexibility compared to broader degrees.
  • Online master’s programs offer flexibility and potential cost savings, making higher education more accessible to diverse students.

    The Rise of the Master’s Degree in Professional Development

    Graduate enrollment in US schools increased by 9% between 2010 and 2021. Most – eight in 10 – of the enrollment was in master’s degrees. The growth was due to the combination of colleges and universities:

    • Expanding their master’s degree programs, such as by offering new programs and specializations
    • Offering master’s degree programs for the first time

    The increase in graduate degree enrollment was also because of decreasing undergraduate enrollment. During the 2010-2021 period, colleges and universities reported a 15% decline. The increase in graduate enrollment stabilized their budgets and increased their prestige.

    These aren’t the only factors that drive the increasing popularity of master’s degrees.

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    • Increased access to career advancement opportunities

    Earning a master’s degree is a licensing/certification requirement in many professions. A master’s degree is non-negotiable in meeting professional standards in these professions.

    Prime examples of these professions are:

    • Healthcare – Nurse practitioners, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists
    • Psychology and Social Work – Clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social worker
    • Education – School counselors and principals

    With a master’s degree, you may apply for licensing/certification in your area of expertise. Of course, you must meet other requirements, too, such as clinical hours. Once you’re certified/licensed, you’re eligible for leadership positions.

    • Higher earning potential

    The potential for an excellent master’s degree ROI is a major motivation. While individual experiences vary, a master’s degree means higher earning potential.

    According to Education Pays, master’s degree holders earn $1,737 in median weekly wages. In contrast, bachelor’s degree holders earn $1,493 in median weekly wages. The significant $244/week difference translates to more than $12,600 per year.

    Master’s degree holders also have a lower unemployment rate of 2%. Bachelor’s degree holders have a 2.2% unemployment rate. While a master’s degree isn’t a lifetime employment guarantee, it’s a competitive advantage.

    • Gain specialized knowledge and skills.

    The graduate school investment isn’t only about the money either. Graduate students gain specialized knowledge and skills essential to their professions.

    This isn’t limited to STEM fields with their state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technologies and techniques. Business, education, and the arts also place a premium on specialized competencies.

    Employers are likely to prefer applicants and employees with advanced knowledge and skills. The reasons are simple: There’s more contribution potential and less training needed.

    There are also many non-monetary benefits to earning a master’s degree. You can expand your network, a valuable aspect of personal and professional growth.

    Your choices in master’s degree programs are expanding, too. Universities offer new or updated programs and specializations based on emerging trends. Your graduate education will be relevant to the changing times.

    And then there’s the choice between on-campus and online programs. You might ask, “Are online master’s programs worth it?” Yes, they are. Online programs feature the same curriculum and instruction quality as on-campus programs. Even their diplomas are the same.

    Furthermore, online programs have advantages that on-campus programs don’t offer. Flexibility, convenience, and accessibility are their main characteristics. Many online programs also have affordable costs and financial aid programs. These advantages have made online programs popular among working professionals.

    Types of Master’s Degrees and Fields of Study

    Like bachelor’s degrees, master’s degree programs come in diverse types and fields of study. Think of your specific interest, and you will find a master’s degree for it, even if it’s out of the ordinary.

    • Master of Arts (MA)

    The MA degrees emphasize theoretical knowledge and advanced research skills. These are common in the fields of social sciences, humanities, and the arts. Examples include history, political science, philosophy, literature, and media and communication.

    • Master of Science (MS)

    The MS degrees are offered in the STEM fields. The emphasis is on basic and applied research knowledge and skills at the advanced level. Biology, engineering, physics, psychology, and computer science are a few examples. Graduates work in STEM occupations, too, in the public and private sectors.

    • Master of Business Administration (MBA)

    The MBA degree is the most popular because of its versatile applications. Students prepare for leadership roles in the public and private sectors. Business, finance, and banking-related occupations are popular. Graduates can also choose between the employment and entrepreneurship route.

    • Master of Social Work (MSW)

    The MSW degree appeals to social workers who want to engage in clinical social work. Many graduates also become community organizers, social policy advisors, and advocates.

    • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)

    The MFA degrees are awarded in the creative arts and combine theory and practice. Fields of study include visual arts, performing arts, and media arts. Graduates work in diverse industries, from arts and entertainment to education.

    • Master of Education (MEd)

    The MEd degrees are available to educators with career advancement ambitions. Specializations include elementary and secondary education, educational leadership, and curriculum and instruction.

    • Master of Engineering (MEng)

    The MEng degrees emphasize advanced engineering knowledge and skills. There’s equal emphasis on theory and practice through coursework and practical projects. Colleges offer MEng programs in all engineering branches, too.

    Other master’s degree programs offered are the Master of Public Administration (MPA) and Master of Public Health (MPH). Legal professionals can also earn a Master of Laws (LLM) degree.

    Benefits and Drawbacks of Pursuing a Master’s Program

    While earning a master’s degree has its benefits, being aware of its drawbacks is a must, too. You can make an informed decision when you know both sides.

    Benefits

    • More competitive for leadership positions, especially in fields where a graduate degree is a must
    • Gain specialized knowledge and skills that enhance your credibility as an authority or expert
    • Higher income potential than with a bachelor’s degree
    • Greater job stability and security
    • Flexible career pathways

    On a related note, many of the master’s degree careers are straightforward. If you earned, say, an MFA degree, you’re likely to establish a successful career in the arts. However, many master’s degrees also offer flexible career pathways. The MBA degree is a prime example.

    Drawbacks

    The main drawback is the high cost of earning a master’s degree. The average graduate tuition and fees is $19,749 per year.

    Your actual cost will depend on your type of college, field of study, and residency status. You can spend $25,000-$57,000 in tuition and fees. Incidental, living, and miscellaneous expenses increase the total cost. Add in the opportunity cost, and second thoughts are understandable.

    Indeed, the financial cost is a barrier. Graduate students can incur significant student loan debt in the process. Fortunately, effective financial planning and financial aid are available.

    If you’re planning on pursuing a doctoral degree, the postgraduate education benefits and drawbacks are similar.

    So, with these pros and cons in mind, is it still worth it? Yes, it is, but you must leverage your master’s degree for it to work.

    Comparing Master’s Degrees: Specialization vs. Generalization

    There’s an ongoing debate about specialized and generalized master’s degrees. Which one is the best? We must say that each type has its merits and, thus, both are excellent choices.

    The benefits of specialized master’s degrees are:

    • In-depth, expert-level knowledge, skills, and competencies in a specific field of study. Environmental engineering, data analytics, and AI are the best examples.
    • Potential for higher starting salaries based on their specialized competencies. Being able to negotiate for better compensation packages in the future is also an advantage.
    • High industry demand, particularly for computer and information technology professionals.

    But there are disadvantages, too:

    • The targeted focus is a hindrance in interdisciplinary occupations
    • Limited career flexibility

    As for generalized master’s degrees, their benefits are:

    • Depth and breadth of knowledge, skills, and competencies
    • Versatile career pathways due to flexible and adaptable knowledge and skills
    • Opportunity to become a specialist in the future

    Their disadvantage include:

    • Potential for lower starting salary. Individual experiences vary, nonetheless
    • More specialized training is necessary if you want to become a specialist

    Your choice is your personal decision based on your career goals. Be sure to consider the market demands in your field, too.

    Evaluating the Return on Investment (ROI) of a Master’s Degree

    The basic steps are:

    • Calculate the estimated cost of education. These include tuition and fees, books and supplies, and living expenses. Consider your opportunity cost, too.
    • Estimate your potential salary increase.
    • Perform your ROI calculation. Let’s assume the following figures:
      • Total cost of MBA degree: $150,000
      • Current salary: $60,000/year
      • Post-MBA estimated salary: $100,000/year
      • Added income: $40,000/year       
      • Net gain: $40,000/year x 25 years = $1,000,000 (If you work for 25 years using your MBA degree)
      • ROI: ($1,000,000 – $150,000) / $150,000 = 5.67 (When multiplied by 100, ROI is 567%)
      • Break-even point: $150,000 / $40,000 = 3.75 years (The number of years for your added income to cover your total degree costs)

    In conclusion, a master’s degree is worth it. But it isn’t for everybody either. You must determine your suitability for it based on your interests and goals. If you believe that it will work to your advantage, go for it.