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Is grad school worth the time and cost? It's not always a slam dunk, experts say

Kaitlin Pfundstein of Wantagh, who just graduated from

Kaitlin Pfundstein of Wantagh, who just graduated from college, is putting off grad school.  Credit: Jeff Bachner

Kaitlin Pfundstein spent much of the spring semester agonizing over her next step: go to grad school or try to find a job after graduation.

“This was a big decision,” says Pfundstein, 22, of Wantagh, who graduated from SUNY Geneseo in May with a degree in English with certification in adolescent education and a psychology minor.

She knows she will go back to get her master’s in education but isn’t sure what to concentrate on. Her uncertainty was part of the reason she’s waiting, to give herself time to figure out what best suits her. Pfundstein also wanted some real-world experience in her field, and a full-time paycheck will help pay for grad school later. Toward the end of the semester, she pushed hard to get a job. She landed a position and will teach eighth-graders at a school in Rochester this fall.

In contrast, when Ariel Adrian graduated from Hofstra University in 2013 with a B.A. in childhood education and English, she knew she wanted to be a reading teacher and jumped right into the school’s master’s program. The 26-year-old from Jericho received her graduate degree in literacy studies in 2015 and landed a job as a reading teacher/literacy specialist in a Suffolk County district, but didn’t stop there. In 2016 she received her advanced certification, and she’s now enrolled in Hofstra’s doctor of education program.

Adrian says she went straight to graduate school “because I wasn’t ready to work yet.” She says she also worried she might “not have taken school as seriously” after working full time. “My fear is that if I take time off, I will get too complacent . . . and not go back.”

Deciding whether to go straight to graduate school — or whether to go at all — is no small matter for students like Pfundstein and Adrian. For one thing, it’s expensive, especially when students are coming out of college saddled with debt. According to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at SavingforCollege.com, student loan debt for the Class of 2017 averaged $30,000. Piling on more debt can be disastrous.

Then too, depending on your field, a master’s isn’t always the slam dunk it used to be. No longer does it necessarily mean a big paycheck. There are exceptions of course, such as advanced degrees in law, business and medicine.

So is it worth going to grad school? For sure, it’s no easy decision, and mostly, it depends.

Higher earnings; higher debt

The evidence suggests those with advanced degrees earn more over the course of their careers and have less unemployment risk, says Richard Dool, director of the master of communication and media program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

He offers a couple of examples: “A 2012 analysis by the Federal Reserve found that virtually all of the growth in the wage premium attributable to college education over the last decade was due to advanced degrees, with holders of advanced degrees currently earning a 30 percent wage premium, on average, over those with only a bachelor’s degree.” And 2013 U.S. Department of Labor data, Dool says, show the unemployment rate for those with a master’s degree was 3.4 percent that year, compared to 6.1 percent overall.

Only about 12 percent of Americans have advanced degrees, according to 2015 census numbers. “A graduate degree can be a clear career or professional differentiator,” Dool says.

Still, the amount of the benefit varies depending on the occupation. Across all professions, 17 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree make more than the median earnings of those with a professional degree, according to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Do a cost-benefit analysis

No doubt an advanced degree can be a game-changer. However, says Leslie Tayne, a debt resolution attorney with the Tayne Law Group in Melville, given the amount of undergrad student loan debt and the prospect of adding more debt for grad school, it’s “not something to be taken lightly. Consider what financial strain you may be taking on and whether you will get your money’s worth in the long haul.”

Ask yourself what you’re investing in, she says. “Figure out the costs involved with attending grad school, what the average person gets paid in the field you’re working in, whether or not a grad degree is required for landing a position in that field and whether or not having a grad degree will offer any competitive edge for getting better positions or higher salaries.”

You can project your ballpark first-year salary with and without a master’s degree on sites like payscale.com, salary.com and glassdoor.com.

Talk to graduates from your potential schools and research the job prospects in your field. Remember grad school also offers benefits that aren’t easily measured, such as gaining new skills, new experiences and professional contacts.

Adrian says she networked and joined clubs while in graduate school. She worked as a graduate assistant for the first year, which covered her tuition, and then took a “leave replacement” teaching job for the second year. “I was interviewing for full-time jobs as I was finishing up my last semester and accepted a job before I graduated with my masters,” she says.

Make a plan for the tab

If you decide to go to grad school, research grants and scholarships before applying for loans. Depending on your credit history, private loans may offer lower interest rates than federal student loans. If you’re already working, find out if your employer offers tuition assistance.

Some schools offer joint undergrad options that let you complete your undergrad and graduate studies within one program. Doing this will save you time and tuition checks, Tayne says.

And remember costs aren’t only financial ones.

There is also opportunity cost. If you’re in grad school full time, you’re not getting work experience. If you decide to work while getting a graduate degree, it can be difficult to find programs that offer classes to accommodate your work schedule.

“Combine working with commuting and going to school, and the time constraints of going to graduate school can be too high,” says Andrew Selepak, director of the graduate program in social media at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Says Pfundstein, “Do what’s best for you. What’s right for others may not be for you.”

Show me the money

Median annual earnings of full-time workers ages 25-34 in 2016

High school: $31,800

Associate's degree: $38,000

Bachelor's degree: $50,000

Master's or higher: $64,100

Soure: National Center for Education Statistics

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