The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 23, 2018

How well does graduate school pay off?

April 23, 2018

Almost 40 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in the United States have gone on to earn advanced degrees.  

About three-quarters of these degrees are master’s degrees, and the others are doctoral degrees or professional degrees in, for example, medicine or law. Some college graduates continue their education because they aspire to occupations, like teaching or medicine, that require additional degrees. Others just want to expand their opportunities or increase their earnings. But do graduate degrees always mean increased opportunity and earnings?

Average published tuition and fees for master’s and research doctoral programs range from about $11,000 a year for in-state students at public universities to $25,000 at private nonprofit universities. A third of professional degree students face tuition prices exceeding $30,000.

Despite the availability of fellowships and other aid for some of these students, many borrow significant amounts to pay their tuition and support themselves while they are in school. Two-thirds of 2011–12 master’s degree recipients borrowed to fund their graduate education. Eighteen percent borrowed $50,000 or more.

Median earnings for adults with professional degrees are almost twice as high as those for bachelor’s degree holders. Doctoral degrees are not quite as remunerative. And median earnings for adults with master’s degrees are about 25 percent ($13,000 a year) higher than for bachelor’s degrees.

This extra money can make a difference, but the variation in earnings within each degree category, combined with the investment of both time and money required to earn a master’s degree, does raise questions about how well some of these degrees pay off.

Master’s degrees in business and management and in engineering, math, and computer science lead to higher earnings than those in arts and humanities, social sciences, and education. Students in master’s programs in education, meanwhile, receive less funding from their institutions than their peers in other fields. The relatively low earnings in this field make their investment a financial risk.

2003 earnings of 1992 to 93 bachelors degree recipients who had earned masters degrees by 2003, by field

The distinction is not just between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and other fields. Adults with master’s degrees in the life and physical sciences are overrepresented at both the lower and higher ends of the income distribution. In 2015, median earnings for recent STEM master’s degree recipients ranged from $52,000 in psychology and $56,000 in biological and life sciences to $83,000 in engineering and $88,000 in computer and information sciences.

Higher levels of education are correlated with higher earnings, lower unemployment rates, and a broader range of opportunities. But not all degrees are created equal. Students pursuing graduate degrees, particularly master’s degrees, should carefully consider the price, the available aid, the debt they are likely to accrue, and the distribution of earnings among adults with similar degrees before they commit to this path.                       

Students walk on campus at University of Southern Maine on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. Photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images.

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