Is Grad School Worth It? 3 Questions to Ask Before You Enroll

Jen Williamson Updated on May 13, 2019

For Sarah Pool from Staunton, Virginia, the investment in grad school hasn't quite panned out yet. In fact, far from it.

Pool graduated from Mary Baldwin University with a Master’s degree in education—and $60,000 in student debt. In the three years since she graduated, she’s never missed a payment. Even so, her debt has increased to $69,000.

grad school-680877-edited

 The worst thing about this story is that Pool did everything right.

She went back to school for a higher degree—which was supposed to lead to better employment prospects.

She enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan—a plan administered by the government, which was supposed to help her pay back loans without going into a financial tailspin. But it didn’t—and now the picture looks dire.

So—is grad school worth it? Or is higher education just a fast-track to financial ruin?

We’re glad you asked—because we have opinions on this.

See also: I Kept Paying, But It’s Like Pouring Into a Bucket With No Bottom… 

Things to think about

The fact is, some careers do require a Master’s degree or higher. And some jobs pay well enough to make the student debt worth it. Those generally include medical, science, IT, and engineering careers.

But there are many situations where grad school isn’t worth it. Consider that the average cost of a Master’s degree ranges between $30,000 and $120,000—depending on the school and the program.

With price tags this high, most people can’t afford to go into that much debt unless the outcome is very sure.

Here are a few questions to ask. 

Will this career pay enough to comfortably pay off the debt?

The first thing you’ll want to look at is the return on investment.

Find out how much your degree will cost. Bear in mind that we’re not just talking tuition; you may also have to take time off from the labor force to focus on school. Some grad students live off their loans. Some live on fellowships—but not everyone has that option.

Then consider how much you're likely to make—not in the best-case scenario, but in the one that's most likely. If all you can land is a job at the middle or bottom of the typical pay scale for those starting out in your career, can you handle your loan payments? (Use this handy tool to forecast your monthly student loan bill v. potential salary.)

Let's use Sarah Pool as an example. Her dream was to become a librarian, which often requires a Master’s degree in library science (although Pool has a Master’s in education).

The cost for a Master’s degree in library science ranges from around $12,000 to $35,000 per year—and the average wage for a career in libraries is $57,680 based on 2016 data. Salaries start at around $35,000.

Theoretically, you could come out of your librarian degree program owing $70,000 in debt—and making $35,000 per year to start. This is the kind of situation that could lead you into income-based repayment—and a monthly payment so low it doesn't cover your interest charges. 

What happens then? That unpaid interest gets added to the loan principal. You get charged interest on interest and your balance skyrockets.

How long will it take me to earn a livable salary in this career?

So you’ve taken a look at the average salary in your field, and you’ve found that the average earnings are in the six figures. That’s a great sign, but how long does it take you to ramp up to that level of pay?

Even in a high-paying career, you could be stuck for years making $50,000 a year or less, and dealing with an $800-a-month loan payment.

This is where a lot of people choose income-based repayment to keep their debt payment manageable until their income rises—and then wind up on a plan that doesn’t cover enough interest. That’s what happened to Sarah Pool.

See also: Everything You Need to Know About Student Loan Consolidation

New call-to-action

How viable is this field?

It’s also crucial to know the direction of the job market in this field. In some cases, students have been hit hard by falling employment rates after graduating from expensive degree programs that were expected to lead to high-paying work.

For instance, the job market for law school graduates dropped precipitously in 2011, with only 53.8% of graduates that year landing full-time jobs in their field. Prospects have gotten better since then, but as of 2016 the numbers are still fairly grim: 59.2% for 2015 graduates. 

Compare that to the demand for new med school grads, with 76% of new graduates receiving 50 or more job offers as of 2017.

Despite the differences in job prospects, med school and law school students can both easily incur six figures in student debt. And until recently, they were both assumed to reliably lead to high-paying work. For law students, that can’t be assumed anymore.

Grad school can be worth it for some people—but for some, it’s not a good financial proposition. Know the average pay and job prospects and look carefully at the potential payout vs. your student loan burden. We'll even help you do that.  Click here to see more. 

About the Author
Jen Williamson

Jen Williamson is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for a variety of industries, including software, education, business, and personal finance. Prior to that, she worked at an adult literacy nonprofit in Philadelphia, where she coached nontraditional students in passing the GED test and applying for college. When she isn’t writing or reading—which is rare—she can usually be found planning her next travel adventure, training for a marathon, or sneaking in somewhere she’s not supposed to be. Read more by Jen Williamson

Refinance and Save Today With These Lenders

#1 - Nitro Recommended View More Details

Special offers for medical resident and fellow refinance products

  • Fixed rates: 2.49% - 6.31% APR
  • Variable rates: 1.88% - 6.15% APR
  • Minimum credit: 650
View More Details
Visit Splash View Loan Disclosure

Splash Financial is a leader in student loan refinancing with new rates as low as 2.49% fixed APR which can save you tens of thousands of dollars over the life of your loans. No application or origination fees and no prepayment penalties. Splash Financial is in all 50 states and is intensely focused on customer service. Splash Financial is also one of the few companies that offers a great medical resident and fellow refinance product. You can check your rate with Splash in just minutes.

  • Low interest rates – especially for graduate students
  • No application or origination fees. No prepayment penalties.
  • Co-signer release program - you can apply for a cosigner release form your loan after 12 months of on-time payments
  • Specialty product for doctors in training with low monthly payment

Click here to see more of Splash's offerings and to see how you can save money.

#2 View More Details

For every loan they fund, they contribute to the education of a child in need

  • Fixed rates: 2.83% - 6.74% APR
  • Variable rates: 1.99% - 6.84% APR
  • Minimum credit: 660
View More Details
Visit CommonBond View Loan Disclosure

CommonBond was founded in 2011 by three MBA graduates from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who wanted to help their peers escape from high-interest student loan debt. Its original focus was on grad students, but it has since expanded to cover undergrads as well.

Of all the companies we reviewed, CommonBond has some of the best customer service. The company prides itself on being easy to reach by email, phone, or live chat. It offers networking events, expert panels, insider newsletters, and even has a program help borrowers who lose their jobs to find new ones. CommonBond also makes you feel good about choosing to refinance with them by donating money to an education nonprofit for each loan they write.

CommonBond Student Loan Refinance review

  • Unemployment protections - If you lose your job or decide to go back to school, you can delay your payments for up to 24 months.
  • Social promise - For every loan they fund, they also contribute to the education of a child in need.
  • Hybrid loan option - Offerings include a 10-year hybrid loan with fixed interest for the first five years, and variable interest for the final five.
  • Referral bonus - For every friend you refer who refinances their loans with CommonBond, you’ll earn a $200 cash bonus.
  • Qualification - Borrowers must have graduated at least 2 years prior if they want to apply without a co-signer. And borrowers in 6 states – Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Dakota, and Vermont – cannot currently refinance through CommonBond.

Get a personalized review of your refinancing options with CommonBond today.

#3 View More Details

SoFi is the leading student loan refinancing provider. 

  • Fixed rates: 2.49% - 6.94% APR
  • Variable rates: 2.25% - 6.59% APR
  • Minimum credit: 650
View More Details
Visit SoFi View Loan Disclosure

$30 billion+ in refinanced student loans. SoFi has some of the lowest interest rates and, unlike the other lenders we reviewed, there's no maximum on the amount you can finance. Some state restrictions may apply.

  • Serious savings: Save thousands of dollars thanks to flexible terms and low fixed or variable rates.
  • No hidden fees, no catch: No application or origination fees. No pre-payment penalties.
  • Fast, easy, and all online: Simple online application and access to live customer support 7 days a week.
  • Access to member benefits: SoFi members get career coaching, financial advice, and more—all at no cost.
  • 98% of surveyed members would recommend SoFi to a friend

Save thousands on your student loans and pay off your loans sooner. Find your rate.

#4 View More Details

Ability to apply for cosigner release after 24 consecutive payments. 

View More Details
Visit NelNetBank View Loan Disclosure

Give Your Life’s Journey a Jump-Start.

If you’re ready to put student loans in your rearview mirror, Nelnet Bank student loan refinancing offers low rates and flexible terms to help you start getting ahead.

  • VARIABLE RATES: 1.95% - 5.62% APR See Disclaimer
  • FIXED RATES: 2.48% - 6.62% APR See Disclaimer
  • AUTO DEBIT SAVINGS: We’ll knock .25% off of your interest rate when you enroll in auto debit. See Disclaimer
  • NO ORIGINATION FEES: No application, origination, or prepayment fees on Nelnet Bank loans.
  • HARDSHIP PROTECTION: Hardship forbearance helps protect against unexpected loss of income. See Disclaimer

See How Much You Can Save: Estimate your savings with a student loan refinance from Nelnet Bank.

#5 View More Details

Works with 300+ community lenders for higher approval chances

  • Fixed rates: 2.95% - 7.63% APR
  • Variable rates: 1.90% - 5.25% APR
  • Minimum credit: 660
View More Details
Visit LendKey View Loan Disclosure

Connecting student borrowers to a network of over 300 community lenders with low interest rates. By partnering with these lenders, LendKey is able to give consumers direct access to the best rates available from the most borrower friendly institutions. As the servicer of all loans obtained through its platform, you can rest easy knowing your personal information will be safe and that the best customer service team will be ready to answer your questions from application until your final payment.

LendKey Student Loan Refinance review

  • Lightning fast rate check - 2-minute rate check with no impact on your credit score
  • More lenders, more options - see the best offers from over 300+ community lenders for higher approval chances
  • Life of loan relationship - With LendKey, your personal information will never be sent or passed on to third parties. Their customer service team is with you from the moment you land on their website until you've completely repaid your loan.
  • Unmatched benefits- Community lenders put people over profits and offer unique benefits like cosigner release after 12 on-time payments, interest only repayment options to keep monthly payments low, the largest unemployment protection period in the market, and more.

Get a personalized quote from LendKey now.

#6 View More Details

Best for borrowers who want to customize their repayment schedule to pay off debt fast.

View More Details
Visit Earnest View Loan Disclosure

Using technology, data, and design to build affordable products, Earnest's lending products are built for a new generation seeking to reach life's milestones. The company understands every applicant's unique financial story to offer the lowest possible rates and radically flexible loan options for living life.

  • Commitment-free 2 minute rate check
  • Client Happiness can be reached via in app messaging, email, and phone 
  • No fees for origination, prepayment, or loan disbursement
  • Flexible terms let you pick your exact monthly payment or switch between fixed and variable rates
  • Skip a payment and make it up later
  • Online dashboard is designed to make it easy to apply for and manage your loan

Click here to apply with Earnest and to see how much you can save.

#7 View More Details

16 different loan term options – more flexibility to pay down your loan faster

  • Fixed rates: 3.24% - 5.54% APR
  • Variable rates: 3.34% - 5.69% APR
  • Minimum credit: 680
View More Details
Visit CollegeAve View Loan Disclosure

College Ave Student Loans offers major help and minor stress. We’ll help guide you through the process to find the right loan term and interest rate for you and the family budget.

  • Fast rate check: Get your new rate in 60 seconds 
  • Instant credit decision
  • Super flexible terms: 16 loan terms available from 5 to 20 years
  • No fees to apply

Click here to see more College Ave offerings and to start saving today! 


I reduced my student loan payment by $152 per month, by refinancing thru Nitro:

Save Money Now