Completing an undergraduate degree is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding feats one can accomplish. After years of hard work, you’ve proven to yourself and to others that you could do it. You put in long hours, sacrificed free time, made the grades, fought past countless obstacles, and bettered yourself through higher education. But perhaps as you gaze lovingly at the nicely-framed diploma on your wall, you find yourself wondering, “Should I get one more?”
Earning a graduate degree would make you a rarity, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 survey on educational attainment, as only about 10% of the U.S. population holds an advanced degree. So how can you decide if hanging one more diploma on your wall is the right decision for you? Online graduate professors and advisors contend that several factors should be a part of your decision.
Cost and Return on Investment
The financial benefits of an advanced degree can be enticing. After all, an advanced degree would significantly lower your chances of unemployment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and in 2009, Americans with master’s degrees earned on average $13,280 more per year than those with bachelor’s degrees, according to the Digest of Education Statistics.
Those numbers can be pretty tempting on the surface, but a potential increase in income should be considered in terms of the immediate cost of the degree, experts say, as well as the degree’s long-term value. Jeff Cook, executive enrollment advisor for online students at the University of Phoenix, said students should look at their current situation and long-term goals to see if their degree will “be a good investment in the long run for them and their families.”
“Students need to consider the importance of their degree in their ability to make money,” Cook said. “Some students can use the degree, even if they are still completing it, to better their position with their company, thus helping them pay for school, so each situation will be different and [that is] one more thing to consider before starting.”
The cost of online graduate degrees can vary by school and by program: at one popular school, for example, an online master’s degree in business administration costs around $25,000 for one program and around $70,000 for another program. Cook said he advises students on the various ways to pay for school and advocates responsible borrowing with as few loans as possible. He encourages students to work through school, a benefit that he believes is largely limited to online students because of the asynchronous lecture format. Students log in when it best suits their needs, such as when the rest of their family has gone to bed for the evening. He said that is the only way he could have completed his own online master’s degree.
Cook maintains that students need to decide for themselves if their financial situation will allow them to go back to school, and not pay attention to outside factors such as the economy. “For many people, now is a great time to go back to school because they need the advantage over the next person for a job, promotion, or to help them keep their jobs. The economy shouldn’t play a role in their decision. They need to evaluate their circumstance for their own careers, financial situation and ability to dedicate themselves to completing the degree.”
Students should also consider other non-tuition costs, he said, such as whether they will lose money from not working during their education, losing out on the possibility of getting promoted and building a career instead of working part time somewhere while attending school full time. Several online resources exist to help students determine the financial effects of earning an advanced degree. The University of Phoenix, for example, has an online tuition and fees calculator.
Forbes Magazine online also created a calculator primarily to be used for top business programs, but its tuition estimates and returns on investment estimates can be used for other programs as well. It shows how long it will take for students to pay off debt and see the financial fruits of their labor.
It is important to consider whether or not an advanced degree will get you closer to where you’d like to be in your career than just plain experience would. Of all the master’s degrees awarded in 2008 and 2009, more than half were earned in either business or education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_gfs.asp), and in those careers it can be argued that advanced degrees are becoming increasingly necessary.
Liberty University Online student Claire Diamond said she knew a master’s degree would help her advance in her current career field of advertising and marketing, which is where she wants to stay. “Although my employer did not require me to earn a graduate degree, having it will give me better opportunities for career advancement,” she said. “In the marketing industry, those with advanced degrees stand out in their field. A master’s degree boosts your resumé and places you ahead of the crowd in the job market. When it comes to employment, you can place yourself head and shoulders above competitors by having a master’s degree.”
Time Commitment and Expectations
If after considering all your options, you decide that pursuing an advanced degree is the right decision for you, the experts have some words of advice about graduate programs. They all agree that graduate programs will not be like your undergraduate program and will most likely be more difficult.
Beth Ackerman, associate dean of the college of education at Liberty University, said in general, graduate courses require a higher level of thinking than undergraduate courses. “Our graduate students focus on applying and critically analyzing information rather than rote memory,” she said. “Many of our graduate students are already in the classroom and in their careers and they are expanding on their prior knowledge. They also bring a wealth of experience from their lives into the discussion boards.”
Diamond agrees. “Generally speaking, graduate courses require more writing than undergraduate courses,” she said. “While undergraduate classes are usually based on your ability to retain information for tests and quizzes, graduate classes are more focused on your ability to employ critical-thinking abilities. You need to carefully assess information, synthesize with research, and produce a quality analysis.”
Kahlib Fischer, who teaches graduate courses in public policy and government at Liberty University Online, said that though graduate courses can be more challenging and rigorous than undergraduate courses, the bigger challenge could be going from a traditional classroom to an online classroom.
“That’s probably the biggest adjustment—not so much from undergraduate to graduate, but rather from going to school in the traditional model while working part time versus now, working full time and still trying to take classes in the online setting,” he said. “For many adult learners, working full time and pursuing traditional education is not an option; one or the other has to give. But students can still work full time and go to school online. The difference is that there of course is going to be a lot of work pursuing an online degree in addition to full time work responsibilities and perhaps even family life. The convenience is nice, but because it is so convenient, there is also the expectation that full-time work can and will continue while going to school.”
Fischer said even though a master’s degree might not be necessary in every field, having an advanced degree certainly does no harm.
“The reality is that it helps with promotion and a deeper understanding of one’s profession,” he said. “Because adult learning is now so readily available in so many formats and from so many schools … it is expected more and more that working professionals will pursue an advanced degree of some sort as a means of promotion … Students should thoughtfully consider whether they actually need a graduate degree for promotion. If, on the other hand, they really love learning and they love the field they are working in, perhaps that is sufficient motivation to pursue a graduate degree.”
As an online graduate student, Diamond has some simple advice for those considering a graduate education. “Plan ahead,” she said, “compare prices. Ask to take a sample course. Look for scholarship opportunities. But mostly, stick with it. You won’t regret it!”