Should You Go to Grad School? Consider This First

In this economic climate, more recent grads are considering it. But is it worth it?
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By Ryan Lane

College enrollment is down overall compared with last year due to the coronavirus. But the economic effects of the pandemic may actually be pushing some students back to school.

“(It’s) probably the worst time to graduate from college in this generation,” says Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “What are you going to do?”

The answer, for many, is getting additional education: As of Sept. 10, graduate program enrollment was up 3.9% and post-baccalaureate certificate program enrollment was up 24.2%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

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If you’re thinking about continuing your education — because you can’t get a job or lost yours — here’s what to consider before you enroll.

Know Your Timeline

It’s not surprising that recent college graduates or those who’ve lost jobs or been furloughed are looking to gain new skills.

Alana Burns, chief marketing officer of Southern New Hampshire University, said via email that the school saw similar behavior due to the 2008 recession.

Burns said enrollment in SNHU’s graduate-level programs is currently up roughly 55% compared with this time last year. That includes master’s-level courses and graduate certificate programs.

Either option could make sense if you want to make yourself more marketable. But make sure whichever you choose addresses your short-term needs or your long-term goals.

“If you are looking for a specific skill or industry-specific certification, a certificate might be best,” Burns said. “If you’re looking to stand out in the job market or change careers, a full graduate degree program might be the best fit.”

Certificate programs take less time and don’t require the entrance exams that graduate degree programs do. Shapiro points to those lower barriers as potential reasons for what he calls the “outrageous” increase in these programs’ enrollment. A degree will require more planning.

“It’s not the kind of thing you can do on the spur of the moment,” he says.

Have a Plan to Pay for It

Certificate programs also likely cost less, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re inexpensive.

For example, Kent State University in Ohio estimates the cost of its nursing administration and health systems leadership graduate certificate at $12,300. Its online master’s degree in nursing costs up to an estimated $22,500.

Bradley Sommer, president and CEO of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, says to consider the financial implications when deciding whether to go back to school.

“Is it something you can afford?” Sommer says. “Are there scholarships available to you?”

If you can’t get free money — via a scholarship or research grant, for example — you’ll need a plan to pay for a graduate program.

More than half of graduate students turn to loans, finishing their programs with an average debt of $71,000 in 2015-16, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That total does not include any existing undergraduate loans.

But you may not be able to take out federal financial aid or private graduate student loans for a certificate. Ask the school’s financial aid office what aid a program is eligible for.

If you need to finance a certificate, you may have to put it on a credit card or take out a personal loan. Both options usually come with higher interest rates than student loans and lack those loans’ protections — like letting you pause payments if you lose your job.

Understand Your Return on Investment

People with advanced degrees earn more money than those with a bachelor’s degree; they also face lower unemployment rates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But not all graduate degrees offer equal returns.

For example, Edwin Koc, director of research, public policy and legislative affairs for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, says earnings increase 100% if you go from a bachelor’s degree in biology to a master’s degree. The benefit isn’t nearly as great for those with history degrees, he says.

It’s unclear how much you might gain financially from a certificate.

“It might translate into better prospects for you,” Koc says, “but I don’t have the data to support that.”

You can find data like median earnings for some graduate-level programs in the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. That can help you estimate if a program is affordable. Ideally, your total monthly loan payments would be no more than 10% of your take-home pay.

Keep in mind that those payments can be paused if you’re enrolled at least half-time, but interest may accrue on all your loans, further increasing the amount you owe.

Sommer also recommends reaching out to professional organizations to understand how a school or certificate is perceived. For example, he says there are plenty of accounting organizations across the country to contact, if you were interested in such a program.

“Or even just find a CPA in your town,” he adds, “and say do you know anything about the program at (a specific) university?”

This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet.

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Ryan Lane is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: rlane@nerdwallet.com.