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Exclusive Data Reveals Surprising Answers on the Worth of Grad School Investment
Amir Nijem anticipated having to take out loans when he was accepted into graduate school. The cost of such degrees at private institutions averages around $20,000 per year, and his program at the University of Chicago, a public policy master’s condensed into 15 months of evening classes, was particularly expensive. The estimated cost of attendance for his program was roughly $50,000, not far off from his salary working in communications for the city.
However, Nijem was unaware of the specific breakdown of these costs or that he had the option to appeal the amount of aid offered by the university. He also lacked clarity on how the degree would impact his income and job opportunities.
According to recent research by Third Way, a centrist think tank, the entire process of applying to, financing, and transitioning from graduate school is filled with unexpected surprises. The survey, conducted last summer and shared exclusively with USA TODAY, sheds light on the information gaps that influence the decisions of graduate students. Given the significant financial investment and the desire for higher earnings, it is not surprising that nearly half of the student loan portfolio in the United States is made up of debt from graduate students.
The survey revealed that only half of the participants felt certain that their graduate education was “worth it.” A majority also expressed the need for more time than initially anticipated to pay off their student debt. Additionally, many participants found that the total loan amount they owed was higher than expected.
“It’s an outlandish amount of money … and it was really rather opaque,” reflected Nijem, who did not participate in the survey. “It’s still too early for me to tell whether it was worth it.”
Is graduate school worth the debt?
There is a common belief that pursuing graduate school guarantees a better professional life. In general, participants in the Third Way survey, which included 1,000 individuals, reported that their graduate studies met or exceeded their expectations and praised the quality of the programs.
However, despite the financial burdens graduate students take on, the programs do not always lead to the desired jobs and incomes that students envision when enrolling. One in four participants rated their program negatively in terms of overall worth. While some students pursue graduate education for personal knowledge or due to uncertainty about their next steps, most do so with practical goals in mind, such as obtaining better job opportunities and higher pay.
Sadly, the survey found that roughly a third of participants had not achieved their objectives. Thirty percent of recent completers have not consistently worked in their field of study, and 35% reported earning less than anticipated.
“These two measures – career advancement and higher income – are where we see the largest gaps between what recent graduates are hoping to get out of their grad school experience vs. how well their school actually delivered for them,” noted the researchers from Third Way in a slide deck shared with USA TODAY.
A separate study published last year also revealed that many graduate programs leave students in a worse financial situation than if they had not pursued advanced studies. The survey results published by Third Way support these findings, with one in ten respondents expressing doubt that they will ever be able to pay off their student debt.
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The key to a successful graduate program: Good jobs
Nijem’s motivation for attending graduate school extended beyond financial benefits.
“I’ve always liked to bill myself as a lifelong learner,” said Nijem, a 33-year-old father of three. He began his program just two days after his youngest child was born. “I had this vision of going to grad school – finding the right one at the right time was what I was stuck at. I just knew it was going to happen sometime.”
Although Nijem had a background in public relations and advertising, fields that did not require strong mathematical skills, he was drawn to the data analysis emphasis of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Evening Master’s Program. He saw it as an opportunity to step outside his comfort zone.
However, as the sole provider for his children and a first-generation American, Nijem sought more than just expanding his knowledge. He wanted to enhance his competitiveness in an evolving job market. Many of the positions he aspired to preferred candidates with a master’s degree. “I saw this as a way to make myself more marketable,” he said.
Graduate education encompasses a wide range of fields. While some programs, particularly in health-related fields, are considered necessary for certain professions, others are pursued to increase earning potential. For example, educators with master’s degrees often earn higher salaries compared to those with bachelor’s degrees.
“The programs students attend are incredibly diverse, leading to various outcomes, and students pursue graduate school at different points in their professional journeys,” said Ben Cecil, a senior education policy advisor at Third Way.
The participants’ perception of graduate school is influenced by their personal experiences after completing their programs. Of those currently employed full time, 56% believe their education was “definitely” worth it. However, less than a third (32%) of those who are unemployed or partially employed share the same sentiment.
“Employment is really shaping how students feel in terms of whether their program was even worth attending to begin with,” said Chazz Robinson, an education policy adviser at Third Way.
Nijem remains in the same job he had before starting the program and currently has no immediate plans to pursue a career change. He is still adjusting to his role and the responsibilities of his position. Given his personal circumstances, making a professional switch is challenging at the moment. Additionally, his position with the city of Chicago qualifies him for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a federal program that forgives student debt after a decade of payments for individuals working in government jobs and similar roles.
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Students: Lack of reliable information about grad school
One significant finding from the Third Way survey is that graduate programs should provide clearer and more transparent information about costs and outcomes. This sentiment was expressed by individuals across the political spectrum.
“Transparency received overwhelming support,” said Cecil. Participants emphasized the importance of transparency in areas such as graduation rates, employment rates, income data, and borrowing amounts. Even when presented with counterarguments regarding the cost and administrative burden on institutions, respondents continued to support increased transparency.
While substantial progress has been made in providing cost and outcome information for undergraduate programs and career-training programs, graduate education lags behind. Cecil compared the state of graduate education to the “Wild West.”
One possible reason for the lack of information could be assumptions made about graduate students. Before enrolling in his master’s program, Nijem only had access to data on the quarterly cost. He was unaware of the specific breakdown of expenses, which later proved necessary for applying for tuition reimbursement through his job.
This detailed information could have also helped Nijem negotiate a higher aid package than initially offered. Eventually, with guidance from an admissions officer, he was able to secure $4,000 per semester from the university, up from the initial $2,000.
“It seemed like a lot