Thinking Beyond the Bachelor’s Degree
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Students with master degrees are more eligible for salary increases and promotions than those without advanced degrees.

According to the most recent United States Census in 2011, more than 30% of adults aged 25 and over have earned bachelor’s degrees. This is the highest percentage in history, up from 25% ten years ago. While this is a great step forward for our country in terms of access to education, what this means is that a bachelor’s, generally a four year degree, no longer makes you unique when it comes to getting a job after graduation.

So what can students and professionals do to stand out in the work force? One option is to attend graduate school. Out of the 30% of adults with bachelor’s degrees, only 11% have gone on to earn master’s degrees or above. Being part of this smaller pool obviously helps a job applicant stand out, not to mention that an advanced degree offers coveted access to career and salary advancement.

However, with college costing more than ever before, is it really worth it to spend two or even up to seven extra years in pursuit of one of these elite degrees?

Colleges have an average annual tuition cost of $30,000. That means that after four years of study, each student has spent $120,000 on academics alone, not to mention the cost of room, board, books, and various student fees. According to The College Board, 66% of students graduate with at least some debt and, as of 2013, the average debt for a student graduating with a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree was $29,400. Around 42% of people are still paying off undergraduate student loan debt after age 30, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

So is that bachelor’s degree worth its financial weight?

The average salary for professionals with bachelor’s degrees today is around $57,000 annually; however, the average starting salary for a recent graduate is $44,259. In California, the cost of living for a single adult (the very minimum amount of money needed to pay bills, pay rent, and eat) is about $23,000 per year; this number only increases in big cities where jobs and internships are most often located. Rent for a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco, for example, is about $21,000 annually. Although this lifestyle might be manageable, it is obviously not the ideal that parents had in mind when they sent their students off to fulfill their educational dreams.

The question, then, is how much better off is a student with an advanced degree, in comparison?

First of all, it is important to understand that advanced degrees can be earned in nearly every subject. Master’s degrees in business administration (MBAs), fine arts (MFAs), public health (MPH), and social work (MSW) are some of the most common. (Please note: this article is discussing master’s programs, not doctoral programs such as law or medicine.) Professionals with master’s degrees earn an average salary of $69,000, though top tier MBA students generally start with salaries of $110,000. Along with this increase in salary, however, comes an increase in debt. 73% of students earning their master’s have to borrow loans on top of whatever they borrowed as undergraduates, and 61% of the debt they end up with comes from their master’s program: $31,000 on average.

However, despite these disheartening statistics, there are ways to decrease or even eliminate debt from a graduate degree. This is due, in part, to the fact that many master’s programs are conducted online and in the evenings, allowing students to work full time during the day. Another strategy for reducing debt: many graduate programs, especially MBA programs, essentially require 2-5 years of professional work experience for admission. Students can utilize their savings to pay for tuition as they go.

Another advantage is that after completing their master’s program, students are eligible for salary increases and promotions that those without advanced degrees cannot obtain. This enables MBA holders to earn an average salary of $85,000 while bachelor’s in business (BBA) graduates make only $55,000 on average. This rather noticeable difference in salaries is not only applicable to MBA grads. According to CareerBuilder.com, a master’s in computer science warrants a 42% salary increase, while someone with a master’s in physical science will earn almost double what he earned with a bachelor’s.

In most cases, therefore, it is advantageous in the long term for students to plan ahead for a master’s program. But what can students do to prepare for a top tier graduate school?

Graduate school admission is like undergraduate admission in many ways: GPA, test scores, awards, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation are all taken into account in the evaluation of a candidate’s application.

College GPAs are calculated in the same way as high school GPAs, and students are expected to have excellent marks in their major courses. Testing requirements are a bit different. Rather than a single universal exam like the SAT or ACT, students take an exam relevant to their intended course of study (the GRE or GMAT, for example). Students can find minimum required scores (or average scores) on the graduate admissions website for any given college.

More important than tests and grades are campus leadership positions and relevant work/internship experience. Graduate school offers practical training, so admissions officers are looking for students with practical experience. As mentioned earlier, MBA programs want students to have multiple years of professional experience, while master’s programs in science, for example, expect candidates to have conducted extensive research.

Often, the best choice for a high school student who intends to attend graduate school is a small college. Liberal arts colleges, for example, do not have any graduate students; this enables undergrads to interact directly with professors and obtain excellent letters of recommendation, as well as providing access to research funding and internship opportunities that would usually go to more experienced students.

In any case, when considering college and major selection, high school students and their parents should think beyond the bachelor’s degree before making a final decision.

By Katie Matlock , ThinkTank Learning Senior Admissions Consultant and Academic Counselor