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Published: Mar 02, 2022 4 min read
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Is graduate school worth it? If you're looking for a pay boost big enough to recoup your costs, there's a good chance it's not.

That's according to a new study from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP), which looks at the return on investment (ROI) of graduate school. The report includes an assessment of the increase in lifetime earnings minus the costs of attending school for nearly 14,000 graduate degrees, including 11,600 master’s degrees and 2,300 doctoral and professional degrees. The results may put a damper on your higher education plans: 40% of master's degrees and 14% of advanced degrees have a negative financial return.

Whether pursuing a graduate degree is a financially savvy decision depends largely on the field of study, according to the report. The median master’s degree increases lifetime earnings by $83,000, and some master’s degrees are worth over $1 million.

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The degrees that are the safest bet, financially speaking, aren't exactly shockers — most master's programs in computer science, engineering and nursing offer an ROI above $500,000, for example. But there are some findings that may surprise you. Take the popular Master of Business Administration (MBA): more than 60% of the MBAs and other business-related master’s degrees analyzed have negative ROIs. And a master's degree in the arts or humanities? Those have a median return of negative $400,000, according to the study.

Doctoral and professional degrees overall have higher ROIs than master's degrees, with most professional degrees in law and medicine generating a return greater than $500,000. But more time in school doesn't necessarily translate to a higher ROI: While 86% of advanced degrees have positive ROI, PhD programs in education and other non-STEM fields are an exception.

Pursuing graduate degrees has become more popular in recent years, especially during the pandemic, with most students saying they are doing so for career advancement. And of course, money isn't everyone's be-all and end-all when it comes to school — maybe your daydreams of moving up in the academic world trump your concerns over a paycheck. But individual financial returns are the biggest concern for most people considering graduate school, according to the study.

"While some undergraduate students see bachelor’s degrees as a consumption good, graduate degrees are almost always viewed as an investment in future earnings capacity," the report says.

And graduate school can be expensive since there's often less financial aid offered to graduate students than undergraduate students,. Plus, a minority of grad students who attend school full-time also work full-time, meaning they're giving up earnings while they're enrolled. While it varies by program, the report says that the typical student enrolled in graduate school at age 27 gives up $48,000 of income during that year.

Overall, there is a lot that goes into deciding whether graduate school is the right move for you, including how you'll pay, the career paths that will open up to you and whether there are alternative ways to meet your goals. But keep in mind that the type of degree you pursue will likely play a big role in how much money you make later in life.

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