Going to grad school is expensive: more than half of master’s degree students leave school with an average student loan balance of $66,000, according to federal statistics.
Sure, getting your master’s degree can pave the way to a bump in your pay, but a higher salary won’t give you more spending power if you’re also paying down tons of debt. On the other hand, a large debt load isn’t as crushing if you’re earning six figures. Experts often suggest that for student debt payments to be affordable, they need to be below about 10% to 15% of your monthly income. That’s why it’s smart to look at both the typical debt and salary of students graduating from a particular program to determine whether it’ll pay off.
To help with your research, Money analyzed the average student debt and earnings from graduates of over 200 master’s degrees at more than 1,500 colleges, to see which ones have the best early return on investment. For more details on how we got these results, check out the methodology at the end.
1. Electrical Engineering
- Average debt: $25,762
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $98,880
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 3.2%
This degree snags the top spot with a debt-to-income ratio that is lower than nearly every other program in the dataset. With a master’s in electrical or electronics engineering, you can specialize in communication systems, power systems, and renewable energy. A graduate degree can also help you move toward management roles in the field. Graduates are in high demand in growing industries, including energy and technology.
2. Mechanical Engineering
- Average debt: $30,611
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $83,705
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 4.4%
If designing and building machinery is something you dream about, then a master’s in mechanical engineering could be a solid fit for you — even if you studied another field as an undergrad. Although a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering is preferred, most schools will allow other disciplines that require heavy math and science courses to apply for this track, including physics and aerospace majors. Mechanical engineers can specialize in areas as wide-ranging as robotics, auto research, and heating and cooling systems.
- Average debt: $29,000
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $76,806
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 4.7%
This program is just what it sounds like: you’ll learn the ins and outs of state, federal, corporate, and individual tax regulations. But that doesn’t mean your career prospects will be limited to tax prep or auditing. This degree also serves as training for roles like a financial manager, certified public accountant (CPA) or chief financial officer — all of which have a high earning potential.
4. Civil Engineering
- Average debt: $29,643
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $73,650
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 4.9%
Civil engineers have been around since ancient times (Roman aqueducts, anyone?) and are responsible for some of the world’s most recognizable structures, like the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. But the field is anything but antiquated. Newer specializations, like intelligent systems engineering, involve designing eco-friendly and technology-powered structures and systems. Regardless of your specialty, a master’s degree in civil engineering can increase your earnings by almost $14,000 a year over a bachelor’s degree, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
5. Management Sciences and Quantitative Methods
- Average debt: $40,426
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $87,924
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 5.9%
Calling all numbers nerds: This degree will prepare you to collect, analyze and manage data to help businesses and organizations solve problems. You’ll be able to work as an actuary, financial analyst, insurance underwriter, or as a statistician, which is one of the fastest-growing occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
6. Clinical Nursing/Nursing Administration
- Average debt: $49,052
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $99,358
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 6.1%
Nursing is one of those fields where you really don’t need to go to grad school. A bachelor's degree will net you job security and a solid salary. But if you want to teach nursing, work as a nurse administrator or practice in a specialized field like anesthesiology or pediatrics, then a master’s is a must. Besides having one of the highest salaries on our list, nurses are also in extremely high demand. So much so that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the profession will experience a 45% growth over the next eight years.
7. Bioethics/Medical Ethics
- Average debt: $36,408
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $76,534
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 6.3%
Bioethics is an interdisciplinary field that combines combines tenets of medicine, law, philosophy and sociology. The goal is to train people to, for example, advise on the design of clinical trials to ensure they're ethical. Day-to-day tasks include heavy research, interviewing and writing. Although it's a relatively small field, it is a growing profession. You’ll be able to work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, universities and government agencies.
- Average debt: $31,273
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $60,140
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 6.6%
There’s a longstanding (and maybe now, cliched) line of jokes about accountants being boring. But with solid career prospects and above-average salaries, maybe it’s the accountants who are getting the last laugh. A master’s degree in the field can prep you to become a CPA, as well as the lesser-known certified management accountant. You can even work in fields that sound the opposite of boring, like forensic accounting or fraud examination.
9. Business Administration and Business/Commerce
- Average debt: $38,673 - $38,731
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $69,384 - $77,164
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 6.6% - 7.2%
If you’re looking for a degree that’s flexible and can help you set foot in almost any industry — look no further. With a master’s degree in business administration or business and commerce, which we’ve combined into a single entry here, you can specialize in multiple areas, including marketing, supply chain management and finance. You can also work in fields as wide-ranging as health care or fashion. With so many paths to choose from, it should be no surprise that business is one of the most common graduate degree programs.
10. Computer Sciences and Information Technology Administration Management
- Average debt: $41,597 - $50,318
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $77,636 - $84,437
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 7% - 7.4%
A greater emphasis on cloud computing, data collection and storage, and information security is going to drive serious demand for people with training in this area. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that job openings for computer science and IT management, which we've combined into a single listing here, will grow by 11% over the next decade, far above the average pace. The jobs will pay well, too: The National Association of Colleges and Employers places computer science graduates among the nation’s top earners.
11. Management Information Systems and Services
- Average debt: $40,352
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $73,138
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 7%
Not to be confused with our 9th or 10th entries on the list, this degree is an interdisciplinary program that combines the principles of both 9 and 10 (that is, computer science with business and management). Graduates can get jobs in industries like accounting, finance, real estate, information technology and finance. Common job titles for this degree include senior technical business analyst, network administrator and IT infrastructure manager.
12. Homeland Security
- Average debt: $37,401
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $64,721
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 7.5%
Are you a logistics wizard? Are you always ready to step up when others need it? Do you enjoy working under pressure and in an ever-changing environment? If you answered yes to all of the following, a degree in homeland security might interest you. The program preps students for the careers you'd expect: special agent, intelligence analyst and emergency disaster manager. But there's also some more unexpected career paths, like working for the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is the agency responsible for protecting our native species.
13. Medical Illustration and Informatics
- Average debt: $42,379
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $74,903
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 7.5%
If you love both science and doodling, then let us introduce you to a field you may have never heard of: medical illustration. Medical illustrators are (among other things) the ones responsible for creating those detailed sketches you grew up seeing in science textbooks (flashbacks to the digestive system, anyone?). There’s not a specific major required to enter this program, but you must have a few science courses under your belt, plus an art portfolio. Medical illustrators can work in pharmaceuticals, publishing companies, and universities, and they can earn salaries as high as $173,000, according to the Association of Medical Illustrators.
14. Instructional Media Design
- Average debt: $30,520
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $52,279
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 7.5%
The pandemic sent online education zooming (pun intended), but demand for instructional designers with a deep understand of online learning will persist even after in-person schooling returns. This program combines graphic design, technology and teaching principles to improve the way others learn. Teaching experience is often a pre-requisite for this degree, and after you graduate, you’ll be able to work as a distance education specialist, course design manager and instructional design coordinator.
15. Educational Administration and Supervision
- Average debt: $31,369
- Average salary within two years of leaving school: $53,729
- Average monthly debt-to-income ratio: 7.7%
In the unlikely event that your childhood hero was your school’s principal, this program is for you. As an educational administration major, you’ll learn about education law, education budgeting and finance, strategic leadership, and staff management — in short, everything you need to run a school. To apply, you must have a state-issued teacher license, and in most cases, you’ll have to complete several internship or practicum hours to get your degree.
Methodology: How We Chose the Programs with the Best Debt-to-Income Ratio
To compile our list, we pulled statistics from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Specifically, we accessed the Field of Study database on January 14, 2021. This dataset offers information on the students’ field of study, median student loan debt and estimated monthly payments, plus earnings within the first two years after leaving school.
We narrowed down the data to look only at master’s degree programs. (We did not include graduate-level professional degrees, such as law.) The government does not publish data from programs that are too small to protect participants’ privacy. Removing those instances from the dataset cut out nearly 70% of the colleges with at least one master’s degree. That left us with a list of 226 programs at some 1,500 colleges. We further narrowed the list of programs we considered by removing any that was offered at less than 15 institutions. The final list we considered had 74 master’s degree programs.
We calculated the median earnings using the salaries reported in the College Scorecard from participants one year and two years after leaving the program. We then divided the annual median earnings by 12 to get a gross monthly income. From there, we calculated the monthly debt-to-income ratio by dividing the median monthly loan payments by the median monthly gross income.
Note that the median monthly loan payment amounts are reported in the College Scorecard and are based on the standard 10-year repayment plan, so our debt-to-income ratios will not be accurate for borrowers who are enrolled in other repayment plans. (Roughly 30% of federal borrowers are enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan, for example.) The Scorecard data also only includes loan debt taken out for the degree in question, so our analysis does not take into consideration undergraduate debt.
In the final list, we filtered out any programs where the average salary was below $51,148, which is the average salary of a U.S. worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We ordered the list based on the programs with the lowest debt-to-income ratio.
A few notes on the limitations of our data and our analysis: The College Scorecard only includes information for students who received federal financial aid of some kind, including student loans. That means programs where few students borrow may not have representative data. Likewise, we did not want to highlight master’s degrees based on information from only a handful of colleges, hence our requirement that a program must have data from at least 15 colleges to be included. For both of those reasons, there may be (and in fact, likely are) some lucrative programs missing from our list simply because we did not have enough data to evaluate them.