Is getting an online graduate degree worth the cost?
As the trend of upskilling continues to grow in higher education and professional development circles alike, an online graduate program can help you stay competitive and even propel your career forward. However, it’s important to understand what earning a master’s will require of you. And you should calculate your return on this investment.
First, determine the skills employers are looking for
According to research from Deloitte and the World Economic Forum, 90% of organizations are redesigning job roles. This is affecting professionals who need to build skills in different, new areas. As the responsibilities attached to job roles shift across industries, more than half (54%) of all current employees will need considerable upskilling within the next three years.
An online graduate degree can indeed help you upskill, but it also allows you to sharpen different soft skills you may need throughout your career.
Skills like professionalism, interpersonal skills, leadership, project management, and other key soft skills are difficult to teach. However, these are capabilities that students and working professionals can build through an online graduate program as they work with peers and instructors. You should consider the whole of your learning experience now that 77% of employers noted that these soft skills are every bit as important as hard skills in the professional workplace.
In the current global economic landscape, having the right skills to land a successful career is more imperative than ever.
Let’s look at what builds a degree’s ROI
One of the most important elements you should consider with an online graduate program is its curriculum and how what you learn can contribute to your career prospects.
Specialization beyond a bachelor’s degree
A bachelor’s degree provides broad experience and exposure to a range of different concepts. While these foundational concepts are valuable, many professionals pursue a graduate degree to build upon their baseline.
The ROI of developing more specialized skills means you can pursue the exact career path that aligns with your goals and passions. In fact, many graduate degree programs include curricula that help put students on a path for specific careers and equip them with qualifications that employers in that field are looking for.
Experiential learning opportunities
In addition to building skills through graduate-level coursework, students also have the opportunity to bolster their capabilities in real-world, professional settings through experiential learning.
Experiential learning can take many forms, including volunteering, fieldwork, internships, service learning, study abroad programs, and more.
The variety of opportunities in these experiential learning programs enables you to not only learn the types of soft skills you’ll need in a professional setting, but also to network with professionals in your future field.
Advanced careers with higher earning power
One of the biggest advantages of an online master’s degree program is the fact that graduates qualify for more advanced career roles beyond entry-level opportunities. The more complex and demanding nature of these professional positions usually translates into higher salaries.
In fact, U.S. Census Bureau data showed that the average annual income for those with a bachelor’s degree was $65,374 as of 2018. Professionals with a master’s degree earned significantly more, reporting average annual earnings of $80,223. Similarly, those holding doctoral degrees achieved an even higher average income of $102,315.
Is a master’s degree affordable?
Participating in higher education naturally comes with costs, but being qualified for advanced employment opportunities after graduation provides you with a strong return on your investment.
Overall, earning a graduate-level degree can help you qualify for more advanced and management-level roles, providing you with a competitive advantage in the talent pool.
In fact, some employers may not even consider candidates for management and higher-level roles unless they hold a graduate degree.
It’s important to balance the costs of an online graduate degree program with your ability to repay any debt as soon as possible. For this consideration, it may be helpful for you to calculate the return your degree can provide in comparison to the costs of the program, as well as other factors.
Tools to help calculate cost versus return on investment
Online resource The Measure of a Plan provides a calculator to help you with these projections. It includes variables such as your current income and living expenses measured against your projected post-graduation income. In addition, the calculator also requires you to factor in all the costs associated with your degree program, like the cost of tuition, the number of years to complete your degree, expenses during schooling, and costs associated with student loan interest and repayment.
To calculate your potential future salary, you can use resources like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and its Occupational Outlook Handbook, as well as data related to wages by area and occupation. These sources will provide you with an accurate look at salary expectations.
Through these calculations, you can better consider the cost of the degree and understand how long it might take to pay off the investment. The online resource also provides a graph charting students’ net worth over time, comparing their baseline numbers with their projected earnings after graduation.
It’s also key to keep in mind the higher earning power that a master’s degree can provide. According to the Social Security Administration, men who hold a graduate degree earn approximately $1.5 million more over their lifetime compared to male high school graduates; women who complete graduate-level studies earn about $1.1 million more during their life than female high school graduates.
Where you study can impact tuition
One important piece to note when it comes to cost is that even with online programs, there could be varying costs depending on your location. This typically relates to price differences for students living in the same state as the college or university as opposed to those who live out of state. While this may not be the case for every institution, selecting a school in your home state could lower the cost of your education.
Additional costs to consider
Beyond just the annual tuition, you should also think about related costs that you may incur to support your online learning. This might include:
Technology costs, including a laptop or desktop computer, internet access, necessary software programs, and other essentials like headphones and a webcam
Supplemental materials, including fees for digital textbook access or other resources you’ll need to complete your assignments
Institution or program fees, including those related to the initial application, distance learning, and credit transfer fees
Possible decreased income, including how much you may lose in annual earnings by instead devoting time to higher education as opposed to paid work
Tips for reducing program costs
While the cost of a graduate degree might include more considerations and factors than you might expect, there are some options to help you offset the cost of higher education.
Federal financial assistance
One of the first avenues that you can look into is federal financial aid that’s available by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This brochure provides more information about the types and availability of federal student aid specifically for graduate students, including direct loans, federal grants, work/study programs, and more. To qualify, applicants must demonstrate financial need, be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, and attend an eligible higher education institution.
This checklist from StudentAid.gov provides step-by-step instructions for graduate students to apply for federal financial aid.
Scholarships and fellowships
As you continue to evaluate your financial aid options, you should also look into opportunities for scholarships and fellowships that align with your educational goals. ThoughtCo. contributor McKenzie Perkins confirmed that even students without impeccable GPAs can qualify for a range of scholarships and fellowships that could partially or completely cover the cost of their annual tuition.
Two examples include:
The Harry S. Truman Scholarship, which provides $30,000 for graduate students pursuing public service programs and careers.
The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which offers a $34,000 stipend and $12,000 allowance annually for up to three years. This fellowship is specifically for students pursuing programs related to research in science, mathematics, engineering, or technology.
Some scholarships and fellowships may be specific to the institution you attend, and nearly all of these programs come with certain requirements for applicants. When looking through your options, remember that even a small scholarship can be beneficial in reducing the overall cost of a graduate school degree.
Employment during higher education
Thanks to the flexible nature of online graduate school programs, many students find that they have more time for outside obligations and opportunities, like maintaining employment during their studies.
In fact, around 70% of all full-time students hold down a job during their educational pursuits, and about 40% of these individuals work full time. However, the typical student works about 15-35 hours per week as they pursue higher education.
Holding employment while studying can be very beneficial, particularly if this work is in the same field as your studies. Not only does this offer you the opportunity to leverage the skills you’ve learned in your program in real-world working settings, but you can also continue to network with your peers and create lasting connections that may help foster a successful career after graduation.
Employer tuition reimbursement
Many employers now offer tuition reimbursement programs for their staff members to help offset the cost of higher education. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s Employee Benefits Survey, 49% of respondents noted that their organization offers educational assistance specifically for graduate studies.
These reimbursement programs typically work in one of two ways: Either the employer provides a contribution upfront for the cost of the degree program or the student pays and the business reimburses them later. Tuition assistance programs like these help employees develop their skill sets while also helping businesses attract and retain top talent through an attractive benefits package. However, only about 10% of workers at companies offering tuition reimbursement take advantage of the program annually.
So, is college worth the investment?
While it’s important to consider the overall cost of the degree program — as well as associated technology costs and learning fees — these programs support students’ goals with robust curricula that strongly contribute to the overall ROI of the degree. Don’t underestimate the numerous ways to help offset these costs through financial aid, scholarships, and other opportunities.
Once you complete your online graduate degree program, you’ll be in a position to pursue higher paying, more advanced career roles. This will in turn bolster the return on investment you made in your education, and enable you to earn more over the course of your lifetime.
As the world’s learning company, we proudly partner with universities to offer a suite of online graduate degrees. Whatever your career goals are, we have a path for you.