If you’re academic by nature, going to graduate school might feel like the next logical step after college or once you have been in the workforce for a few years. And you’re not alone — more than a third of those with bachelor’s degrees had an advanced degree in 2015, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.
Regardless of whether or not you need an advanced degree for career success, your first step should be understanding how you’ll pay for your continued education. The average annual cost of tuition and fees at postsecondary institutions was $18,947 in 2017-2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — and that can vary widely by program.
Here are the financial questions to ask yourself when deciding whether to pursue grad school.
Will a graduate degree help you achieve your goals?
One of the primary reasons students attend grad school is to increase their earnings over time. Potentially losing out on full-time wages while in school could be worth the stress now, if you’re able to take on more responsibility, be happier and procure a higher salary when you graduate.
But that makes it important to understand how a specific graduate degree could impact your earnings in the future. Check the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and search by occupation to see how much you’ll earn in various roles, and how much education you’ll need to get hired.
You can also attend networking events run by professional organizations in your industry, or reach out to your college’s alumni network, to explore whether you need a graduate degree to move up. In some cases, you might find that another degree isn’t necessary — and that switching roles in your company or industry, after receiving on-the-job training, might be a better choice to help you achieve your goals.
What is your timeline?
Quitting your current job to go back to school full-time isn’t your only option. If you’re concerned about taking on debt for grad school, seek out a part-time graduate program that lets you keep working. A flexible program that’s either all or partially online is also worth looking into, since it could help you juggle work and family responsibilities by letting you do coursework from home.
Attending school part-time might mean taking longer to complete your degree, though, and it could also disqualify you from certain scholarships. Discuss your options with the financial aid office at the schools you’re considering so you understand how enrolling part-time will affect how much you’ll pay overall.
Will you need to take out any loans?
When seeking out student loans, it’s generally best to borrow the maximum in federal loans that you can before turning to private loans. That’s because federal loans come with unique benefits, like forgiveness if you work in a public service field and more generous payment postponement options.
But if you’re a potential graduate student with excellent credit and income, you may be able to get a private student loan at a more competitive interest rate. It’s important to know what to look for when comparing your options and take note of the federal benefits you’d lose by going private. Understand all the private loan terms you’re signing up for, including when your payments come due and whether your interest rates will be fixed or variable, meaning they can change over time.
Does your employer offer any assistance?
Almost half of employers provide graduate tuition assistance to employees, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Find out if your current employer offers this benefit, and if there are any restrictions: Must you have worked for the company for a certain amount of time, study certain subjects or pay up-front before getting reimbursed?
Use this information to decide whether it’s worthwhile to stay at your current job and take classes part-time. Check if your employer has a partnership with any local colleges that provide affordable classes. Also consider whether your employer will provide assistance for non-degree-granting certificate programs. They might help you move into a better-paying role while costing less and taking a shorter time to complete.
What will your bill be upon completion?
If you foresee having to take out student loans to afford graduate school, first evaluate how much you’ll pay per month toward loans after graduating. Use a student loan repayment calculator, like the one offered by the U.S. Department of Education, so you’re not surprised by how much your loan bills take from your new, higher salary.
Also remember that if you don’t make payments toward undergrad loans while you’re in grad school, those loans will accrue interest (unless they’re subsidized federal student loans). That means you’ll have a higher balance to pay back after grad school ends. Consider making interest-only payments toward existing loans while in grad school to limit that impact.
Knowing whether graduate school is right for you requires digging into the financial impact of getting another degree. But taking the time to consider where to go, how to fund it and how the degree will affect your future will help make the experience as valuable as possible.