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Going Back To School for a Master’s Degree During a Recession: Good or Bad Idea?

By Walecia Konrad · January 05, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Going Back To School for a Master’s Degree During a Recession: Good or Bad Idea?

With all the talk of a possible recession, you may be thinking this is a good time to get an advanced degree. You can wait out the tough times and unpredictable job market while learning new skills that put you in a better position in the future.

You’re not alone. Historically, times of economic turmoil have seen big upticks in graduate school enrollment. But is this the right move for you now?

We hope the following information will help you decide whether the cost of earning a master’s will pay off in greater career opportunities — and higher salary — down the line.

Why People Go Back To School During Recessions

Periods of decline in economic activity (aka recessions) are commonly accompanied by corporate layoffs, rising unemployment, and dwindling wage growth. Because there are fewer employment opportunities, job hunting and career advancement become more competitive. Many workers decide a return to school, often to earn a master’s degree, makes sense in a tough employment market.

Earning an advanced degree can boost your earning power in your chosen field (more on that below) or provide an opportunity to change fields. Career changers may gravitate to growing, “recession-proof” industries and fields that they are passionate about.

Who Should Get a Master’s Degree?

The answer depends on your professional and academic goals. The first level of graduate study, a master’s degree indicates a high level of knowledge in a profession or research area. It takes anywhere from one to three years of full-time study to complete a master’s. A bachelor’s degree is required to apply for a master’s program.

For academics, a master’s is usually a stepping stone to a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree. Professional master’s degrees can also be the first step toward advanced degrees required for doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers, and are a necessary part of education for those careers.

Master’s degrees can also be required or particularly helpful in education, social service, healthcare, business, and STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Recommended: What Should I Do After My Master’s Degree?

Pros of Getting a Master’s Degree in a Recession

For many people, a recession is a good time to go back to school, either full- or part-time. Here’s why.

Potential Salary Boost

In many careers, a master’s degree will command a higher salary and increase job security. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workers with graduate degrees (master’s, professional, and doctoral) have the highest earnings.

The median weekly earnings for full-time workers over 25 with a master’s degree is $1,574, compared to $1,334 for employees with a bachelor’s degree only.

Increased Job Security

Workers with graduate degrees also experience lower levels of unemployment, according to BLS data. The unemployment rate in 2021 for people with a master’s was 2.6%, compared to 3.5% for workers with bachelor’s degrees.

People who have been negatively affected by a recession — either laid off or unemployed for an extended period — often find that an advanced degree can lead to more job security and advancement. As mentioned above, recessions can also be a good time for workers in hard-hit industries to gain skills and knowledge through a master’s in a fast-growing field.

Many grad school students find that networking with other students, faculty, and alumni helps them find new opportunities, especially in a competitive job market.

Easy Access To High Quality Programs

Hundreds of high-quality MBA, MSW, engineering, and other in-demand graduate degree programs are now available online from prestigious colleges and universities. Remote learning makes these programs accessible to students anywhere in the country. Online programs often cost less than in-person learning and can offer more flexibility for students who need to continue working full- or part-time.

Cons of Getting a Master’s Degree in a Recession

Grad school isn’t right for everyone, and making this move demands careful consideration.

Costs and Potential Debt

The average cost of a master’s degree is $66,340, according to a 2021 report from the Education Data Initiative. That does not include living expenses or lost wages from taking time off work. And people with a master’s degree carry an average of $46,798 in student loan debt.

Determining whether taking on federal or private student loan debt is worth the increased earning potential or career satisfaction is an important step in your decision-making process.

Increased Competition for Admissions

You’re not the only one debating whether to ride out tough economic times by going back to grad school. That can mean increased competition for the best programs. If a degree from a particular college or university is part of your career plan, carefully consider your timing.

Missed Work Experience

If you’re considering leaving a job to attend grad school, keep in mind that you may miss valuable work experience that can put you in a better position when the recession ends. Working part-time can help pay for grad school and sometimes alleviates missed work experience, but not always. That’s because part-time employees don’t always encounter the same opportunities to gain valuable experience as full-time staffers.

Recommended: Undergraduate vs. Graduate Student Loans: How They Differ

How Much Does a Master’s Degree Cost?

Depending on the field of study and institution, master’s programs range from $12,000 to $75,000. Unlike many doctorate programs that waive tuition and fees and even offer a stipend, master’s degrees are not fully funded.

Ways To Pay for a Master’s Degree

Most students rely on a combination of savings, scholarships, grants, federal loans, private loans, and help from employers to pay for graduate school.

Federal Grants

Federal grant programs include the Pell Grant, which is generally available only to undergrads who demonstrate exceptional financial need. However, it may be possible to receive some grant funding to help you pay for graduate school. Remember, this time around you’re an independent student, and you won’t be tied to your family’s income to determine need.

Another federal grant that may be available to graduate students is the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH grant. This grant has relatively stringent requirements and is available for students pursuing a teaching career who are willing to fulfill a service obligation after graduation.

Filling out the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step to determine whether you’re eligible for federal grants.

Scholarships

The FAFSA also gives you access to many scholarships. There are scholarships offered in every field imaginable. Start your search with these online tools:

•   Graduate School Scholarship Search at Sallie Mae

•   Scholarship Search Engine at CollegeScholarship.org

•   SoFi’s State Scholarship Search

Recommended: Finding and Applying to Scholarships for Grad School

Federal Student Loans

Grad students may be offered loans as part of their financial aid offer. A loan is money you borrow and must pay back with interest. Loans made by the federal government, called federal student loans, usually have more benefits than loans from banks or other private sources.

The lifetime limit for Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized student loans is $138,500 for graduate or professional students. Of this amount, no more than $65,500 can be in subsidized loans. This includes student loans borrowed during undergraduate study.

Private Student Loans

Many students also rely on private student loans to help pay for graduate school. The maximum amount that students can borrow with a private student loan varies by lender, but can’t exceed the cost of attendance.

The “cost of attendance” is the combined total of tuition and fees, books and supplies, living expenses, transportation, and miscellaneous expenses. This estimate may also include dependent care, study-abroad, and costs related to disabilities.

The Takeaway

Pursuing a master’s degree can be a great way to enhance your skills and career opportunities. Taking advantage of a slow or troubled economic time to do so can help ensure your job security in the future. That said, it’s important to consider the tuition costs associated with a graduate degree, the potential for taking on debt, and the effects of missed earnings and opportunities if you take time off work to go back to school.

SoFi can help students manage the cost of tuition with its private student loans for grad students. SoFi private student loans offer competitive interest rates for qualified borrowers, flexible repayment plans, and no fees. SoFi makes it fast and easy to pay for a grad degree – and now, even a grad-level certificate — so you can focus on what matters the most: your education.

SoFi was named a 2023 Best Private Student Loan Company by U.S. News and World Report.

FAQ

Is grad school a good place to ride out a recession?

It can be. Recessions are usually accompanied by high unemployment and layoffs. For many people, gaining new skills and expertise in a graduate program can be a good way to make yourself recession-proof in the future.

Do more people head for grad school during a recession?

Yes, historically more people apply to and attend graduate school during a recession. The Great Recession starting in 2008 is a good example of that trend.

What are worthwhile master’s degrees to get during a recession?

Master’s degrees that give you the credentials and skills to move forward in your career can be well worth the cost through future salary increases and advancement opportunities. But pursuing a passion that will give you career satisfaction for years to come can be just as worthwhile.


Photo credit: iStock/izusek

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