Is a Master's Degree Worth It?

Written By: Holly Johnson

Published: 7/21/2022

Pursuing a master's degree can be well worth the investment of time and money, but the specific degree you pursue can make a huge difference. After all, the best master's programs help students pursue advanced education in industries that feature higher-than-average earnings and the best job opportunities. At the same time, research shows that some master's degrees don't typically lead to better job prospects or higher pay in the end.

Before you pursue a master's degree, you should read up on how to determine the likely return-on-investment (ROI) for your chosen program. In the meantime, take the time to compare college costs at various institutions, including the best online master's programs.

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Key Insights:

  • Many master's degrees can help students earn more money as they progress through their careers. In fact, internal data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) revealed that, by the end of 2021, individuals with a master's degree reported median weekly earnings of $1,574 while bachelor's degree holders earned $1,334 per week.
  • That said, some master's degree programs definitely pay off more than others. In fact, research published by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP) showed that some master's programs have a net ROI over $1 million. Meanwhile, 40% of master's degrees had no net value at all.
  • To find out if getting your master's degree is worth it, you'll want to research a career, with help from the BLS, O*NET Online, and CareerExplorer. You can also compare the net ROI among various master's degree programs on FREOPP.

What Is a Master's Degree?

Before we dive into the value and utility of master's degree programs, we should define what this degree is and all it entails. Generally speaking, a master's degree is an advanced degree students can pursue after they earn a bachelor's degree.

For example, students may decide to earn a Bachelor of Business Administration before moving on to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Conversely, they might decide to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) before moving on to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) in order to secure higher pay or improve their job prospects.

Bachelor's Degree vs. Masters Degree

If you're not sure whether you want to pursue a master's degree or not, you should know that you'll need to earn a bachelor's degree first. Once you complete an undergraduate degree, you can decide whether the benefits of a master's degree outweigh the costs.

The chart below shows how these two degree programs stack up side-by-side:

Bachelor's degree Master's degree
Type of degree Undergraduate Graduate
Time for completion Four years of full-time study One to three years of full-time study (after earning a bachelor's degree)
Median weekly earnings for graduates (BLS) $1,334 $1,574
Unemployment rate as of May 2022 (Federal Reserve Bank) 2.3% 1.8%

Is a Master's Degree Worth It?

According to higher education expert Robert Farrington — who earned his MBA at the beginning of his career and went on to found The College Investor — there are three main factors that can help you decide if the benefits of a master's degree are worth the time and trouble. These factors include (1) the cost of the degree, (2) who is actually paying for it, and (3) the value you will receive for it over your lifetime. That said, Farrington says this decision is still "a personal one."


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The cost of the degree is very straightforward, but students need to also take into consideration any salary loss during this time, Farrington explains. For example, will you be doing a full-time program or a part-time/flexible program where you can still work?

Meanwhile, the length of the master's degree program will also play a role in its full value. For example, master's programs that take three years of full-time study may be justified when considering higher pay or better job prospects, whereas a one-year program that can be completed during evenings or weekends could be a solid choice, even if it only leads to a modest increase in income.

Farrington also points out that some degrees bring value to the table that is separate from the potential for higher pay. For example, you may want to think about “office politics," since many advanced degrees play a role in the politics of workplace advancement.

"Are all of the people above you having advanced degrees?" he asks. "Then you may need one to compete."

Pros and Cons of Earning a Master's Degree

As you decide whether a master's degree is worth it or not, consider the following pros and cons:

Pros

Earn more money. Government data shows that median weekly earnings for graduates with a master's degree are $240 higher than pay for workers with a bachelor's degree. This disparity adds up to $12,840 in increased earnings per year, or $374,400 more in earnings over a 30-year career.

Climb the career ladder. Earning a master's degree positions you to qualify for a larger range of positions — many of which come with better benefits and perks.

Gain the competitive edge. In some industries, you'll only get promoted if you have the same level or a higher level of education than your peers.

Cons

Master's degrees can be expensive. "Master’s degree programs typically cost much more than undergraduate degrees, so you need to do your due diligence," says Farrington.

Earning an advanced degree takes time. "You need to really assess your time to embark on a master’s degree, or look at a program that is part-time," he says. Either way, don't forget to account for the opportunity cost involved.

Some advanced degrees don't pay off in a financial sense. Choose your master's program carefully if you want your advanced degree to lead to higher earnings over the course of your career.

Master's Degrees That Don't Pay Off

Farrington says that FREOPP is an excellent place to find master's degrees that are worth it, but that the opposite is also true. In fact, you can just as easily use research from FREOPP to find master's degree programs that have almost no net value in terms of higher pay or job opportunities. Some even have a negative net value.

"In our study, we define the ROI of a graduate degree as the increase in lifetime earnings a student can expect from that degree, minus the direct and indirect costs of attending graduate school." - FREOPP

For example, research from the organization shows that only 3% of master's programs in computer science, mathematics, and engineering have a negative ROI. The same metric applies to master's degree programs in nursing as well. The following presents some examples of subjects with negative ROIs:

Master's degree programs in arts, humanities and theology have a negative ROI

MBA programs have a negative ROI

Master's programs in psychology and social services have a negative ROI

Master's degree programs in education have a negative ROI

Master's Degrees That Are Worth It

Generally speaking, research shows that master's programs in computer science, engineering, and nursing tend to pay off the most. However, the school you attend also plays a role in the financial benefits of this advanced degree.

According to FREOPP, some of the best master's degree programs in terms of the future return-on-investment include the following:

Bar graph of Best Master's Degree Programs For Lifetime ROI

To find the best master's degree program in terms of ROI, you'll want to compare the cost of the degree program to the higher earnings you may be able to secure in your career.

Frequently Asked Questions About Master's Degrees

What Master's Degrees Don't Require Specific Bachelor's?


There are quite a few master's degree programs that don't require a specific bachelor's degree. Examples include an MBA or Master of Fine Arts (MFA).

What Are the Benefits of a Master's Degree?


Most students considering a master's degree program have the same important concerns. For example, will a master's degree benefit me? That really depends, but there are some notable perks you can get when you pursue certain types of advanced degrees.

Common benefits of earning a master's degree include the potential for higher earnings and better job prospects, although your results will vary depending on the advanced degree program you select. Farrington also adds that some master's degree programs can give you a "competitive edge" when it comes to promotions in the workplace.

Can You Get Financial Aid for a Second Master's Degree?


You can definitely qualify for financial aid for a first master's degree and even a second master's degree. To find out which types of financial aid you can qualify for, including federal student loans, scholarships, and grants, you'll want to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year you're in school.

That said, Farrington says many people who pursue a master's degree get help through employers via their tuition assistance programs.

"Many employers will pay some or all of your degree as long as you work for them, or sometimes commit to work for them for a period of time," he says. "This can be a great option to pay for your master’s degree."

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