The Higher Ed Grad School ROI: A Current Student’s Perspective

People always say, “Hindsight is 20/20,” but I don’t think I ever believed them until now. As I finish up my second of three years in grad school, I’ve continued to think about the time and resources I have invested in pursuing a master’s degree. While I don’t regret taking the past two years to learn about myself, my values, and how I can best support those around me, I can’t help but question if this was the most efficient route to get to the future I want. During my last two years in higher ed, I have met both professionals with and without graduate degrees, and I honestly don’t think there is a right answer. I choose to believe that this was the correct path for me, but I think there is value in reflecting on what is and what could have been.

Working in my graduate assistantship in residence education the last two years, it never really crossed my mind that professionals would enter higher ed without a graduate degree. Before I made the decision to get my master’s, I applied for probably ten jobs in higher ed with no success – I felt that it was completely rational for me to think that I would need a graduate degree to break into the field. This idea was only reinforced during my time in residence education, where nearly all housing professionals at my institution held master’s degrees. This ideology only continued in my Higher Education program, as my cohort functioned under the assumption that there is inherent value, even if not monetary, in holding a graduate degree. It wasn’t until I took an Economics course my second year that I began to fully realize the extent of the investment I was making.

Our first class focused on opportunity, economic, and accounting costs – all seemed simple enough. For every decision that one makes, one sacrifices the perceived value of the opportunity they are not pursuing. I’m sitting in class and thinking, “This is all great content!” until my professor begins an example about the opportunity costs and final return on investment of a student pursuing a graduate degree. Our class discusses the accounting or explicit costs associated with pursuing a postgraduate degree, including tuition, living expenses, textbooks, etc. However, when one begins to factor in economic or implicit costs of pursuing a postgraduate degree including forgone salary for two to three years, my perception of this “inherent” value was quickly challenged, and it remains that way. But I find myself asking, “What about the value of education that can’t be quantified?”

From an economic standpoint, pursuing a master’s degree was a significant investment that I chose to make, and as those of us who work in higher education know, I probably won’t be fiscally compensated in the same way I would have had I gotten an MBA or MS in Computer Science. But I think for the time being, that’s okay with me. I don’t think I would have been as successful in working with our student body had I not pursued this degree, but this isn’t necessarily the universal experience.

I also think it’s important that we acknowledge that as higher education administrators and student affairs professionals, we ask high school students to see the value in our educational experience, when the investment of an undergraduate degree is much the same. While there continues to be significant discourse around the value of pursuing a higher education degree, I think we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we do not continue to actively reflect on our other options. It’s easy to surround oneself with others who make one feel good about their decisions, but the consequences of these decisions do not disappear after one’s hooding ceremony. If I’ve learned anything the last two years in my graduate program, it’s the importance of self-reflection.

If you are thinking about or in the process of pursuing a graduate program, start thinking critically about what you are hoping to gain from the graduate experience and how much you are willing to invest – it’s different for all of us.

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