In today’s labor market, a college degree is becoming increasingly necessary. In order to be considered for hire, many companies require an associate's or bachelor’s degree at a minimum.
Naturally, this has spurred millions of high school graduates to move on to college. In fact, college enrollment rose by 21 percent from 1994 to 2004. From 2004 to 2014, enrollment rose by another 17 percent. By 2014, there were 20.2 million students in college; by 2018, it’s projected that number will rise to 21.4 million.
Such a boost in enrollment actually poses a problem. It dilutes the value of an undergraduate degree, and companies start to prefer more advanced graduate and professional degrees.
This leads to more schooling and, in turn, exacerbates another big problem: student loan debt.
An undergraduate program is expensive, but signing up graduate school can really add to the total cost of education. On average, the student debt toll for an undergraduate is $37,172, compared to about $100,000 or more for graduate students.
It goes without saying that college is expensive, and if you’re going for more than four years, then you’re in for a much larger share of student loan debt. However, it should be worth it...right?
If you obtain a higher degree, then you supposedly make more money. This makes it much easier to afford those high student loan payments. At least that's what they say.
We weren’t so sure for ourselves, so we decided to actually ask graduate degree-holders whether their education was worth the student debt.
Was it a good investment? Did they make as much as they expected? Are they satisfied with their decisions to attend grad school?
We asked all these questions and more. Read on to find out what graduate students think about their degrees, student debt, and the decisions they've made.
Below you will find our analysis of the most interesting results. To see the full results of the study, click here.
Interesting Finds & Discussion
We asked our respondents for their general feelings about the student loan debt they graduated with as well as the salaries they were earning. Here are a few interesting finds.
When asked about their student debt expectations, 53.6 percent of respondents, did not expect to graduate with the amount of student loan debt that they did.
This wasn’t too surprising. Plenty of college students, both undergraduate and graduate, leave school with student loan debt that exceeds their expectations. Oftentimes, it’s their first experience with debt which will almost always come as a surprise; it isn’t too hard to think that a graduate student would simply put student debt on the back burner to focus on classes.
With that being said, many critics claim that this element of surprise is a problem created by the students themselves, who allegedly fail to consider the full cost of college. We wanted to see if this accusation rang true for graduate students, so we asked them what impacted their decisions to attend graduate school. See the results in the graph below:
Looking at these results, you could say there is a pretty even spread between several important considerations for attending college. 22.2 percent of people considered the program's reputation a major influence in deciding where to attend. If that is the major driver in decision-making, then it’s not too surprising that so many respondents didn’t expect to graduate with their student debt.
However, the second largest group of respondents still considered the cost of the program which is a good sign, despite only representing 28.3 percent of respondents. Understanding the cost of college is an important first step to dealing with your student loans. Failing to set clear expectations often results in high, unexpected debt levels by the time of graduation.
A plurality, 28.6 percent, claimed that salary was their biggest consideration, which makes plenty of sense. One of the main points of attending graduate school is to improve your resume, background, and education, hopefully leading to higher earnings down the road (arguably the whole point of any college degree).
With that in mind, we decided to ask our graduate student borrowers about their salaries since it was such a big influence in their decision to attend grad school. Were they happy with their earnings or not? The results are as follows:
At a glance, it seems that plenty of people are happy with the money they’re making. A solid 58.6 percent of respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with their earnings. However, this group is nearly matched by the other side of the equation.
26.0 percent are complacent about their salaries, which is a little disconcerting. You would assume that graduate students, who were ambitious enough to earn higher credentials with higher earnings on their mind, would not be complacent with their salaries.
Following that up, a minority of respondents (15.4 percent) with student debt were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied by their earnings.
With that in mind, we wanted to see what our respondents were earning, so we asked them to select which salary brackets they fit into. Here are the results:
We thought it was surprising that 76.2 percent of graduates with an advanced degree made less than $100,000 in salary. Many people assume that graduate degrees come with six figure salaries right off the bat, but this might be a deadly assumption that grad students make while earning their degrees which can make student loan repayment more difficult than expected.
On that note, we asked respondents to weigh their student loan debt against the perceived value of their degrees. The results were interesting:
An astounding 66 percent of respondents thought their advanced degrees were worth 50 percent or less than their student loan debt.
Conversely, 15.6 percent thought their degrees were equal to their student debt, and 18.4 percent thought their degrees were priceless.
These results hint that maybe advanced graduate degrees are not viewed as favorably as they were in the past. Looking at their feelings about salary and student debt, we thought maybe these borrowers believed their degrees simply weren't worth it.
We thought we'd delve a little further, so we asked them a big question. We found out that 43.8 percent of working graduates with student debt would give up their advanced degrees if it meant their student loans were forgiven.
This was a pretty startling discovery. An advanced degree, whether it's a doctoral, master's, or professional degree, takes a lot of time and commitment to earn. Apparently, the prospect of repaying student debt is daunting enough for some students to trade their degrees in for full student loan forgiveness.
At face value, it can be assumed that advanced degree holders are not happy with their degrees at all, given their debt levels. We think this might be due to the large group of workers earning less than $100k annually. Right out of graduation, they might be weighing their expenses and monthly payments against their starting income, which could cause a few new workers to be more pessimistic about their degrees.
Q1. Did you expect to graduate with your amount of student loan debt?
- Yes - 46.4%
- No - 53.6%
Q2. When you were considering grad school, which of these impacted your decision the most?
- The cost of the program - 28.2%
-The projected salary of my degree and field - 28.6%
-The reputation of the program - 22.2%
-The need for more advanced credentials - 12.8%
-The lack of job opportunities after undergrad - 8.20%
Q3. How would you describe your feelings about your salary?
- Very satisfied - 18.4%
- Satisfied - 40.2%
- Neutral - 26.0%
- Dissatisfied - 11.0%
- Very dissatisfied - 4.40%
Q4. Which salary bracket do you fall in?
- $0 - $50,000 - 35.4%
- $50,000 - $100,000 - 40.8%
- $100,000 - $150,000 - 15.2%
- $150,000 - $200,000 - 5.60%
- $200,000 + - 3.00%
Q5. In comparison to your student debt, what do you think your degree is worth?
- Less than 25% of my student loan debt - 27.8%
- About 50% of my student loan debt - 38.2%
- Equal to the full value of my student loan debt - 15.6%
- My degree is priceless - 18.4%
Q6. Would you give up your degree if your student loans were forgiven?
- Yes - 43.8%
- No - 56.2%
This poll was conducted through an online survey and polling company known as Pollfish. The survey targeted workers who graduated from grad school with an advanced degree; they also needed to have student loan debt from paying for their education. Only graduates from the classes of 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 were polled, so they are mostly fresh into student loan repayment.