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Do Advanced College Degrees Really Pay Off?

graduation . / Credit: College Graduation Image via Shutterstock

Just about every young professional has toyed with the idea of going back to graduate school. After all, an MBA or advanced degree could mean a higher salary, better prospects for advancement and the opportunity to expand education. The cost, however, is nothing to brush off – graduate degrees can cost upward of $100,000 depending on your degree and institution. In a world where almost 10 percent of adults over 25 already have one, the question remains: Is getting a graduate degree worth the cost?

As with every career or life-based question, the answer is simple: It depends.

"What matters in career growth is performance," said Tim Ferguson, who has an MBA and is vice president of global business at KeyHero. "If you can lever your MBA to enhance performance, then do it. If that's not going to help, then don't."

It's easy to reach for quantifications like average salary increase or the likelihood of a promotion when trying to justify graduate school, but experts say the real reason to pursue advanced education lies in your own goals and ideas about education.

If you want to be a surgeon or nuclear engineer, then, yes, you need to pursue graduate education. But if you've been working for a few years and are looking for a way to get ahead, or if you've just graduated and you're looking to expand your options, graduate school may not always be the best option.

If you're in an industry like business or technology, employers don't always require graduate education. What matters is your experience and what you can do for a company. Harj Taggar, CEO and co-founder of TripleByte, has worked extensively with startups as an advisor for Y Combinator. He said technology companies – especially startups – are going to analyze practical skills before education on things like business theory.

"An MBA only helps you talk about the theory of business, and I think the companies and startups don't want you to be an expert in theory," he said. "They want you to be an expert in the doing of business."

Yet there are many situations where graduate school is an ideal option for professionals working in the business or technology industries. The key, according to Ferguson, is using graduate education to supplement your career experience.

The best time to pursue a graduate education is when you have a set idea about not only your career but where your passions lie. Graduate education is for expanding the mind and learning both theoretical and practical business skills in an area that excites you. Ferguson, who received his MBA from Loyola University Chicago, said the program allowed him to pivot from something he was interested in to an area of business that was his passion.

"If you're a lifelong learner and you feel compelled that you'll be smarter, better, faster if you get an MBA, go pursue it," he said. "If you're ready to get into the workforce … and … find in two to three years your passion is starting to wane a bit, go back and get the MBA."

Thinking critically about pursuing an MBA can help illuminate a path forward for your career, as it did for Ferguson. Ferguson went back for his advanced degree after two to three years in the workforce. He knew he wanted to transition from the industrial side of business to the consumer products side. Getting his MBA allowed him to explore this new world and opened doors for him upon graduation.

Balancing the exploration of passion with a pragmatic approach to your career can be the best blend for someone considering graduate school. Scott Herness, dean of The Graduate School at Montclair State University, said those considering graduate school should strive for this balance.

"I'd advise young people considering graduate school to balance passion and pragmatism," Herness said. "When thinking about graduate school, consider not only what you love to study but how you might apply the advanced knowledge and professional skills you'll acquire to today's job market."

 By blending passion with pragmatism, you can gain a better understanding of where your career and education is headed.

Getting an advanced degree won't make or break your career. The most effective way to seek advanced education is to make sure you're considering its impact beyond just return on investment. Sure, having an MBA could mean you received a higher salary, but if it's in a field or industry that isn't for you, then it's probably not the best idea. When seeking an advanced degree, it may be best to turn inward and understand how exploring a new topic or area of business will affect your personal and professional growth.

Matt D'Angelo

Matt D'Angelo is a Staff Writer based in New York City. After graduating from James Madison University with a degree in Journalism, Matt gained experience as a copy editor and writer for newspapers and various online publications. Matt joined the team in 2017 and covers technology for Business.com and Business News Daily. Follow him on Twitter or email him.