Are Graduate Degrees Actually Worth It?
We’re in the middle of a student loan debt crisis. This is probably not news to anyone, especially anyone who’s graduated in the last ten or so years. Roughly 70% of college students borrow money in order to attend school. In fact, in terms of consumer debt, student loans are second behind mortgages. That’s a lot of debt.
It’s no wonder, given the trillion dollar national student loan debt, that many students don’t even consider pursuing a graduate degree.
However, some still do.
According to The Student Loan Report, about 40 percent of the total student loan debt was used to finance graduate and professional degrees. Some of this is probably because of the astronomical cost of graduate degrees. But also, scholarships and aid are much harder to come by at the graduate level.
So given all the debt, are graduate degrees actually worth the cost? Here’s our story.
Well, technically, it’s my husband’s story.
My husband was pursuing his PharmD when we met in undergrad. Through this program, he’d go to 6 years of school in an undergrad/graduate hybrid and leave with one fewer year of school and one less year of debt, to become a Pharmacist.
There was one glaring problem with this program: he didn’t like Pharmacy. He realized the one real draw to the program was the nice salary he’d receive out of school, but he discovered early on that it wasn’t his passion. It didn’t take but two semesters before he knew he had to pivot.
He instead finished his undergraduate education with a Health Sciences degree, knowing it gave him the foundation for some graduate program in the healthcare field. But that was the catch: in order to pursue anything in health care, he knew he needed to continue his education.
It took a bit of research, job shadowing, and talking with connections before he discovered physical therapy, but once he did, he was all in. He applied to physical therapy school in his senior year of undergrad, not thinking too much about the costs at the time.
After much prayer and patience, he was accepted into a physical therapy program a month after we graduated college. Because it was last minute, he had to make the quick decision on yes or no within a few days of receiving the acceptance letter for a program starting in just a few weeks. We didn’t discuss it really; he just did it. We both knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t forgo.
The program he went into was similar to other Doctor of Physical Therapy programs, with two years of intensive courses and a year of unpaid rotations. He learned a bunch, made some great connections, and realized he loved everything about physical therapy.
How Much Debt Did We Go Into?
He left school with about $70,000 in graduate student loan debt. Added to his $35,000 of undergraduate debt that had further accumulated about $10,000 in interest, and he left graduate school with a total of $115,000 in student loans. Added to my $30,000 in student loans from undergrad, that’s six figures of student loan debt. Make. Me. Vomit.
And, those loans were only for education. Because I was working the entire time he attended grad school, we took out no loans for food, housing, books, supplies, fees, or memberships. That $70,000 was only his tuition. We’re really blessed things worked out this way, because every classmate of his that needed loans for living expenses left school with north of $100,000, easily. All things considered, our situation saved us at least $30,000.
But, Eryn, He Gets Paid Well. You can Pay That off Really Quickly.
Actually, not really. When he graduated, the average starting salary for a Physical Therapist out of school was right around $60,000. Ouch.
Sure, $60,000 is a wonderful salary. When you have double that in loans, it doesn’t feel so wonderful anymore. I remember reading somewhere that you shouldn’t leave college with any more than what you’ll make in your first year out of school. For graduate degrees, that’s likely impossible for many.
But, because we live a frugal lifestyle, we are definitely on track to pay down all our debt early. We estimate right now we will pay off his loans about two years early. (I know, that’s not earth-shattering). Assuming other things go well over the next few years, they’ll probably be paid off sooner.
We also try to find extra ways to make some extra money here and there when we have time. Read our blog on 8 ways to make money with little effort to see how we’ll make an extra $1,000 each year by doing small things.
Didn’t He Ever Consider The Cost Before Going Into all that Debt?
The short answer, kind of. We naively jumped right into the program, seeing the yearly tuition amount, and shrugging. Because we knew it was a few years out, we didn’t do much research on salaries right away. We simply assumed that since he was getting his doctorate, he’d make really good money. In our heads, he’d pay off all his loans in a few short years out of college.
However, once the program neared its end and we researched salaries, we again shrugged. $60,000 was double my entry-level salary out of college so we knew we could make it work. We weren’t exactly upset about tripling our income overnight.
If we could survive on only my salary, we knew no matter what he made, we would make it work.
Was it Worth it?
In our case, absolutely. 100%. Yes.
I’m not going to pretend I am okay with all the debt. It eats away at me daily. I get a pit in my stomach every time a loan payment comes out. I don’t like knowing the minimum payment on his loans is more than our mortgage right now.
The broken education system that put him in all this debt is also incredibly frustrating. I could probably rant on this all day, but higher education as a whole is due for a huge shift.
I don’t like that many people in healthcare and service industries have to go into so much debt just to work in their respective fields. These are the very industries, often thankless, that keep many communities running smoothly.
Honestly, I don’t like that anyone who wants to pursue higher education will likely start out a career from behind, no matter the degree.
But also, I’m so incredibly happy my husband followed his dreams. Pharmacy school would have meant about $40,000 less in debt and about a $40,000 increase in yearly salary. But he would have hated it. He toyed around with the idea of staying in the PharmD program initially, but after much consideration, it wasn’t worth it. No amount of money is worth doing a job you don’t like.
I always think it’s more important to do something that makes you feel passionate and excited to start each day than it is to make any money doing it.
I love that my husband is in his element with his profession and that he gets excited when he talks about some patient he “fixed”. He’s meant to be a physical therapist. It’s worth every single dollar we’ve paid (and have yet to pay!)
Given the Option to do it over, Would he get a Graduate Degree Again?
In a heartbeat. He wouldn’t have considered anything else.
My husband believes God put him on this earth to be a physical therapist. Given that, these loans were inevitable. Sure, he could have tried graduating a year early from undergrad, but it still only took him four years, even with a total shift in major of study.
His degree is worth us delaying a family and delaying other “adult” decisions like purchasing vehicles and buying a house.
It’s worth us barely making it for the first few years of our marriage when we counted every penny; Even when we argued once about the $10 he paid to be in a semester of intramurals. (Side note: I’m cheap. Not just frugal. Cheap.)
Had it been another profession requiring less education, I would have been in full support of it, too. Because, honestly, it’s not about the amount of money he makes. It’s never been about that.
I want our kids to see parents who wake up each morning, loving what they do and doing their best every single day.
I like to think of it this way: when we’re old and gray and think about our lives, we’re going to be so much happier knowing we followed our dreams than we would ever have been simply living to be wealthy.