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Grad School During a Recession: Is It Worth It?

Enrollment in grad programs skyrocketed during the Great Recession. Should today's graduates face an uncertain job market, or seek an advanced degree?

by Gretchen Brown
July 14, 2020 | Work

Facing a dismal job market during the 2008 Great Recession, many folks chose to ride it out in higher education. 

College enrollment grew by three million between 2006 and 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But some folks who went to grad school in 2010 — the very beginning of the recession — didn't quite get their timing right. 

When they graduated in 2012, the job outlook was bleak, and the economy wasn't recovering as quickly as predicted.

One of those folks was Katie Surma. When the Hartford Courant interviewed her in May 2012, she was about to graduate with a master's degree in forensics science. But she still hadn't landed a job interview yet.

"In the Northeast, employers projected they'd hire 11,584 recent grads in May and June 2011, which would have been a 25 percent increase from 2010," the Courant wrote. 

"Instead, they hired 9,589 — a 4 percent increase."

The job market was improving. But it wasn't up to pre-recession levels, not even close. That put new grads like Surma in a tight spot.

Today, the U.S. is officially back in a recession. The national unemployment rate peaked at 14.7 percent in April 2020. Depending on who you talk to, recovery is on its way, or could still be a long way off.

It's putting folks back in the same boat. Face a stormy job market, or get that grad degree?

"An advanced degree makes the most sense when you know it is a good match for your interests, the degree you received 10, 15, or 20 years ago may not be relevant in today's job market or the degree is needed for professional or financial advancement in your chosen field," said Elizabeth Venturini, a college and career strategist

Consider the cost

In other words, grad school isn't just a place to wait out an unstable job market. It can be a calculated career move, if you're smart about it.

The first thing you should consider: Is the cost worth it?

"Going to school during a recession can be a smart move if it will allow you to increase your salary and progress more quickly," said Camilo Maldonado, a personal finance expert

"This is especially true if your company has hiring or promotion freezes."

An online school course. REWIRE PBS Living Work Grad School
Lots of graduate programs are about social interaction as much as they are about what you learn in the classroom. But COVID-19 is changing the way we do school.  |  Credit: Adobe

At the same time, grad school isn't (typically) free. The cost of a degree has skyrocketed over the past 20 years, contributing to the country's current $1.6 trillion student loan crisis.

A grad degree doesn't always guarantee you higher wages either. Do the math: When you graduate, will you be able to afford your student loan payments with the average starting salary in your desired field?

"The golden rule is that loan payments should not exceed 10 percent of after-tax earnings," Maldonado said.

Don't forget to consider your current monthly expenses. Can you still make all your payments if you're spending less time working for a paycheck and more time in the classroom?

Networking on hold

Lots of graduate programs are about social interaction as much as they are about what you learn in the classroom.

Master's programs can help you build a bigger, stronger career network than you would have with just an undergrad.

But we're not just dealing with a recession. We're also facing a global pandemic, and that's affecting the way we do school.

"Many universities, including Harvard, have decided to move all instruction online," Maldonado said. 

"If you were planning to pursue a degree in which in-person interaction is key, then it might make sense to reconsider. An elite full-time MBA program is a great example because many students and graduates (including myself) agree that social interactions and networking were one of the top value propositions of attending the school."

It's all in how you spin it

Some enter graduate programs for academic career tracks. Folks who are hoping to get hired at a university right out of a graduate program might also want to be cautious, as many universities are facing budget shortfalls and hiring freezes.

"Students who are passionate about research and want to go to graduate school should be aware that it will be very complicated for students with non-professional degrees to find research or tenure-track positions in the next two years, at the very least," said Pierre Huguet, CEO of educational consulting agency H&C Education.

But a professional degree like a JD, MD or MBA will still make you more marketable, recession or not.

"While a professional degree isn't a magic formula when it comes to finding employment, it can certainly help students, provided that they've spent enough time building their resumes by pursuing impactful activities during their education," Huguet said.

Do the research

If you're considering a graduate program at all, it's worth it to do extra digging to make sure you're not wasting your time and money.

"Go to as many graduate school open houses as you can to meet people and speak with them about graduate school," Venturini said. 

"Ask for their advice on how they manage the workload and their time. If you are going to graduate school to get into a new industry, take into consideration the amount of time it will take to get up to speed — the key players, companies, organizations, professional nuances, industry lingo."

Networking will still be important for landing a job, albeit more difficult with COVID-19 in the mix. Building a network of contacts now, and throughout your time in school, will help ensure that your time in grad school pays off.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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