Value of graduate school degree varies by field

With such a significant financial commitment required, you'll want a reasonable assurance that the graduate school experience provides a return on investment. 

Mel Evans/AP/File
Rutgers University students cheer during the Rutgers graduation ceremonies in Piscataway, N.J. (May 15, 2016).

A lot changes when you return to school for a second degree. For many, the motivating factor is career advancement, a higher salary or both. Practicality prevails.

With such a significant commitment upfront, however, you'll want a reasonable assurance that the experience provides a return on investment. Tuition varies from field to field, and the corresponding salaries fluctuate. Let's take a look at four specific post-undergraduate pathways into popular fields.


Many consider a masters in business administration to be a graduate degree that provides a relatively fast return on investment. The skills learned are broad and always in demand. The time commitment is reasonable, and the credential holds value over the long term.

What do the hard numbers say? Bloomberg has reported an average total tuition of $44,476 for the 2012 academic year. If you're focused on one of the more selective schools, prepare to pay closer to $60,000. This tuition hike is a significant jump from The National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) data, which reported an average total price of attendance, in 2011, of $23,600.

Many students with an opportunity to attend an elite school will take it. Why? The return is ample. A 2015 Graduate Admissions Council Survey reported, “The median starting salary expected in 2015 for recent MBA graduates in the United States is US$100,000."

Sure, the costs are significant; the rewards are even more so.


Expect to pay $25,890 in total tuition if you’re an in-state student, $38,885 if you’re out of state, according to U.S. News & World Report. Meanwhile, the starting salary for a freshly minted J.D. is most likely to land in the range of $50,000 to $75,000. Graduate from a top school and you'll have a chance to land a coveted $100,000 annual salary. These higher salaries come from the private sector. Public sector respondents to the U.S. News & World Report survey didn't surpass $75,000. Consider the strategy of seeking an entry-level job at a firm and securing relationships for a smoother flight path post-graduation.


Few entering this field do so for financial gain; the job doesn’t pay well. The median annual public school teacher salary was $53,627, according to The cost of tuition will run you at least $18,000 but probably more, says the NCES. 

There are other, equally quantifiable aspects to consider. For one, job satisfaction is high. In a U.S. Department of Education study, analysts determined that the percentage of teachers reporting that they're satisfied with their jobs is consistently high. In the 2003-04, 2007-08, and 2011-12 school years, 91%, 93% and 90% of public school teachers reported satisfaction with their career, respectively. These values are slightly higher for private school teachers.


The American Student Dental Association reported that the average U.S. dental school tuition in recent history has ascended to $46,859 in total. The association also reported an average total debt of $247,227 per graduating senior. This debt is double what is was in 2001.

The debt problem is pervasive given that 75% of students will be more than $100,000 in the red upon receiving their diploma and becoming a dentist

A lower satisfaction on the job compounds this burden. A 2015 study revealed that in response to the question, "Has the experience of working in your current practice changed how you feel about dentistry” respondents are 129% more likely to say “yes, negatively.”

The Bottom Line

On a simple dollar-for-dollar measure, the MBA degree yields the greatest value. The return on investment is among the fastest, and any latent dissatisfaction can often be overcome by a career change that still utilizes the skills learned in school.

The data also indicated you can expect to earn at least 15% more in your overall lifetime income as a direct result of any graduate degree.

Over the long run, however, the satisfaction of a job is likely to be the most important factor. Each of these four aforementioned degree paths will provide a return on investment within the first few years. The best choice for the individual should be based on interests and aptitude, not strictly numbers.

This story originally appeared on ValuePenguin.

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