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Are Master's College Degrees Worth the Student Loan Debt?

Written by: Kristy Welsh

Last Updated: August 1, 2017

Let's get the obvious out of the way first — any bachelor's degree is better than none. A high school graduates earns 67 percent of what a college graduate will earn. The tougher question, and the one that will be addressed here, is it worth going on to pursue an advanced degree? Though conventional wisdom holds that a master's degree will equate to a higher salary, that is not always the case.

On average, those with master's degrees earn more than $72,000 a year — about $20,000 more than an undergrad but it is degree specific. For instance, if you go back to school for a master's in meteorology, it will only earn you an average of 1 percent more than you were making with your undergrad degree. That said, a master's degree in health and medical preparatory programs could garner you a 190 percent salary increase after graduation.

If you are considering going back to school for your master's, peruse the following list of top-earning degrees and see if anything catches your eye. They are listed in order of return on the investment, including a percentage of how much more you can expect your salary to increase after graduation. This is information based on an analysis of census data collected by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, as outlined by Loans.org.

Master's Degrees Worth the Debt

  1. Health and Medical Preparatory Programs, 190 percent salary increase
  2. Social Sciences, 134 percent salary increase
  3. Zoology, 123 percent salary increase
  4. Molecular Biology, 115 percent salary increase
  5. Public Policy, 107 percent salary increase
  6. Biology, 106 percent salary increase
  7. Biochemical Sciences, 101 percent salary increase
  8. Chemistry, 93 percent salary increase
  9. Pre-Law, 81 percent salary increase
  10. Physiology, 78 percent salary increase

Master's Degrees NOT Worth the Debt

  1. Meteorology, 1 percent salary increase
  2. Studio Arts, 3 percent salary increase
  3. Petroleum Engineering, 7 percent salary increase
  4. Oceanography, 11 percent salary increase
  5. Mass Media, 11 percent salary increase
  6. Advertising/Public Relations, 12 percent salary increase
  7. Pharmaceutical Sciences, 13 percent salary increase
  8. Forestry, 15 percent salary increase
  9. Computer Engineering, 16 percent salary increase
  10. Miscellaneous Education, 16 percent salary increase

If you do not see your area of interest listed above, here are some steps you can take to determine if the degree you have in mind is worth the debt:

  • Find out how much graduates with this particular degree usually make their first year.
  • Find out how much it will cost you to complete the degree program.
  • To complete the degree program, determine if you only need to borrow as much money as you will earn your first year after graduation. This is key, as most student loan payment programs last 10 years. This means you will need to set aside 10 percent of your yearly income to pay off the loans. If you borrow more, you could run into trouble, as it will be tough to put more than 10 percent of your income toward paying off student loan debt. This is precisely what, unfortunately, leads to so many graduates going into student loan default.

All of that said, if you have your heart set on a graduate degree program that has a very little return on your investment, go for it. Just find a way to fund tuition in other ways, be it scholarships or grants. But do your best to follow the 10 percent rule — again, only take out as much student loan debt as you can pay off within 10 years, i.e., the amount you expect to earn your first year after graduation.