Are Costly Professional Degrees Really Worth It?

Young and determined black student studying at night at home, with a help of a laptop computer.
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In a competitive job market and an unpredictable economy, more and more people are going back to school to get professional degrees, eyeing careers that they can’t enter with a bachelor’s degree alone. By and large these professional degrees are not cheap — and they can take a lot of time — especially if you’re looking to become a doctor of medicine or a veterinarian.

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But the common conceit behind pursuing these pricey and time consuming degrees is that they’re worth it because they pay off in the long run, by leading to high paying jobs

But is the financial trek to that coveted lucrative career always worth it? 

It’s actually a more complex question than one might imagine, and truly depends on how much one is willing to sacrifice while banking on the hopes of a high-paying job. 

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Be Very Wary About Taking Out a Loan

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“If you’re considering pursuing a professional career that requires six-figure student loan debt, you absolutely should tread cautiously before enrolling in an expensive program,” said Andrew Pentis, certified student loan counselor and debt expert at Student Loan Hero. “Confirm that the median wage for your desired position will, in fact, help you repay the debt you have to incur for your degree.” 

To do this, Pentis recommends sifting through the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ trove of wage data, broken down by job, field or industry. 

“Once you know your projected postgraduate income, you can start to estimate whether your student loan repayment would be realistically affordable,” Pentis said. “You can do that by using a student loan repayment calculator to estimate monthly payments. If you’re years away from repayment, put together an imaginary monthly budget to ensure your routine paycheck would help you cover your monthly loan dues.”

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Do Your Homework and Be Realistic About the Likely Payoff

“The average nationwide salary for a specific field isn’t that helpful,” said Linda Abraham, founder and CEO of Accepted. “However, salary data for your school’s grads, in the sub-specialty or field you want to go into, and for the region in which you want to live can be extremely useful.”

Most professional schools have data on their graduates and typical salaries in different fields, Abraham noted. “Research that data so that you can make realistic estimates of your anticipated return on this major investment in your education and professional future,” she said. 

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If You Get a Professional Degree, You’ll Have Nice Loan Repayment Options

“One pro of pursuing a professional degree with the help of student loans is that high-income or highly-skilled professionals have an easier time accessing key repayment resources,” Pentis said. “If you’re a doctor with a six-figure debt and a six-figure salary, for example, you’ll have an easier time qualifying for student loan refinancing. Through refinancing, you could nab a lower interest rate and shorter repayment term, to shave potentially thousands of dollars of accruing interest off your loan repayment.”

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Another helpful strategy is to apply for state and employer-based loan repayment assistance programs

“If you work in healthcare, for example, and are willing to move to an underserved area for a couple of years, you could get some or all of your education debt paid off while gaining valuable professional experience at the beginning of your career,” Pentis said. “Alternatively, if you work in an in-demand field, you could negotiate a signing bonus or student loan repayment aid at the start of a new position. A lump sum payment toward your debt could go a long way toward zeroing your balance well ahead of schedule.”

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Prepare For the Cost of a Professional Degree With a 529 Plan

If you’re set on pursuing a professional degree, get prepped to invest in yourself. 

“One of the best ways to assure that an investment in higher education pays off is to prepare in advance for the cost of it and to avoid or minimize significant student loan debt,” said Patricia Roberts, author and COO, Gift of College Inc

One of the best ways to prepare for the cost of professional degrees is with tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans. 

“What’s great about 529 plans is that they can be used for a wide range of educational pursuits, including professional degrees, and these plans make it easy to invite others to contribute for birthdays, holidays and other special occasions,” Roberts said. “Even small contributions in lieu of more traditional gifts can add up over time. In addition to the favorable tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals associated with 529 plans, over 30 states offer a state tax deduction or credit for those who open and contribute to these accounts. Less tax can mean more savings for educational pursuits.”

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Seek Cheaper Routes, If Possible

“Those considering any education path need to look at ‘pathways’ to what they want to do, (as) there may be cheaper or faster routes,” said Christie Barnes, author of “What Every Parent Needs to Know about College Admissions.” “They may be able to upskill to the full professional level while working in the career field, (which is) better than spending four to twelve years and a fortune and then trying to enter the workforce cold.”

Weigh Not Only the Costs, But the Joy of Doing What You Love

“For many of these fields and degrees, I’d say it’s less about weighing the costs of the degrees with the compensation than about doing something you love in a field that you love,” said Christian Mango, president of Financial Fitness for Life. “If you are truly passionate about a professional field you’ll excel and that will help in realizing the true value of the degree. If you’re seeking these degrees in fields you may not be passionate about, you may be less invested and may not realize the true value of the degree.”

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Ask Yourself Important Questions

Knowing whether a professional degree is right for you (or more specifically, your wallet), comes down to asking yourself key questions.

“These degrees are highly specialized so it’s important for people who pursue them to ask themselves a few questions before pursuing the time and financial investment,” said Vicki Salemi, Monster career expert. “Do I need this to secure the job I want in this field (or can I get state licensing and/or perhaps another degree or skills-based training?), will I earn substantially more money, can I realistically afford it, and what does financing look like (can I work part-time to earn an income while going to school?), is it the right program for me? Will I enjoy it?”

Instead of taking the plunge to pursue a significant investment if you’re not already on this path, Salemi recommends considering working in the industry first to see if you like it, conduct informational interviews with people who currently work in it and to do research to learn more about it.

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Last updated: Aug. 16, 2021

About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.

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