September 24 2011
It's always hard to transition from college to the real world, but today's new grads have some particularly tough options. Few find work that matches their field of study and qualification level. That leaves minimum-wage job possibilities, such as waiting tables or nannying. Those are hardly ideal for career development, or for paying the bills, especially if student loans are in the equation. There's one more popular option in today's bad job market: Hide out in graduate school until the economy recovers.
Yet grads should be careful before signing up for another year, or several years, of school. Ill-conceived education plans could put them in a worse, rather than better, position after their next graduation.
Clearly, certain graduate degrees are a good investment. ObamaCare aside, the predicted shortage of physicians in our country makes medical school a near certain winner (for those who have the stamina to complete the rigorous four-year program). But the M.D. is perhaps the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the value of a graduate degree, because the market forces of supply (low) and demand (high) make this skill set a valuable one.
But some graduate degrees actually cost far more than they are worth in terms of increased future earnings. Universities are still happy to sell them, and the federal government (which also ignores economic realities) is happy to now be the sole provider of student loans, encouraging young people to pursue more degrees and take on more debt. Yet students should beware: You may squander time and money, then find that adding a master's to your resume doesn't lead to better employment options.
Instead of critically weighing the value of more education, many young people rush to grad school, and often simply as a hideout from poor employment prospects. Enrollment in post-baccalaureate programs in the U.S. has increased by more than 700,000 since 2000, a 32% increase (compared with a 297,000-student, or 16%, increase between 1990 and 2000). Has our economy really changed enough over the past 10 years to demand that many more workers with higher degrees? Probably not. In general, young people are applauded for focusing on education. Yet the costs of graduate school are great. There's the actual tuition cost to consider, which varies greatly by degree and school, but often ends up totaling tens of thousands of dollars. Yet there are also the opportunity costs of delaying earning potential, not contributing to retirement, and not building a professional network.
Unfortunately, some panicked young people aren't thinking through this cost-benefit analysis, and are heading into grad programs for the wrong reasons. For many, the decision is not about delayed gratification-investing now in education with the promise of higher future pay-but about instant gratification. They want to avoid a less-than-awesome first job and enjoy the collegiate lifestyle for a couple more years.
One can hardly blame young adults. After all, they are embracing a model that's been taught to them by their elders. They've watched their parents' generation dig themselves into personal debt, buying super-sized houses and piling on credit cards to buy things they can't afford. They've watched our federal government claim to "invest" in a variety of politically favored projects, while punting the payment of those bills to the next generation. It seems that our entire culture operates under an instant-gratification system, giving little thought to the long-term consequences of overspending, or the need for having a strategy for paying off debts.
Instead of following the bad examples of unwise big spenders, students should take care to make prudent decisions about their education and their careers. Investing in education isn't always an investment worth making. Careful analysis should be done before taking on more debt for a degree that may never pay off. Right now, grad school may seem like more fun than waiting tables, but living within your means today may be the best path to a better tomorrow.