With the staggering student loan crisis, grad school applicants should make cost their biggest concern when selecting a liberal arts master’s program.
Just 12% of students choose their graduate program based on price, yet more than half of them pay for school with loans, according to Sallie Mae’s “How America Pays for Graduate School” report. Total U.S. student loan debt is currently at a record high of $1.6 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.
In pursuing a less expensive master’s program, liberal arts grad students can lower their student debt, broaden their career options and have a higher quality of life. Even if a more expensive school has a prestigious name, it may not be advantageous enough to justify an increase in loans.
“For a master’s, say you’re going to be taking on $70,000 to $80,000 worth of debt,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of savingforcollege.com. “But teachers, social workers, they may have starting salaries of $35,000. Based on a financial perspective, you’re underwater even before you start.”
Choosing a master’s program in a humanities field often means a lower-paying job that makes debt more difficult to pay off. Liberal arts applicants should have a different mindset than someone applying to business school and aiming for a more lucrative career.
“If you can get into Harvard Business School and you’re going to have to take out six figures in loans, we feel a lot more comfortable encouraging them to do that, especially looking at the payment tier,” said Kofi Kankam, CEO of Admit Advantage, an admissions consulting firm.
When working with liberal arts applicants, Kankam is more likely to recommend the school with the least amount of debt rather than the most prestige. School name matters less in the humanities than it does in business, he says. Therefore, an applicant may not get a salary boost or professional benefit that’s worth taking out bigger loans to pay for a more elite school.
Liberal arts applicants should choose graduate programs with a total debt that’s lower than the average starting salary of their chosen career, says Kantrowitz.
This strategy “can help minimize student loan debt, allowing more students to choose career paths based on their passion, rather than feeling forced to choose the job that pays the most so they can afford to pay back their student loans,” said Tatem Oldham, interim director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin.
Less student loan debt can also mean a better quality of life both in the present and future.
“I have clients who say, ‘Well, you know, I wish I thought about this before I did it,’” said financial planner Jennifer Lane of her clients who use large loans to pay for grad school. “They never really thought about the cost at the end.”
When her clients are considering a graduate program, Lane advises them to speak to people working in the industry they are interested in. That can help determine whether a master’s degree is even necessary in that field and how much school name plays into career advancement.
Lane also recommends researching low-cost options like certificate programs and online master’s degrees. These programs could deliver same career benefit as a degree from an expensive, prestigious school, without the massive debt.
For third grade teacher Ilana Greenstein, 25, choosing an inexpensive, online graduate program was the right decision.
She is currently enrolled in a master’s in education program at California State University, Fresno that costs $12,000 in total. She considered Harvard and Stanford, but the tuitions at these prestigious schools were over four times more expensive and cost more than her annual salary.
These pricier programs were also full-time and in-person. She would’ve had to quit teaching, lose her income and take out loans to pursue them.
“I wouldn’t have been able to afford it for sure,” said Greenstein. “It would not have been a good financial decision for me.”
She didn’t see a greater advantage to choosing a more expensive, elite university. The salary increase she will receive upon graduating isn’t contingent on school name—any master’s program will earn her the same boost.
Greenstein said her low-cost program protected her from debt, allowed her to keep the job she loves and helped her save for her upcoming wedding.
“I want to be able to live my life in a way that makes me happy and not have to think about money all the time,” she said. “It’s a better quality of life.”