Last Updated: Oct 8, 2020
If you’re considering applying to graduate school in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, you could be in good company—post-secondary enrollment tends to increase during a recession. With many people continuing to be out of work, facing pay cuts, or losing their jobs, it makes sense that going back to school would start looking more attractive. There could be a grad school boom coming, and it may be something you want to be a part of. But is grad school worthwhile? Is now the right time to pursue additional education? Here’s how to evaluate whether or not it’s the right time to go back to school.
Pros of attending grad school right now
It’s common for people to want to go back to school during an economic recession; in fact, data shows graduate enrollment surged in 2008 and 2009 as a result of the Great Recession. Starting a new program during a recession is particularly helpful for students who need a graduate degree to advance in their field but haven’t found the right time to return to school—until that moment. However, it can also be beneficial to others who have simply been interested in pursuing a master’s degree. Here are a few reasons why now may be the right time to go to grad school.
Fewer lost opportunities
For many students, one of the challenging aspects of returning to school is worrying about the opportunities they’ll miss out on in the workforce. Going to graduate school could mean taking yourself out of the running for a promotion or pausing your efforts to get hired at a desired company. It could mean temporarily not advancing in your field. When the economy is booming and opportunities for workers are plentiful, these lost opportunities have a stronger sting.
With the current economic recession—according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 21 million people were out of work as of May 2020—there’s a lot of competition in the workforce. Taking yourself out of the rat race while you get additional credentials could be a smart strategy. And the rise of online schooling might be even more beneficial for those worried about scheduling conflicts, as remote options make learning more flexible and easier to balance work and family obligations. If you’ve been wanting to go back to school but were unsure of how you’d continue working or looking after your family, remote learning options are often a great solution.
Decreased interest rates on student loans
Governments often decrease interest rates during an economic recession to stimulate the economy, which is exactly what the US federal government is doing right now—a decision that’s heavily impacting student loan interest rates. For the 2020–2021 school year, direct unsubsidized loans for graduate borrowers now have an interest rate of 4.30%; it was previously 6.08%.Going back to grad school while interest rates are lower could be the cheapest way to get your advanced degree. Be sure to apply for as many scholarships and grants as possible—even if you think you might not qualify. Combining scholarship and grant money with the lower federal interest rate could be a financially savvy solution to your academic and professional development.
A résumé boost
Still not sure if a graduate degree is even worth it? US Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2019 shows that for many people, it is: individuals with a graduate degree have the country’s lowest unemployment rates, and they earn more compared to their counterparts with less education. Remember, these statistics don’t show the proportion of graduate degree holders who are earning at the top of their field. In some industries, holding a graduate degree might be less of a financial boost, so make sure to take your desired job into account.
Related: A 4-Week Plan to Perfect Your Résumé
Cons of attending grad school right now
Attending grad school during a recession is a smart move for a lot of people, but it isn’t a blanket solution if you’re unhappy with your career options or have been especially hard-hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Before jumping into a new degree, consider some of the drawbacks, including these.
Cheaper ways to improve your résumé
Losing your job can make you feel powerless, but heading back to school might not be a wise choice if you’ll end up with additional debt—especially if you aren’t sure what your job prospects will look like afterward. There are other ways to improve your résumé beyond going to grad school, or maybe it’s a good time to just give yourself a break. Consider traveling if you need some time to figure out your next steps. If you want to continue your professional development, you could get certified in a skill that’s relevant to your job, learn a new language, or even just take up a new hobby to help you feel productive and get into a happier mindset.
More student debt
If you have to take on additional debt to get your graduate degree, stop and consider what financial implications this could have on your future, especially if the job market is still uncertain when you graduate. Statistics show that the average graduate degree holder has $186,600 in student debt, including their undergraduate debt. This number could sharply increase if you pursue a graduate degree at a private school. If you’re planning to take on this debt, you should be confident you’ll earn a substantial income relatively soon after graduation or that you’ll be able to work in a field where you’re eligible for federal loan forgiveness.
The coronavirus pandemic is presenting a unique opportunity to lifelong learners to pursue further education in a potentially less expensive and more flexible way. While we may see a grad school enrollment boom in the next year, don’t let that influence your personal decision unless this is something you’re absolutely certain will benefit you more than it will hinder.
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