Sara Routhier, Managing Editor and Outreach Director, has professional experience as an educator, SEO specialist, and content marketer. She has over five years of experience in the insurance industry. As a researcher, data nerd, writer, and editor she strives to curate educational, enlightening articles that provide you with the must-know facts and best-kept secrets within the overwhelming world o...

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Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity-backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He also has an MBA from the University of South Florida. ...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder, CFP®

UPDATED: Dec 30, 2011

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During this time of recession, a common form of counsel heralded by parents, teachers, and friends has been, “Just go back to school and get a degree… that way when jobs come back, you’ll make more money.”


Knowing that the ups and down in the economy is cyclical, and being assured that our market’s expected to bounce back up within the next few years, this piece of advice sounds completely valid. But with unemployment rates so high, and with wages (when compared to standards of living and existing debt) at catastrophically low levels, the decision to take on more student debt should be considered carefully.


Certain Degrees Apply


That’s not meant to scare would-be students from taking out student loans and pursuing a further education. In fact, for most students, obtaining an advanced degree is likely a very prudent and wise move—justifying additional student loan debt entirely. According to a report done by Georgetown University, the average Master’s degree holder earns over $13,000 more than someone with an undergraduate degree.


But there are a few degrees that students should be hesitant about taking additional student loan debt out for, though. According to the same Georgetown report, that $13,000 is simply the average; but when looked at under a magnifying glass, it’s revealed that the difference in wage increase can vary as wildly as 1 percent to 190 percent. When graduate programs last an average two years and can cost $30,000 or more, a student should take a look at the benefits they’ll receive from furthering education in their individual degree.


The top ten degrees that saw the highest bump in salary, according to a DailyFinance article, are:

  • Health and Medical Preparatory Programs (190 percent)
  • Social Sciences (134 percent)
  • Zoology (123 percent)
  • Molecular Biology (115 percent)
  • Public Policy (107 percent)
  • Biology (106 percent)
  • Biochemical Sciences (101 percent)
  • Chemistry (93 percent)
  • Pre-law (81 percent)
  • Physiology (78 percent)


On the other side of the coin, the top ten worst wage-increasing degrees are:

  • Meteorology (1 percent)
  • Studio Arts (3 percent)
  • Petroleum Engineering (7 percent)
  • Oceanography (11 percent)
  • Mass Media (11 percent)
  • Advertising/Public Relations (12 percent)
  • Pharmaceutical Sciences (13 percent)
  • Forestry (15 percent)
  • Computer Engineering (16 percent)
  • Miscellaneous Education (16 percent)


What Causes This Wage Difference?


Looking at those two lists, a common question one may have is, “Why?” A computer engineer may be considered by some to more specialized than certain social science majors or public policy makers, but the benefit of pursuing further education in the computer science sector is far smaller than those other degrees. One explanation is because computer engineers tend to make a high average salary even with just a Bachelor’s degree.


Further education in the field may lead to a small wage hike, but the difference in ability between a Master’s holder and a Bachelor’s holder may not cause an employer to fork over more cash.


Explanations for those other degrees may reside in the fact that Forestry, Meteorology, and Studio Arts lose their value when the economy is in a slump due to lack of demand. Once the market takes off again, they may see larger wage increases and further demand for their employment—rendering student loans for these fields more justifiable.


Well Should I or Shouldn’t I?


The best way for a student to determine whether or not they should continue climbing the educational ladder is with the “starting-year salary guideline,” as outlined by Bruce Watson with DailyFinance. To follow this rule of thumb, a prospective graduate student should estimate what they believe their salary will be upon graduating—then borrow no more than that in student loans.


Most student loans come with a 10-year term, which means a borrower can expect to fork over 10 percent of his or her salary each year towards paying the debt down. If the student took out no more than what they expect their salary to be upon graduating, then they should be able to pay off their student loans within the 10-year term without too much of a problem.


For example, if a social science major expects to earn $40,000 a year upon graduating with their masters, after calculating interest, they should not take out more than $40,000. That way, they can pay $4,000 a year, and after 10 years, they will successfully pay off their student loans.


Some would simply like to go back to school to satisfy their inherent love for education. If a borrower falls into that category, they should still adhere to the starting-year salary guideline when taking out a student loan so they don’t overextend themselves and risk default. Defaulting can lead to lifelong consequences that can make it difficult to obtain other types of loans in the future.