THE BLOG

Pricing PhD's Out of the Market

05/13/2015 12:24 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

Beruk Kiros is a graduate research assistant in the Biology Department at UMass Amherst. He spends a lot of his time in the lab studying the effects of environmental chemicals on the thyroid gland. There is nothing especially unique about that. There are an estimated 1.7 million students taking graduate courses in the U.S.

What does make Beruk exceptional is that he is a first-generation-to-college student from a low-income, Ethiopian family. Low-income students like Beruk make up only 8 percent of all graduate students nationwide.

Beruk, though, is a good example of the growing awareness among low-income students that a graduate degree is a good investment. For many students in low-income families, the hope is not just to go to college, but is increasingly to go to graduate school and enter a professional field.

What keeps many students and their families from considering graduate school is the high cost and the question of how to pay for it. Graduate school tuitions have increased even more than those in undergraduate schools, and the burden of student loan debt falls heaviest on the shoulders of graduate students. Student loans have grown precipitately over the past decade, becoming the main source of funding for graduate students. These loans sometimes cover up to 80-90 percent of the total cost of attendance. The average debt for a medical school graduate is around $163,000 and for a law school graduate is around 131,000*.

So the question that students like Beruk face is: "Is graduate school worth it?" While the answer, based upon the economics alone, is still yes -- on average those with graduate degrees have 38.3 percent higher earnings than those in the same field with a Bachelor's degree alone -- all degrees are not equal.

For example, degrees in biology and life sciences earn 70 percent more than those with Bachelor's degrees in the same field while the earning premium is significantly less for other fields: only 25 percent for the arts, and 19 percent for Journalism and Communications degrees. These differences, however, may not matter to students who are dedicated to earn a degree in the field they love.

While the increased lifetime earnings must justify the cost, there are other reasons pushing many to pursue a postbaccalaureate education. There is the personal satisfaction of more deeply pursuing a field of study, as well as the opportunity to interact with other students and teachers who feel as passionately as you do, and the chance to grow intellectually and to make a contribution to a body of knowledge in your field. A shame about the cost. There is so much to be gained through graduate education for both the students and us.

"As a researcher," says Filimon Kiros, Beruk's brother and a graduate research assistant in Public Health, "I have my own project studying gaseous air pollution in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. A typical day could have me running around in the lab working with equipment and hundreds of samples, to sitting in front of my computer and analyzing a raw dataset. When I have downtime between experiments, I am usually reading scientific articles or interacting with other researchers in my lab, learning about methods I need to learn more about."

If one intends to pursue a post-secondary degree, students and parents alike often wonder, "Should we be spending our money on a top undergraduate college or should we save it for the graduate school?" The answer, based upon available information, is that in general, graduates from high-quality colleges are more likely to enroll in graduate programs and they are more likely to finish their graduate degree. At the same time, a high grade-point average in college is an absolute requirement for entry into grad school, whether or not it involves an initial two years at a community college to save money and then a transfer to a top undergraduate school. What matters most is the effort you put in and how well you do in college.

The continuing and growing disparity in income and wealth we are experiencing has, no doubt, convinced many low-income students that not only is a college degree now a necessity, but striving for a professional degree is a way out.

"My belief," says Filimon, "is that the best way to escape from socioeconomic disenfranchisement is by climbing up an education ladder. Having come from a marginalized family and an underrepresented community, it is clear to me that one must be very well educated in order to support myself and to give back to my community. Although the ladder seems taller as you climb, just remember to take one step at a time. Do not get tempted to stay still or climb down just because one small step becomes too difficult. It is always good to remember that others before you have done it. You just have to look up and see that they have taken the same steps and you too are climbing up in the same ladder."

How to Pay for Graduate School

Aspirations aside, every student must face the cost. The reason graduate education is so high is the lack of financial aid. There are few Pell grants or scholarships for graduate school. This makes institutional support such as tuition waivers, teaching or research assistantships, and fellowships more important, though some universities and fields of study are more likely to offer them than others. Teaching and research positions may pay for the cost of tuition and fees, and some students are paid a stipend to live on each month.

There are also scholarships from professional associations and private foundations, and for low-income students, there are more targeted, need-based scholarships. If you identify as a minority student, national and local cultural organizations can provide merit-based grants.

* These three figures do not include debt incurred during undergraduate degree.