Grad School: Worth the Price Tag?

05/22/2012 11:04 am ET | Updated Jul 22, 2012

When I graduated with a bachelor's degree, I did what many of my peers did -- laid on my parents' couch for a couple months and felt completely directionless. OK, some of my peers probably had it more together than I did. Then again, I watched four whole seasons of Lost while they were busy putting on their grown-up shoes and heading off to internships and job offers, so I really can't complain.

In my defense, I found a job fairly fast after graduation. Many of my peers were not so lucky. And how did many of them cope with this delay-of-salary or lack of satisfaction with the jobs they did find? Graduate school.

To be fair, many of them already planned on grad school in the first place. They had plans. They had lifelong dreams of law degrees, med school and liberal arts degrees on the east coast. But I'd be incorrect if I said grad school was an initial part of the life plans of 100% of my habitually matriculating friends -- and yet, there they were with more class schedules and stacks of textbooks.

And, naturally, those class schedules and textbooks came with hefty bills. Which meant student loans. Which meant extending the college lifestyle, penny pinching and all. And a couple years after finishing their undergrads, many of my Ramen-munching peers are once again donning polyester robes and getting ready to either hit the workforce or, in some cases, enroll once again.

But are they better off for it?

I almost did the whole grad school thing. Two years after graduation and still floundering about in career world, I started to seriously consider the grad school option. Why? Primarily, because I was still without direction. I still didn't know what I wanted to do. In my case, by the time I finished taking the GRE and requesting information from intriguing campuses across the nation, a new career opportunity had fallen into my lap that turned out to be an excellent fit. And thus I tabled the grad school idea and immersed myself fully in the newfound I-finally-love-my-job feeling.

Do I regret not going to grad school?

No. Well, yes and no. Like I said, I love my job. And I didn't need grad school to get me here. But this is just one industry and I am just one person -- for some of my peers, grad school opens some essential doors for their lifestyles of choice. And, truthfully, I sometimes miss going to class and drinking in all that research and academia and intellectual discussion. But I also don't envy my friends' piles of student loans, nor do I miss eating SpaghettiOs or macaroni noodles. And there was that whole phase where I ate a turkey burger patty with ketchup on two pieces of soggy wheat bread for like a month. (Seriously, why did I do that?)

But truthfully, there's something to be said for those soggy-turkey-burger experiences. Because what you eat or don't eat isn't the point of grad school. Nor is it about the couple extra years of delaying a steady income. (Nor is it about learning to use the word "nor" properly, though I guess that depends on what degree you pursue.)

It seems like lately there are piles of studies and articles emerging about whether or not grad school is worth it. The focus of most of these articles, I've noticed, is money. Turns out, people with master's degrees and Ph.D.'s are using food stamps in greater numbers than ever before. And "debt" is a four-letter word to many people living in a nation that's constantly brimming with economic crises.

But grad school isn't necessarily about any of that. At its core, grad school is about education.

And education doesn't have to be about whatever salary is waiting at the end of the tunnel. Maybe an education can be worth the sacrifice for the sake of its own self -- an education.

Maybe if we stopped viewing the value of education for the value of its price tag, we'd get a clearer picture of the pros and cons of grad school. Not everything can be properly evaluated with a financial measuring stick, even if that often seems to be the go-to method for judging something's value.

Perhaps we should start judging the value of an education by its benefits aside from a pile of paychecks. And if you do go to grad school and find yourself worse off financially for the experience, it doesn't mean you wasted your time. If it's worth it to you, then you'll buckle down, you'll get whatever job is necessary and you'll dig yourself out of those loan payments and impending bankruptcy. And I can bet you'll learn something, even in that difficult part of the process.

So will I go to grad school someday?

I honestly don't know right now. I have many years left to figure that out. But if I do enroll again, I hope I don't do it solely with hopes of a higher income or greater career advancement. Of course, those are clear benefits and worthy goals. But then again, so is learning. And so is knowledge. Lest we forget.