Should you go to graduate school? Yes. Maybe. Definitely not

Is it worth it?
Is it worth it?
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Graduate school is pricey. Very pricey. But with the dearth of data coming from schools on how their students perform financially after graduating, it can be nearly impossible to figure out whether taking thousands of dollars in loans or eviscerating your savings account will actually pay off.

To figure out which graduate school degrees tend to boost a student’s lifetime earnings, in relation to their undergraduate field of study, online lender Social Finance, or SoFi, crunched data included in 200,000 applications from people who tried to refinance their student loans through its website over the past year.

You can try out your own combinations here:

SoFi, which has doled out more than $3 billion in loans since launching in 2011, found that in all but four combinations, a graduate degree leads to a bump in median lifetime earnings compared to having just a bachelor’s degree.

The glaring exception: People who got a bachelor’s in engineering, business, finance, or economics, and then pursued a graduate degree in fine arts, humanities, or social sciences. For instance, SoFi found that someone who got a bachelor’s degree in engineering saw their median lifetime earnings drop by 17% after getting a Master’s in fine arts.

This data can help students make better choices about their education and ultimately, reduce America’s giant student loan burden, which is driven primarily from graduate school costs.

“We hear from a lot of folks who say they never would have taken out all that student debt if they knew what their income was going to be,” SoFi CEO Mike Cagney tells Quartz. “There is so little transparency right now around debt loads and how they intersect with school and career choices.”

To be sure, how much money people make doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness or job fulfillment—major reasons why people pursue graduate degrees. But “we want people to go into it with their eyes wide open,” Cagney said. “If you’re absolutely passionate about fine arts, it’s fine, but dont borrow $200,000 to get a degree because you won’t be able to pay it back.”

Some graduate degrees pay off more than others—and the size of a pay bump greatly depends on the undergraduate major. For instance, getting an MBA boosts median lifetime earnings for all majors. But the earnings bump can range from 34% for undergraduate nursing students to 89% for humanities undergrads.

For undergraduate majors in computer science, engineering, or math, lifetime earnings don’t get that much of a boost from going to graduate school to pursue a similar line of study.

And for students who ultimately want to be a doctor or dentist, it doesn’t matter whether they study French literature or business during their undergraduate studies (as long as they take the courses required to get into grad school).

Lifetime earnings are pretty consistent for doctors and dentists regardless of what they got their bachelor’s degree in. All those years of schooling pay off in the form of higher lifetime earnings.

It’s an entirely different, case, however, for lawyers and business school grads, where degrees can significantly boost the earnings for a fine arts or humanities major, but has a lesser effect on business, engineering, and math majors. (And congrats lawyers, your lifetime earnings are higher than B-School grads regardless of what you studied as an undergrad.)