I have just read an excellent piece by Anne Helen Petersen on her Culture Study blog about the dynamics of paid-for MA degrees. I always tell prospective graduate never to pay for their degrees, but Anne has articulately explained why and described how these programs are essentially traps for unwary and inexperienced students who are enamored of academia or looking to improve their credentials and their job prospects.
I was fortunate not to pay for either of my graduate degrees, yet despite that I still ended up with $16,000 in debt from grad school alone (along with another $12,000 from my undergraduate years). This debt was a result of my stipends simply not being high enough to cover my living expenses (when I began my MA at the University of Colorado in 2005, my annual stipend was $15,000). But still, my debt was accrued over nine years of grad school. By contrast, some of the students in Anne’s piece paid $60,000 per year in tuition alone. This is absolutely staggering!
How did I avoid this trap? I applied to both PhD programs and terminal MA programs (which are more likely to have funding). So when I was rejected by PhD programs, I had two choices for MA programs (Tufts and Colorado), and I picked the option with the better funding offer. A truly ambitious (or pretentious) student may scoff at the University of Colorado, but it really doesn’t matter where you get your MA degree — unlike the PhD, where it can matter enormously. I got an excellent start to my graduate education, including essential teaching experience, and while I came out of the program with a little debt, it was worth it, in part because admissions committees can tell the difference between an earned MA like mine and a ‘purchased’ one, like the Master’s of Arts Program in Humanities at the University of Chicago, which was featured in Anne’s piece.
Graduate degrees are great, but I would hardly call them essential. Sure, they’re necessary to become a professor or a museum curator, but these positions are vanishingly rare now, such that paying for a degree to try to get one is an exceedingly poor gamble. And in the real world they count for almost nothing. For example, my brother has a BS (or maybe a BA; I don’t remember), which he earned over five years instead of four at an excellent but not especially illustrious university. Yet he makes twice what I do (when I was receiving a steady paycheck, that is), and has for many years. Similarly, my brother-in-law doesn’t even have a college degree, and while I am at a complete loss to explain what his job is, whenever I visit him he has a bigger house and a bigger truck. Both my brother and my brother-in-law focused on experience instead of schooling, both with excellent results. Unless you’re absolutely certain you want a career in academia, graduate school may not be worth your while, and it’s certainly not worth going into crippling debt.