This story originally appeared on Volusion.
The National Bureau of Economic Research recently announced that the U.S. officially entered a recession in February 2020. Unprecedented levels of unemployment and declines in economic activity triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the economy’s 10-year period of expansion.
With job prospects looking bleak for the near future, pursuing an advanced degree may become an attractive option for recent college graduates and those who find themselves unemployed.
While enrollment in graduate programs fluctuates from year to year, it tends to spike during economic downturns. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, dramatic increases in graduate enrollment occurred in 1980-1982 and 2001-2002, when the economy was in recession. More recently, enrollment in graduate and professional programs increased about 7.3% between 2008 and 2010, the height of the Great Recession. Over the past five years, however, graduate school enrollment plateaued and then decreased as the economy recovered. As of 2019, there were 3.05 million students enrolled in an advanced degree program.
For many people, attending a graduate program is a good option and an advanced degree translates into better job prospects and higher earnings when the economy returns to normal. Individuals with a college education report lower-than-average unemployment rates and higher median wages compared with those without a degree. In general, the more advanced the degree, the greater the economic benefit. For example, the median weekly wages in 2019 for doctorate holders ($1,883) and professional degree holders ($1,861) were about twice as high as the median wage of $969 per week for all workers. In 2019, the unemployment rate for those with a master’s degree, professional degree or doctorate was also at or below 2%, compared with the overall unemployment rate then of 3%.
However, the skyrocketing cost of both undergraduate and graduate education is causing many to rethink whether or not the investment in an advanced degree is worth it. Adjusted for inflation, the average graduate school tuition increased by 101% at public universities and 26% at private universities over the past 20 years. For context, median weekly earnings for full-time workers increased by less than 6% after adjusting for inflation over the same time period.
Research from the National Center for Education Statistics also found that the average cumulative debt (undergraduate and graduate combined) was $108,400 for individuals who pursue research doctorates, $186,600 for professional doctorates and $66,000 for master’s degrees. For individuals who took out loans to pay for their undergraduate education, incurring additional debt for graduate school, while possible, often results in crippling monthly loan payments after graduation.
Fortunately, there are many lucrative jobs that don’t require graduate school. To find the highest-paying occupations that don’t require an advanced degree, researchers at Volusion analyzed salary and employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Projections Survey.
In addition to salary data, Volusion also included the Bureau of Labor Statistics 10-year projected employment growth for each occupation, as compared with the national average of 5.2%. It’s important to note, though, that BLS employment projections for 2018-2028 were made prior to COVID-19, and new projections don’t yet exist.
What follows is what they found.