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Are Graduate Degrees Worth the Money?

cost of an optometry school degree

Was Optometry School Worth the money? Image: Wikipedia

When I was growing up, there was never a doubt that I would go to college. My mother made that a priority. I also knew pretty much from junior high on that I would receive an advanced degree. I wanted a really good job. That was how I thought you got one.  Over the past few years, I’ve begun to wonder if an advanced degree or any degree at all is necessary for financial success. We’ll look at myself and my husband as examples.

Health Professional Degree

My undergraduate degree was in biology. Luckily, I received scholarships to cover tuition and living expenses. I came out with no debt, but a biology degree doesn’t really get you very far. Unless I wanted to teach, I can’t think of many other things where this degree earns a decent salary. Even to go into university teaching or research, you’d have to get at least a master’s degree or Ph.D.

Medical, dental, optometry, chiropractic, and pharmacy schools are all four year programs. As with any degree, costs vary according to things like state vs private schools or in state vs out of state tuition. Unlike DC at Young Adult Money’s post about MBA’s you don’t have to go to Harvard to get a good job with a medical professional degree. I rarely get asked where I went to school, and even when I do, it’s usually because I have a funny accent that makes people wonder where I came from.

I graduated from optometry school owing $60,000 in student loans. Most graduates have around $100,000 in debt, more if you went to an expensive school or had undergraduate loans. The average starting salary for an optometrist is around $80,000. The mean income is around $95,000. I’ve know optometrists who’ve made a bit less and a lot more, depending on the area and how hard they worked.

My original loan term was for ten years, and the payment was $600 a month. I also had a HPSL that was about $100 a month for five years. $700 a month was certainly doable, but I consolidated and went crazy with spending I still have loans to this day. If I’d been smart, I could have doubled or even tripled payments and been done in a few years. A payment of $1000 or even $1500 per month is certainly reasonable for this income if you don’t feel the need to buy lots of other things with your new salary.

Teaching Degree

My husband teaches fifth grade. He did not go to college right out of high school. In fact, he barely graduated. His family did not make school a priority and expected that he would get a job after graduation. He tried one semester at a huge university in downtown Denver, but ended up with failing grades and had to drop out.  He then joined the military. After that, he worked a variety of jobs, topping out at around $30,000 as a pharmacy tech at a large hospital. He then moved to the boonies, near where we are now, and couldn’t get any sort of a job that matched his former salary.

He worked as a ski instructor, did landscaping, and sold shoes at JC Penny, but was barely getting by. He decided to go back to school. It took a year at community college to erase his first attempt at higher education, then he enrolled in a four year university and got a bachelor’s degree in history with a teaching certificate. With his new found motivation, he made the Dean’s list every semester. After his first year of teaching, the No Child Left Behind Act  became reality, and he decided to obtain his master’s degree when a weekend program opened up locally. After that first master’s, his salary was right around $30,000, the same as he was making without a degree in Denver, but he now had $35,000 in student loans. His payment was around $400 per month, still doable even on a teacher’s salary.

What if We Hadn’t Gotten Degrees?

What if I’d gotten a nursing degree with my four free years of college instead of going to optometry school? Let’s say I got a job with a starting salary of $50,000. For the five years it took to get through optometry school and residency, I would have made an additional $250,000 as a nurse. If you add the loan, getting the nursing degree would have had a $310,000 starting advantage. Over a 20 year career, however, optometry will have paid around $2 million in salary vs about $1 million for nursing. While I did not do this, let’s assume that I had invested 20% of my income and that my salary never changed. At 8% ROI, the nurse would have $2.2 milllion invested, while the optometrist would have $3.4 million.  Add to the fact that I would hate to be a nurse, I think my degree was worth the money.

My husband could have continued working as a pharmacy tech, and maybe made a bit more in salary, but he was pretty topped out. (Also, he would have never met me!) His teaching salary, with a master’s degree was about the same. Right now, he is completing another master’s degree in administration. It will cost around $10,000.  If he gets the position he is hoping for, it should increase his salary to around $50,000, which would easily pay for the second master’s in one year.  This was the only way he could see to substantially increase his income while remaining in the same school district. If he doesn’t get a higher paying position, he has a very expensive teaching job. However, he does receive free health insurance that is amazing. He gets over 3 months off per year, and has a pension after about 22 years of service. He also loves what he does.

Just for kicks, let’s assume he never went back to school and made $30,000 from ages 25-60 and invested 20% of his salary at an 8% return. He would still have over $1 million in investments.

What is the Point?

My point kind of changed while writing this post. A degree is worth it if it allows you to have a job you love or at least don’t hate, and if your salary allows you to make the payments. Making Sense of Cents also agrees with my conclusion after getting her own advanced degree. However, getting a $150,000 bachelors from a prestigious university doesn’t do much good if you can’t find a job or end up making $30,000 a year.

That is not to say that you shouldn’t pursue what you love doing, but it is important to be realistic in the process. After all, college is a massive investment. Take a look at some statistics related to the degree you want to pursue and compare and contrast that with the average price of tuition at the school you wish to attend. Those who graduate with business degrees, for example, experience lower unemployment and have higher salaries on average than those who graduate with degrees in the arts. So if it’s an MBA you’re after, you can worry a little less about paying off your student loan debt.

It seems the take home point to me is isn’t about degrees. Whatever your job or salary, you can retire pretty well off if you continuously stay employed and contribute around 20% (or 16.6% according to My Money Design) toward good investments. Perhaps this is what they should be teaching in school.

Do you think advanced degrees are worth the money?





About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. I think it depends so much on what the degree is in. For my field, it’s pretty much a given that if you weren’t offered full funding for your grad degree, you are in over your head and are probably going to flunk out. So it would be a really bad idea to pay out of pocket if you can’t get funding to a school you liked.

    • I am always surprised at how many kids never apply for anything other than financial aid. Yes, it is hard to research scholarships, but most people with good grades could qualify for something. I applied for everything that was even remotely related to my major, and actually got quite a few scholarships outside of what the university gave me. It’s like getting a job. You have to put yourself out there, or you’ll miss most of the opportunities.

  2. I think there’s been “degree creep” over the years. Jobs that used to hire people with an Associates will only hire you if you have a Bachelors, jons that only used to hire people with a Bachelors degrees will only consider you now if you have a Masters etc. I think it is worth it to get a graduate degree. Mine has helped get jobs in the past.

    • I think you see that with teachers. It is rare that a teacher will last a career without at least getting one master’s degree.

    • Absolutely right. People rail against big business, big banks, etc, but when is the last time anyone railed against big education that leaves graduates with more debt than many mortgages? When did anyone in big education seriously ask if it makes sense to spend the kind of money people spend for undergraduate degrees (or grad) relative to the expected income after graduation. Student debt is forever. It doesn’t go away. 350 years ago these schemes would have been called indentured servanthood.

      • You’re right. When mortgage companies were giving subprime loans for houses costing way more than people could afford, you saw what happened. I don’t know that it is so different that taking $100,000 in private loans for a degree that won’t make anywhere near enough to afford payments. Maybe students should get pre-screened for loans based on expected salary. I know it isn’t a guarantee that you would finish your degree and make what you thought, but just to have some idea of the payment before you start would be helpful I think. We didn’t have a student loan session in optometry school until the last months of the program. I was trying so hard to get through school, I never considered how much my loans were. My fault, but it’s certainly set up to make it that way.

  3. Regardless if you are getting a bachelors or masters degree you have to figure out the cost of getting that degree and what you can expect to earn because of it. This is hard because too many people think that if they get their MBA, they will graduate and be making $100,000+. This is not the case. There are only a select few who do this and they go to the top schools. For the average joe, you can expect a small bump in salary, but don’t think that just getting a degree equals making tens of thousands more right off the bat.

    • It would be nice if your school advisers gave you actual data about possible jobs with that degree and how much you could realistically expect to make, along with how much your loan payment was going to be. I’m all for following your dreams, but if you are going to be doing every job under the sun that you don’t need degrees for just to pay the bills, was college worth it?

  4. I think it depends on the degree and what you’ll see come with it. If it’s going to bring you an increased salary and more happiness then I say you should go for it. Though, I would make sure that you find out as much as you can before making the decision to make sure it’s right for you. I was one of the people told that I would be given a 6 figure salary once I was handed my MBA. That was not the case, though I would still probably get it today as much of what I learned has been immensely helpful in running our business.

    • No kidding. While most of the optometrists I know are doing well, I’ve read about ones who aren’t. They usually tend to live in popular, very expensive areas like San Diego or NYC. Even if you’re making $100K there, that’s not enough to own a house and make loan payment. It think people assume certain degrees will just start oozing money, but that is not the case in lots of areas. Heck, there was a lady on Suze Orman last weekend who was a medical doctor but was going to have to file for bankruptcy. I think a lot of it was her poor choices, but still you would assume she could make enough money to at least stay out of bankruptcy.

  5. You’ve really only addressed professional degrees here – for academic degrees in STEM fields, if you don’t have your tuition and fees paid for you plus a stipend, you’re doing something wrong. In those cases, the cost is all opportunity. For someone like my husband, who has an undergraduate degree in computer science, the opportunity cost is not small. Even my physics BS is worth something on its own if I had gone into engineering or finance.

    On a population basis, I think it’s been pretty well established that the more education you have the more money you make over your lifetime. I’m not sure if those studies have factored in median debt for various degrees, though, and they certainly can’t account for field-switching.

    • I would tend to agree if your degree is in a science or technology field. If you have an English or Art History degree, you can get jobs if you have the right connections or are willing to move. The kids in our area are lots like I used to be. No one ever told them they could move to another area, and if your family has been here for generations, it is almost blasphemy to leave. I went through that and still do with my family. I know so many college graduates that are waiting tables or who end up doing construction or selling insurance. There is nothing wrong with those jobs, but you didn’t need to get a degree to do them. IF you are going to live in a small town, you better get a degree that can be used here, mainly health professions, engineering, or teaching. I think that was the main reason I went into health care, then I discovered it was OK to move, but still ended up in a small town. College always teaches good life skills, but if you have to take out loans for life skills, I don’t think it’s worth it.

  6. I think they are worth the money if you see a realistic value from it. Some people have such misconceptions about what graduate degrees can bring you.

    • I agree. You also have to be willing to put in the effort to get a job, even if that means doing things like unpaid internships or fellowships. Usually, employers are not waiting in line to hire you.

  7. My degree was without a doubt worth the money, but these days with the amount of unemployment, you have to wonder…

    • Do you think you could still do what you do without a degree? It seem most computer people I know would have learned it anyway with or without college, but it’s all Greek to me, so I can’t say for sure.

  8. I think there’s two things to consider here. First of all, there is a difference between undergrad and graduate degrees. My wife is going to get her masters and possibly phd in psychology. The difference in pay between an undergrad in psychology and graduate degree (as well as job options) is immense. In that case, it does make sense, especially because she loves research and academia, which is literally impossible to get into whatsoever without an advanced degree.

    The second thing to consider is whether someone has already obtained their advanced degree or not. In your case, you already obtained your degree. While there is always some value in reflecting on decisions in the past, in reality the decision has been made and is over now. You can only look forward and use what you’ve learned and invested in to better your life and pursue the kind of life you want to live. For someone like me, who hasn’t decided yet whether to get an advanced degree yet, this question becomes HUGE. I have an opportunity either to invest in something that will really help me out or spend 2-4 years breaking my back for something that won’t be worth it…especially if it’s something that is questionable like an MBA.

    I appreciate you writing up this post and I definitely found value in it.

    • I’m anxious to see what you choose to do, but if the MBA doesn’t pretty much guarantee a jump in salary, I don’t know that I would go for it. For a while, I was busting my butt to obtain a fellowship that was more for prestige than anything. I finally realized it was not worth the time or money and started a blog instead!

  9. I think they are worth it but depending on the field. There are many that have advanced degrees not using them and paying large student loans with nothing to show for it. It is much harder to get jobs these days. I would wait and see if you can land a job, then see if the company will help pay for an advanced degree.

  10. Although I am a teacher, I may have an odd view on college or advanced degrees. Post secondary education does not guarantee anything. It is entirely up to the individual to use their education, training and preparation to turn it into a good career. It does not guarantee success or a lucrative career. A Harvard degree is no better than XYZ university! I knew people who were successful without education and unsuccessful with education.

  11. Teaching and social jobs are the worst when it comes to recouping the cost of your degree. My degree was free, 5 years in total with the last two in business school. It allowed me to spend five more years considering life and what I wanted, and I made on the side what i would have made with a full time minimum wage job. Putting the same effort combined into studying and having jobs, I could have started as a bank clerk and probably would be at the same paying level five years later than a graduate. Long term promotions and raises would be less without a degree though. So I don’t regret having gone to college, which was a blast, instead of straight into the workforce. But have rarely used my degree in the past 10 years so it is not really adding value to my life.

    • I would say go to college for sure if it didn’t cost money. Life skills learned are very valuable, just not worth loans in my opinion.

  12. I think it only makes sense if the degree will pay for itself in increased wages. Otherwise, it’s just higher education for fun. There’s nothing wrong with that though if you have the money!

  13. I think regardless of whether it’s an undergraduate degree or a graduate degree, school, loans, etc… all have to be taken into consideration. I knew someone who went to a top notch school and graduated with over $100,000 in student loans for getting a BA in English. Upon graduation, they took a job as an administrative assistant. That just doesn’t make sense to me…

    • I see that all the time in Telluride, which is a resort town. Parents think they have to send their kids to prestigious schools, even if they can’t afford it. Nothing screams happiness like having your Princeton graduate move back home and work the front desk at a hotel.

  14. I’m getting my MBA at a top-but-not-Harvard school, and from the looks of it RIGHT NOW, my MBA will pay off financially for me. I made $80K pre-school, and my target compensation (base+bonus) for the field I’m interning at and heading into is ~$160K. I’m glad I went back to school, but there were moments during the dark days of recruiting season when I wondered why did I quit my job, cash in all my savings, to go to school with the goal of finding a job that will make spending all that money worth it!

    • That certainly sounds like a good return on investment but I’m sure it’s always hard to walk away from a steady paycheck.

  15. Thanks for outlining the pros and cons! Also interesting to consider how different degrees differ in a cyclic way, as the job market fluctuates.

  16. Is it worth the money? Well, I see two definitions to the word “worth.” One if financial. Your husband’s $10,000 program that will give him a $15,000 raise is certainly worth it financially! The other definition is emotional. When I was in the teaching tract in college, I had no desire to go into the management of schools. A graduate degree would have had zero worth to me.

    • A degree in education administration would have zero value to me either. I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Did you ever teach? I think the contrarian in you might appeal to students.

  17. I think an advanced degree is worth the money. The more knowledge one obtains, the more advantage they have. Besides, almost anyone can rack up a tidy fortune if they manage their finances wisely.

  18. This is a huge pet peeve of mine at the moment. With $30,000 in student loan debt from a bachelors degree and no job from it, it was definitely not worth my while. But I think it really just depends on what you go to school for. Now that I’m older, I look at college the same way I would look at an investment property – how much am I going to get on my return? Right now I’m going to school for Court Reporting. They make an average of $100,000 depending on where you live. For two years of school and about $20,000 total tuition, yeah that’s definitely worth more to me than a private university that charged me up the wazoo for a degree that didn’t get me the job I was looking for. Hopefully my second time around, it will be worth the time and money!

    • I had no idea court reporters made that much. That sounds like a great job. Are they readily available or is the field crowded?

      • The thing about this field that made me so confident to go for it is that all the research I did online and talking to people in the field said that there is a steady increase in the need for reporters. A few places I looked online said they are expecting an 18% increase in the field between now and 2016. Pretty good odds, I think! 🙂

  19. I think it all depends on the person and the type of degree you get. I graduated with an engineering degree but now I am in IT sales. If you are sure what field you want get a career in and what degree you want to pursue then it might be worth it. With the shifting winds in the economy people are much more likely to change careers than in the past.

    • Isn’t that true? How many people stay in the same field for their whole career besides doctors? After that many years, I think you burned out all of your school discipline.

  20. I have many friends who have a degree but are not working in their field and probably never will because years have gone by. If I could go back to the first time I went to University I would have done more research of the market. I would have really tried to understand more about why I was taking what I was and what the odds of finding a job would be. First time was just a learning experience for me second was a charm. Never stop learning is what I say. Great post.

    • Would you take on a degree program to get a job you didn’t like just because it guaranteed a good salary? I think there is a balance in there somewhere to earn money and like your work. You never have to love it, but you have to not loathe it while being realistic about what will pay the bills. Eyeballs are great that way!

  21. Generally speaking I think it’s worth the cost and am a huge proponent of higher education. I do agree with your assessment that you can still retire and live well even if you don’t have a college degree. Living within your means and investing/saving matter more than a degree.

    • Isn’t that the take home point that stands out? Doesn’t matter what you do, just start saving and don’t let lifestyle inflation take over.

  22. I got an MBA and for me it was worth it. It’s definitely helped me get noticed in terms of jobs I’ve held since then and I feel the knowledge I gained was beneficial to me as well.

    • Glad to hear that it worked out for the best. I know next to nothing about business degrees, so it’s good to get that perspective.

  23. I think if you getting the degree to pursue a career you would love or at least like then it is a good idea.(As long as the loan repayment is manageable) There are some jobs where you can make more without a degree but it all depends upon what you want to do for a living.

    • Knowing that before hand can save lots of time and money. If you don’t know, work for a while until you do. My husband’s first year of college where he majored in partying did absolutely no good.

  24. Excellent post, Kim. Sometimes degrees really make a difference, and sometimes not, but I think, like you pointed out, it really depends on what you want to do for a career. If we teach everyone to at least think carefully and assess their situation before heading off to college, I think that’s a good start.

  25. It really wouldn’t help my career, but for others I think it just depends. All my friends with MBA’s seem to be doing really well. They are the ones buying houses in the LA market. But I have no idea what their student loans may be. I think as long as the happiness with the job and a good salary outweigh getting in over your head with payments I think it’s ok.

    • I’m not sure how anyone buys a house in the LA market. Sadly, though, most of my information comes from House Hunters, so not sure how accurate that is.

  26. I think in some cases the degree is really important (I wouldn’t have been able to get my job because it’s license based and you can’t get the license without the degree), but in other cases the degree doesn’t really “get” you anything except for a lot of student loans. I’d really weigh the decision on a case by case basis, and I wouldn’t suggest going into huge debt to do it, unless you have to have the advanced degree to do the job (MD, JD etc.).

  27. As I was re-reading this post I remembered something that one of my former employers did for his daughter as she was getting reading to graduate from high school. They talked about what she wanted to do for a career and he went out and found people for her to talk to that were already in that field (she was interested in photography). So she got to learn from their experience in school and their careers and how much they made, what types of photography they did. Some were self-employed (which her dad was encouraging her to be) so she got to see the entrepreneurial side of it as well. They they talked about how much money it would take for her to get an education in that field and how much money she’ll probably make once she’s graduated. And he taught her about finances – using an estimate of how much she’ll have in loans vs. how much she’ll be bringing home. I think it was probably a lot for a 17 year old to handle, but I think that’s an excellent way to go about the topic of college and a child’s future. I hope I remember to do something similar to that when I have kids at that age.

    • That’s a great idea. I bet lots of it would go right over a teen’s head, but I bet it would come back later at some point. The more you expose them to reality in job situations, I think, the better off they will be.

  28. College students will quickly find out the hard way that attempting to pay back a 20 year loan in the amount of $150,000 while only making $30,000 to $50,000 a year is very difficult. I can’t imagine paying back my education with what amounts to a mortgage payment every month for 20 years.

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