Four reasons to get a master's degree

Ever wonder to yourself, "Why go to grad school?" Here's why: A formal education is a credential that no one can take away, and it's a gift that keeps on giving throughout your lifetime.

At this particular moment, that rings especially true. High-paying jobs with great benefits are out there, but only for the best-qualified candidates.

Anyone who wants to climb up the career ladder - especially in a competitive field - should consider these four compelling reasons to get a master's degree.

Still an elite club

The most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that only about 12 percent of Americans over the age of 25 hold an advanced degree - a pretty select group.

And while a master's degree will stand out on your resume, there's of course the benefit of the additional education (or knowledge and skills) that students receive during their advanced studies.

Those who have completed a master's program stay apprised of what's happening in their industry and keep on top of the latest trends, innovations and best practices. Research projects and case studies, often a part of the curriculum, give them an up-close look at new ideas that might bring value to their organizations.

For most, there's also a sense of personal accomplishment that comes with earning their degree and being a part of the "club." This in itself can inspire confidence and open up a world of possibilities.

An investment that pays off

According to Kiplinger, median annual earnings of $50,281 for someone with a bachelor's degree climb to $73,100 for advanced-degree holders. That's almost $23,000 more per year in earnings.

And a study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found that, on average, over the course of a 40-year career, those with a master's degree make $413,000 more than people with only a bachelor's degree. Compared with a high school diploma, an advanced degree can translate into more than $1 million in lifetime earnings.

At the same time, graduate school can be more affordable than most people might think. Some of the benefits that can help defray the cost include scholarships and fellowships, assistantships, and especially tuition assistance from an employer.

Standing out in a crowded job market

As the economy continues to recover from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers will be looking to hire the best and brightest candidates possible.

A master's degree from an accredited institution provides some concrete proof of the "brightest" part. But it also demonstrates that the person takes initiative and has the capacity to continue learning and improve their skillset.

And even before the interview portion of the hiring process, a master's degree creates opportunity by expanding one's network to include professors, classmates and any industry connections they might have.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by the end of 2022 the number of jobs requiring a master's degree will have increased by 18.4 percent from where it was in 2012. An advanced degree provides some security in an increasingly competitive job market.

A measure of employment security

There's another career benefit to having a master's degree in addition to the increased income potential: It offers more protection from unemployment.

According to 2019 U.S. Labor Bureau data, the unemployment rate for someone with a master's degree is 2 percent. Compare that with the rate for someone who holds a high school diploma 3.7 percent or a bachelor's degree 2.2 percent.

All in all, someone who has completed graduate school is more likely to earn a higher salary and less likely to be unemployed. Graduate school is certainly a commitment, but evidence suggests that the time, money and effort that goes into earning a degree will pay back significant dividends.

• Tim Panfil is the senior director of graduate admission and enrollment management at Elmhurst University. He has worked in higher education admissions, marketing and enrollment management since 1993. He also has taught undergraduate courses for nontraditional students in management and marketing at Lewis University, Benedictine University and Elmhurst University.

• 12%: Only about 12% of the U.S. population age 25 and older holds an advanced degree.

• $2.7 million: On average, a master's degree-holder earns $2.7 million over a lifetime.

• 3.7x: In 2017, a person with an advanced degree earned 3.7 times as much as a high school dropout, on average.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; The College Payoff, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

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