It used to be that a lucrative and secure career meant four years of hard work at a university and then a move into the workforce. Veterans could use their GI Bill benefits to get a bachelor’s degree, and feel confident that they’d set themselves up for a solid job until retirement. With more Americans seeking degrees every year, the level of competition for good jobs has increased. Sometimes that competition means that it makes economic sense to pursue a graduate degree, but does grad school make sense for GI Bill students?
The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is, “It depends on your situation.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, level of education is a major predictor of both median pay and unemployment rates. In short, adding degrees will most often get you paid more, and laid off less.
A graduate degree can not only impact salary, but also can open doors that might otherwise be closed. It doesn’t matter how much you know about history, the likelihood of a university or college hiring you as a professor is very low if you only have a bachelor’s degree, and non-existent if you don’t have a degree at all. Even at the high school level, graduate degrees are often required or highly encouraged. And don’t even think about applying for a university research position. Trust me, “I really like dolphins” won’t cut it to become a marine biologist.
The financial downside to graduate school is that the financial benefits are very unevenly distributed between job fields. If you graduate with a master’s in business administration or a law degree, you are likely to earn your investment back easily.
When it comes to fields that will most likely only result in teaching or research positions like education or some sciences, it gets a bit dicey. These are the jobs you get because you love the topic, not because you want to get rich. Hopefully you really like teaching freshman comp, because that’s probably all you’ll get with that English Ph.D.
Of course, if you can pay for grad school with the GI Bill, that changes the math a little bit.
The first question to ask is whether or not it’s possible to complete a graduate program on the amount of benefits you have left. If you’ve already completed all or part of a degree on active duty, the answer might be simple. If you are starting off with few or no credits, it might be a little bit more difficult, though it isn’t impossible.
As a full-time student working at a normal pace, it usually takes four years or so to complete a bachelor’s degree, and another two years to complete a master’s degree. But nobody says you have to go at a normal speed. Remember that GI Bill benefits are calculated by the number of days used, not by the credit. That means that the faster you complete an undergraduate degree, the more benefit days will be left over for grad school.
Even if it’s possible to complete a graduate degree, it might not be the smart move for your life circumstances. Depending on your needs, getting out into the workforce quickly might be the most important thing.
Perhaps you’re working full time and can’t afford to move quickly enough. Maybe the pay boost in your field isn’t worth the time and effort. The circumstances in each GI Bill veteran’s life are as unique as the people that serve, and only you can know if the extra effort is worthwhile. Just keep in mind that the opportunity is out there, and it is possible to do.
A graduate degree can open up doors to opportunities that a bachelor’s degree can’t. It can be a difficult road, but the jobs an advanced degree can unlock make it at least worth considering an extra year or two of school.
Whether you’re separating from active duty or eyeing a return to school, paying for grad school with the GI Bill is a great way to reap the rewards of higher education, without the crippling debt that might otherwise be a roadblock. With a little time and hard work, you too can swim with the dolphins or rock a tweed jacket like a real English professor!