How much will it cost to get a master’s degree? Really, how expensive is grad school? In the words of the shady guy selling watches in the alley, how much do you want to spend? 

There are a slew of master’s degrees available both online and via the more traditional, on-campus route. The cheapest in each category are indeed quite affordable, but there are a lot of factors that go into determining the value of a master’s degree. Things to consider include the average return on investment (ROI) for both the degree and the university, job market potential, and tuition and fees. It’s that last factor — the true, overall cost of earning a master’s degree — that can be the trickiest to determine. 

The experts tend to disagree about the average cost of graduate school tuition. For example, Peterson’s states that master’s degrees tend to cost between $30,000 and $40,000. Meanwhile, Sallie Mae pinpoints the average cost at $24,000. Neither of these estimates account for money-saving things like tuition waivers, tuition reimbursements, or grants. 

cost of a masters degrees

So how expensive is grad school, all things considered? Here are some factors to consider: 

What Are the Advantages of Earning a Master’s Degree?

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s go over the advantages of pursuing a master’s degree in the first place. After all, earning a graduate degree requires about two years of your life, a ton of energy, and a pretty good chunk of change. Fortunately, the experts agree that a master’s degree is mostly worth it. 

On average, professionals with a master’s degree make between $20,000 and $40,000 more per year than those with just a bachelor’s degree. This higher earning potential is arguably the main reason people return to graduate school, though it’s certainly not the only reason. 

A master’s degree also vastly improves employment opportunities. Being able to list a Master of __________ on your resume or CV is certainly going to set you apart from the competition when it comes to job hunting. At the very least, having a master’s degree illustrates your passion for your chosen profession and your desire to understand it on a deeper level. 

Speaking of deeper understanding, that’s another great benefit to earning a master’s degree! Courses required to complete a graduate degree typically cover more advanced facets of your chosen subject. Upon graduation, master’s students are better prepared to problem solve, create, communicate, and more than are their undergraduate counterparts. 

What Does it Cost to Get a Master’s Degree?

Notice the asterisk! The tired cliché that is “you get what you pay for” may be mostly true, but it takes a lot of qualifications to really explain what it means to say that “you get what you pay for” when it comes to the cost of master’s degrees. The average cost of graduate school tuition is high any which way you cut it, but there is one big factor that tends to drive up the overall bill. 

We are talking about prestige cost — that is, the sticker price of high-falutin’ private liberal arts colleges, research universities, and polytechnics. Think: Stanford University, MIT, and the Claremont Colleges. The Public Ivies and the STEM Giants also make the list. Indeed, data from U.S. News & World Report states that overall university tuition has increased by more than 50% in the last decade! 

And while it is true these universities come with high price tags, they also come with a slew of benefits. Many of the top law firms only hire from Big Ten law schools, for example. The same can be said for a variety of other industries. A graduate degree from Harvey Mudd College, one of the prestigious Claremont Colleges, will set you back about $135,000. But it has the highest return on investment of any university in the country! These things matter. It’s a similar case for Stanford, MIT, and the other aforementioned institutions.

However, it is important to note that the reverse isn’t necessarily true. “Cheap” and “inexpensive” does not automatically equal “bad.” In fact, it does not indicate anything about quality. Reasons that a university could be more affordable range from a massive endowment (suggesting they don’t need to depend upon tuition) to a commitment to affordability as a mission or value. In short, it’s simply impossible to judge quality based on cost. 

cost of graduate school

What is the Difference Between Tuition and Overall Cost?

Let’s just say it: tuition isn’t a scam, but it isn’t exactly transparent either. One of the biggest complaints college and graduate students have is that it’s often impossible to tell how much anything actually costs until you get the bill, at which time it’s difficult to figure out what exactly you paid for. 

While some colleges do advertise the total program cost on their websites, these colleges number in the very few. It is much more common for universities to publish only the tuition price…but to leave out things like application fees, registration fees, room and board, health fees, technology fees, campus fees, printing fees, parking passes, and so, so much more. 

The average cost of graduate school tuition is only half of the story — sometimes literally! When you speak to a recruitment officer or admissions representative, as them to be real with you about the full price. Be wary of any university representative who tries to skirt around the subject of money. There are plenty other graduate schools offering the same degree, and which will answer honestly. 

Other factors that affect tuition:

  • In-state vs. out-of-state
  • Public university vs. private university
  • Non-profit university vs. for-profit university
  • On-campus vs. online
  • Full time vs. part time

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Time is (Tuition) Money

“Time is money” is another cliché that rings true when it comes to the overall cost of a graduate degree. Here is how it works: 

Most universities assume their students will be studying for a master’s degree on a full-time basis. It is based on this full-time rate that they determine how long completing a full master’s degree is likely to take — usually 12 months, 18 months, or 22 months. When a degree is completed within the university’s estimated time frame, the graduate school tuition does not change. 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those who want or need to study part time. Not only does the tuition rate change a bit, but the fees begin to add up. Fees are added to a student’s bill for every semester that a student is enrolled, and those fees are consistent whether one class is being taken or four. 

Okay, so following this logic, the way to save the most money on the overall cost of a graduate degree would be to enroll in an accelerated degree program, right? 

Well, not exactly. Accelerated master’s degree programs — known also as weekend master’s programs, executive master’s programs, or distance master’s programs — allow one to complete an entire two-year graduate degree in, usually, as few as 12 months. But remember, you get what you pay for. The convenience of completing a degree swiftly comes at a premium price. Accelerated online master’s degree programs have their place, but are often more expensive than initially advertised. 

how much does a master's degree cost

What is Return on Investment and Why is it Important? 

Return on Investment — usually abbreviated to ROI — is defined by Investopedia as “a performance measure used to evaluate the efficiency or profitability of an investment, or compare the efficiency of a number of different investments.” In the case of colleges and universities, their returns on investment are determined by the average income made over a certain period of time (20 years, usually) compared to the average income made by someone with only a high school diploma over the same period of time, less the amount of the degree. In short, a university’s ROI can give one an idea of the amount of money they would make over time, and the advantage that amount affords. 

PayScale is an excellent reference for determining the ROI of any specific college or university. As of this writing, the top 10 schools providing the best return on investment are ranked as follows: 

#1. Harvey Mudd College
#2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
#3. United States Merchant Marine Academy
#4. United States Military Academy
#5. United States Naval Academy
#6. SUNY Maritime College (for in-state students)
#7. Colorado School of Mines (for in-state students)
#8. SUNY Maritime College (for out-of-state students)
#9. United States Air Force Academy
#10. Colorado School of Mines (for out-of-state students)

The total cost of a two-year graduate degree from Harvey Mudd College and MIT is $136,000 and $125,000, respectively. The fact that these universities are so expensive, yet still rank #1 and #2 for ROI illustrates just how powerful a degree from one of these universities can be. It’s up to you to decide if this plays into the value you yourself place on your graduate education.

Ways to Save on a Master’s Degree 

After reading about cost of a master’s degree, a natural question is “how can I save on a master’s degree?” While no two students’ situations are the same, here are some simple tips for saving on both tuition and fees: 

Shop Around

A master’s degree from that Top 10, highly respected, prestigious, and expensive university sure does look nice on a resumé….but so does any master’s degree. Know your limits, and find the right school for you. Consider public universities as well as private, and big universities as well as small. An online program might suit your needs better, especially if you need to work or care for a family at the same time. It’s classic car-buying advice, but it’s relevant for degree buying too: don’t “buy” the first university you see! Shop around.

Apply for Scholarships and Grants

Few people realize just how much free money is out there and available in the form of grants and scholarships! Spend some time searching for scholarships and filling out applications. While some scholarships are ultra-competitive, others receive just a handful of applicants. Many scholarships are specialized and offered to applicants of a certain ethnicity, living in a specific city or state, of a certain religion, studying a specific degree, etc. A number of websites exist for finding scholarships, though most universities also offer grants and other financial awards.

Consider Tax Deductions and Credits

Recent tax laws have made it a bit easier to gain deductions and credits on your taxes for educational expenses. For example, if your adjusted gross income is less than $75,000, you could be eligible for the Student Loan Interest Deduction. Check out the IRS’s Tax Benefits for Education Information Center to see what you might be eligible for.

Live at Home

Of course, not every graduate student has the opportunity to live at home. But those who can have some big potential to save! Living on campus can be pretty pricy, and living along off campus even more so. Living with your parents will ensure you have a roof over your head and food on your table at the very least. Just don’t forget to clean up after yourself, and say ‘thank you’ every once in awhile.

Be Smart About Your Supplies

If you’ve ever walked into a university bookstore, or purchased books for a university-level course, then you know just how expensive textbooks and other necessary supplies can be. Oh, and you need a laptop, too? Before you spend a fortune on books and tech, do some research. Can you rent your textbooks, or at least buy them used? When it comes to supplies like pens and paper, don’t be afraid to buy in bulk. There are tons of ways to save on supplies.

average cost of master's degree

So, How Expensive is Grad School for Me?

As you’ve likely deduced by now, the answer to this question is complicated. While you have no control over what a university charges, the cost of your master’s degree is ultimately in your hands. Education is a service, so be a smart consumer. Figure out — in advance! — how you will pay for school. Determine whether or not you are eligible for discounts, waivers, or reimbursements. Put a little effort into applying for grants and scholarships. Ask questions, run the numbers, and decide what master’s degree cost you can live with.