In September 2020, the National Student Clearinghouse estimated that while enrollment in undergraduate programs for associate's and bachelor's degrees fell by 9.7% compared to 2019, enrollment in master's programs increased 6%. Most recent tallies for the Spring 2021 term found that while undergraduate enrollment has decreased by 4.9% since 2020, graduate enrollment has increased by 4.6%.
But even as master's degree enrollment has boomed, borrowers, activists and journalists have called attention to the student debt crisis — and the role that master's degrees play in the country's $1.7 trillion student debt total.
However, the cost — and benefit — of a master's degree can range significantly.
As part of their annual Salary Survey, the National Association of Colleges and Employers recently analyzed which master's degrees created the biggest increase in earnings for graduates, known as a differential. They found that in 2021, a master's in biology creates the biggest differential, with graduates earning approximately 86.5% more after their advanced degree.
In contrast, NACE found that a master's in social work led to a 36.7% increase in earnings, on average.
"If someone is earning a master's degree solely for earning potential purposes, I would take a look at that particular career trajectory to understand if the payoff is there," says Shawn VanDerziel, executive director at NACE. "And to understand if the differential and starting salary is worth it."
The cost of a master's degree
EducationData.org estimates that the cost of a master's degree typically ranges between $30,000 and $120,000 depending on the school, major and length of the program. For instance, a master's degree in education typically costs $55,200, a master's degree in arts typically costs $72,800 and a master's degree in science typically costs $62,300.
According to the College Board's 2020 Trends in College Pricing Report, the average cost of one year of a master's program (including tuition, fees, room and board) is roughly $19,630 for in-state students at public institutions and $42,030 at private non-profit institutions.
And recently, high-cost programs that saddle graduates with large amounts of student debt without preparing them for profitable professions have come under scrutiny.
In one instance, The Wall Street Journal highlighted how recent graduates of Columbia University's film program with federal student loans owed $181,000, on average, however, two years after earning their master's degrees, half were making less than $30,000 a year.
The benefits of a master's degree
To be sure, earning a master's degree has historically been tied to higher earnings.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with just a high school degree earn $746 per week on average while college graduates earn closer to 1,248 per week, and workers with master's degrees earn nearly $1,500 per week.
And workers with advanced degrees have been significantly less impacted by the economic fallout caused by the pandemic. Pew Research Center found that since the pandemic began, highly educated workers are significantly less likely to have lost health insurance or to have struggled to pay bills. And federal reserve data indicates the unemployment rate is two times higher for high school graduates than it is for those with a master's degree.
But still, there is a range in how big this benefit is, depending on the type of master's program.
For instance, National Center for Education Statistics data suggest that at the master's degree level, the greatest numbers of degrees were conferred in the fields of business and education: two fields with very different earning potentials and with very different student demographics, especially when it comes to gender.
"Especially for men, graduate degrees bring a huge increase in earnings, that's less true for women," Anthony Carnevale, economist, professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, previously told CNBC Make It. The example that Carnavale gave to explain why women with master's degrees tend to earn less is that they are more likely to earn degrees in lower-earning fields like education and social work.
However, research has shown that women, and especially Black women, often need to earn an additional degree in order to increase their earnings.
"African-American women with a graduate degree still earn less than white men with just a college degree," Persis Yu, director of the National Consumer Law Center's Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project previously told CNBC Make It. "Because of the way that the labor market is set up, women, people of color, and then especially women of color, really need to get that credential in order to compete in the labor market."
In this way, potential students must balance several considerations at once, including their passions, personal circumstances and financial forecasts.
VanDerziel adds that individuals also need to weigh if they will need to earn a master's degree in order to enter their field of choice as well as any lifelong earning potential that may not be captured in starting salary statistics.
"You always have to take into consideration your career in totality," he says. "Not all master's degrees are as fruitful in terms of earnings differential. But you also don't know how the market is going to fluctuate from year to year. Employers may be willing to pay a premium now, but that might not be the case five years from now.
"We just don't know."