Is Higher Education Worth Pursuing? Part 1

The year was 2010; I was 25 and in full-blown quarter life crisis.

I had a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts, working in web design in Chicago, living paycheck to paycheck, and in the brink of foreclosing on a house I forgot I had owned (more on that in a future post).

Fall 2011 – Summer 2015 – The Blur

Long story short, I decided to go back to school, wiped out my savings of $7,000 with prerequisites, certifications, and grad school application fees, started PA school in 2013, and racked up nearly $100,000 in federal and family loans.

Fall 2015 – The Light at the End of the Tunnel

I moved to NYC to work at the 3rd best hospital in the US and TRIPLED my previous salary.

So, was it worth it?

For my Master’s degree, if I were to pay my loans off today, I would have invested $100,581.76, $3,756.58 of which is interest. This amount of interest would easily have been closer to $15,000 had I not refinanced my federal loans through Commonbond, which you can read about here. That’s A LOT of money.

Here’s what motivated me to change careers vs changing jobs in the same field:

  • Helping others and even saving lives is super important to me, especially when I have family members with chronic health issues whom I’ve been unable to help as much.
  • Secondly, although money isn’t everything, but it does play a big role in why I chose this career.
    • I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck.
  • The third biggest reason I chose to be a PA was time.
    • Time is just as (if not more) important as money, and I did not pursue medical school for this reason.
    • More time in school equals more loans and less income in the short-term.
    • More time at work equals less time for family, friends, and traveling, even if it does mean a bigger paycheck in the long run.


Let’s take a look at what my return on investment (ROI) is for an MS degree (blue) vs BFA plus 3 extra years in the workforce (orange).

A physician assistant analyzes her ROI of changing careers and pursuing higher education versus staying in the workforce as a web designer.
ROI of PA school – click to enlarge

Age is the X axis, which starts at 22 when I entered the workforce, student debt-free thanks to generous scholarships.

Salary is the Y axis on the left, and cumulative assets is the Y axis on the right.

To keep things simple, both salaries assume a 5% raise each year and both cumulative assets assume a 6% rate of return.

The point at which my Master’s degree pays for itself is between the ages of 31 and 32. From here, assuming I am able to invest 50% of my PA salary each year (less $25,000 for living expenses), I will reach my first $1 million in assets by the age of 41 versus the $220,000 in assets at that same age had I stayed in web design.

Again, this is a very basic projection based on the 5 main variables:

  1. My starting salaries in both careers
  2. Fixed raises of 5% annually
  3. Fixed rate of return  of 6% on cumulative assets annually
  4. Fixed cost of living of $25k annually
  5. Fixed savings of 50% of salary annually

The age at which the graduate school pays for itself will vary greatly based on these 5 factors.

Not all graduate degrees were created equal.

While the more pragmatic degrees such as engineering and finance have shown to pay for themselves relatively quickly, a large percentage of other degrees have poor ROI.

According to a 2014 Economist article, some arts and humanities graduates can expect to make $147,000 LESS over 20 years than a high school graduate. The high cost of education, which has increased 5 times greater than the rate of inflation, contributes to the poor ROI.

A 2015 Washington Post article revealed that as many as 1 in 4 degrees have a negative return.


My total opportunity cost of over $230,000 ($108,000 upfront + $130,000 in wages and investment opportunities forfeited) is paying off significantly.

What’s immeasurable is job satisfaction and work-life balance, both of which are also very high for me. Big will also say the same about his MBA.

I work 40-60+ hours a week, 1 call weekend every 5 weeks, and have 5 weeks of PTO. In my free time, Big and I have been traveling upstate to work on DIY projects for our new apartment and across the country to Savannah, Montreal, and more!

If you’re thinking about pursuing higher education:

  • Do your research.
    • I knew I wanted change but considered different paths (including architecture and physical therapy) before discovering the PA profession.
  • Reach out to your social network to find others in the same field.
    • Invite these folks out for coffee and/or shadow them, and pick their brain!
  • Make a Pros vs Cons chart.
  • Make a Cost vs Return graph.
    • See if it makes sense to invest tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars into an advanced degree or if there are more affordable  alternatives
    • Consider the immeasurable variables such as job satisfaction, work-life balance, etc.

What are your thoughts on higher education? Feel free to comment below.

Subscribe to stay tuned for Part 2 of our Is Higher Education Worth Pursuing? series, where Big talks about his MBA and its ROI.



Interested in refinancing your student loans?

Use our referral link to receive a $300 cash bonus when refinancing through CommonBond.


A physician assistant analyzes her ROI of changing careers and pursuing higher education versus staying in the workforce as a web designer.

A physician assistant analyzes her ROI of changing careers and pursuing higher education versus staying in the workforce as a web designer.


26 Replies to “Is Higher Education Worth Pursuing? Part 1

  1. Your graph isn’t accurate. PA salary doesn’t increase consistently at 5%, in fact it’s not even a guarantee to have a 5% raise every year in any job setting. Starting employees usually get raises and then it begins to taper. Why do you project a salary of $350,000? PA salary is about $115k, and that is around the ceiling of it. Where are you getting your facts?

    1. Thanks for reading. The starting salary in the graph is based on my real starting salary as a PA. As you know, the PA salary varies widely based on specialty and location. As for the $350k, try and Google CPI Inflation Calculator – $350k today is not $350k 20 years from now.

      1. That still doesn’t equal correctly. Maybe you can work the math out next time instead of providing these curve that don’t actually apply in real life settings. As you know, most jobs barely adjust for inflation as is.

  2. This really makes me think. I feel like I have gone pretty much no where with my Bachelors in Business Management. I have wondered if getting a Master’s would help but I haven’t done the research. Great post and thanks for the push!

    1. Thanks for reading! Certain Master’s degrees can open a lot of doors, but definitely do your research and do a cost-benefit analysis! A lot of jobs offer tuition reimbursement too – good luck! 🙂

  3. This is a super useful post and one I think many of us that are long out of higher education wished they’d read before they’d made the decision to apply! I am now 31 and still paying off my debts but am so much happier than I would have been if I hadn’t gone to university. I met my husband there for a start which just goes to show that ROI is definitely more than money!

    1. Thanks for reading! We’re so glad you found this useful and that you and your husband reaped the many benefits of attaining a higher ed 🙂 ROI is definitely more than money!

  4. I found that a higher education is worth it. I have a Bachelors but I refuse to get a Masters when most jobs hiring only want experience.

    1. So true! In many professions, experience trumps degree – definitely a big thing to consider before jumping into grad school.

  5. I think higher education is important but at the same time I think you need to really be serious about it 🙂 Also, I think higher education isn’t always the right answer.

    1. We couldn’t agree more! It’s a big investment of time and money, and one needs to ask oneself what “success” and “happiness” means to them. Thanks so much for reading! 🙂

  6. Amazing analysis of getting a higher education! Personally, I have always struggled with deciding whether or not it is even worth considering. As of now, I plan to get my associates, transfer to a university, and get my bachelor’s there. As for a masters, well, your post has really opened up some possible opportunities! Thank you again for sharing!

    1. Thank you for reading and for your sweet words! Everyone’s got their path in life, and if you plan on going corporate, a bachelor’s degree will open a lot of doors for you (Big’s little brother is in the Air Force and thinking about getting his bachelor’s in Computer Science). What field are you going into? 🙂

      1. I am going into entrepreneurship, so I can work independently. That’s cool that his little brother wants a bachelor’s in Computer Science. That actually crossed my mind briefly, but I feel entrepreneurship fits me better, and fits the goals I have for the future.

  7. I think Higher Education is important. I think it isn’t NECESSARY but it can provide great opportunities (in specific) fields with a great lifestyle and income as a result. I think it is SO important to do research prior AND to understand what LOANS actually are and interest, pay off, etc. Great article!

    1. Thanks for reading! 🙂 You’re totally right about higher ed not being necessary for everyone and the importance of understanding what loans are – you think this stuff would be taught in high school!

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