APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

Continuing Education Beyond an Undergraduate Degree, Part I

By Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

Note: This is the first article in a two-part series on continuing higher education.

As an educator, I have the distinct privilege of mentoring college students and offering advice when asked. One of the topics that students frequently come to see me about is education planning.

Start a degree program at American Public University.

Often, it’s because they see that I have acquired an unusually large and diverse collection of academic degrees and credentials. They’re curious as to how and why.

No one within the universities where I earned my undergraduate degrees ever offered these discussions with me. So I learned everything I know about this subject largely on my own.

Over the past 15 years as a college student and the last 10 years as a university educator, I’ve had plenty of time to think long and hard about answers to questions on education strategies. I’ve noticed that many misconceptions still persist about higher education and its value. Enough students ask me about this topic that I thought it might be helpful to create an article for the benefit of learners everywhere.

Probably the most common question I am asked is, “Should I stay in school?” This inquiry usually comes from undergraduate students who are considering graduate programs.

But I occasionally get this question from master’s-level students who are contemplating pursuing a doctorate. Fortunately, regardless of the student’s current level and ultimate aspirations, my answer is always the same — an emphatic “yes!”

Then come the follow-up concerns, which are often in the form of retorts or bad arguments repeated by those who simply don’t know better. These concerns usually involve the following notions:

1. Higher education won’t make a difference and isn’t worth the cost. Continuing education can be a powerful game changer. For example, studies have consistently shown that the longer a person stays in school, the more likely they are to find work and the more money they are likely to make from that work.

2. Higher education won’t protect me from obsolescence. Depending on the discipline, higher education may present opportunities for degree holders to avoid becoming victims of the technology/automation revolution. This revolution is currently eliminating jobs in the unskilled labor pool at an accelerating rate.

3. Higher education doesn’t have much to do with the real world. Thomas Jefferson once said that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Education prepares the electorate for constructive participation in a democratic society.

As the challenges of modern society become increasingly complex, we need higher levels of sophisticated education to meet them. In fact, I wrote a separate four-part article series on how our current undereducated electorate is utterly unprepared to manage our democracy in the 21st century.

4. What’s in it for me if I pursue further education? A graduate degree doesn’t seem worth it. Many people find learning to be a fulfilling experience that promotes a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Higher education is built on the premise that continual learning is an ambition worth valuing and pursuing unto itself.

However, the claim that graduate degrees are “not worth it” simply doesn’t hold water. For example, the average cost of masters’ programs is estimated at between $30,000 and $40,000. Let’s assume the higher number to be a conservative estimate.

Master’s Degree Holders More Likely to Have Higher Earnings during a Career

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2018 that master’s degree holders earned an average of about $12,000 more per year than those with just a bachelor’s degree. What this means is that the average master’s degree pays for itself in just a little over three years; every year thereafter, the degree holder pockets those additional earnings.

Let’s say that a master’s degree holder works for 30 years. He can expect that — after paying for the degree itself — it will net him an additional $320,000 in today’s dollars over what he would have made without the master’s. I would argue that $320,000 in added net worth is certainly “worth it.”

Many graduate school students do not pay much, if anything, for their college education. This is because many graduate programs often offer either scholarships or assistantships through which students perform research or teaching assistance work in exchange for tuition waivers, stipends, and other benefits.

These offerings further improve the ROI associated with earning a graduate degree. Not all schools offer these “fully funded” programs, but they are abundant enough to be worth looking for.

A former undergraduate student of mine, who is now a graduate student, comes into my UCF classes each semester to talk to other undergraduates about her experience and answer questions. She found funding for her graduate studies so easily that when she talks to my undergraduate students, she tells them, “If you’re paying for graduate school, you’re doing something wrong.”

Other Benefits of Continuing Education

Another benefit of continuing education is that certain types of federal student loans are subsidized by the government for as long as a student remains in school. What this means is that if a student decides to pursue a graduate degree program, any undergraduate student loans he took out previously fall into deferment. As such, no payments are owed on those loans and no interest accrues, so long as the student maintains a status of at least half-time enrollment.

From an investment security perspective, higher education is a very safe choice. This is because college degrees and credentials are some of the few things in this world that can neither be stolen nor destroyed.

Think about it. Hard as you might try to avoid it, you could lose your home tomorrow in a fire. A car accident could destroy your vehicle. A thief could steal your wallet and its contents.

But a college degree carries no such dangers. It is immune to the risks of other valuable possessions because its tangible form — a diploma — is just a symbol of the affirmation that your university makes on your behalf. It’s true that the value of a college degree changes with fluctuations in labor market demand for certain skill sets or credentials, but the degree itself is a permanent asset.

In the second part of this article series, I will discuss another common argument against continuing education: the notion that self-guided informal learning is just as good as enrollment in a higher education program.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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