Nearly half of master’s degree programs leave students financially worse off—and just one subject results in a starting salary over $100k

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With Gen Z on track to become the most educated generation in history, those looking to stand out among the sea of college graduates may tempted to eye up a master’s degree—but be warned, it’s not the golden ticket to big paychecks and guaranteed success one might imagine.

Quite the opposite: According to new research, nearly half of master’s degree programs actually leave students financially worse off.

While 23% of bachelor degree programmes yield a negative financial return on investment this nearly doubles to 43% for masters degrees, according to the study by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.

“Even the MBA, one of America’s most popular master’s degrees, frequently has a low or negative payoff,” the report warned. 

FREOPP used the Department of Education’s College Scorecard and Census Bureau earnings data to estimate ROI for over 53,000 degrees and certificate programs—and found that all sectors of higher education contain negative ROI programs.

However, master’s degrees are the worst performers due to their high fees, time spent out of the workforce, and often modest earnings.

The median ROI — defined as the lifetime earnings a student can expect when they enroll in a degree program minus their cost of attendance and earnings lost while enrolled — for all master’s degrees is around $50,000. 

For those with an MBA, this rises to $101,000. But in comparison, bachelor’s degree programs have a median ROI of $160,000—and that’s including those who take drama and art.

Bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science, nursing, and economics tend to have a payoff of $500,000 or more.

“One reason for this poor performance is that MBA students typically have high preexisting earnings potential, having often chosen high-ROI undergraduate majors such as finance and economics, so the MBA adds little value on top of that,” the research explains. 

Want a six-figure job? Get a master’s degree in computer and information sciences 

That being said, Gen Zers who are still hell-bent on one-upping graduates with more qualifications to their name, should look at studying tech or business fields if they actually want to up their earning potential. 

Really, the only subject that may result in a six-figure starting salary is computer and information sciences.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers analyzed the starting salaries for the class of 2022 and found that those who had a master’s degree in computer and information sciences enjoyed an average starting salary of $105,894.

In comparison, those with a bachelor’s degree in the same field earned around $20,000 less. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of the top 10 master’s degrees with the highest average starting salaries are in STEM fields. 

Those who graduated with a Master of Engineering earned an average starting salary of around $98,040.

Meanwhile, those with a master’s degree in mathematics and statistics walked into jobs paying upwards of $83,000. However, even those with a mathematics and statistics bachelor’s degree secured positions with salaries over $76,000.

The 10 master’s degrees with the highest average starting salaries

1. Computer and information sciences: $105,890
2. Engineering: $98,040
3. Engineering technologies and related fields: $90,610
4. Business management, marketing and related services: $87,980
5. Transportation and materials moving: $84,100
6. Mathematics and statistics: $83,440
7. Legal Professions and studies: $74,650
8. Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, humanities: $72,680
9. Multi/interdisciplinary studies: $71,940
10. Health professions and related programs: $70,960



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