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It used to be that a bad economy meant more workers turned to graduate school to increase their credentials and qualifications and enhance their job prospects. But that’s not the case in the current anemic labor market--graduate schools have actually experienced a decline in enrollment recently, despite an increase in applications.

According to a study conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools, enrollment of new students at graduate schools dropped 1.1% from 2009 to 2010 despite an 8.4% increase in applications overall. This was the first decline in first-time graduate enrollment since 2003 and occurred after a 5.5 % increase the previous year.

Experts say the labor market has workers too scared to leave their current position to seek out a higher degree and have to face the job market all over again. But for some workers, attending graduate school could be a logical step if they are looking to switch careers, earn a higher salary or advancement in their current field.

“I’ve worked with a number of [people] who just feel stale, they are no longer challenged, they don’t feel engaged in their world of work--that’s a good reason to seriously look at grad school,” says Cheryl Stevens, certified professional coach at MBA@UNC
online MBA program offered through UNC's Kenan-Flagler. “You need to have some sense for in what ways does grad school fit into your overall career advancement plan.”

For workers debating the choice of taking a step back from their job and heading back to graduate school, experts offered the following factors on what they should consider.  

Will it be Worth it in the Long Run?

Walking away from a steady paycheck can seem impractical, and potential grad students may struggle with what will be best for their career in the long run.

“If there is an opportunity to be promoted if you were to stick with it a little longer, you need to determine if you want to quit work entirely and go back to school full time,” says education consultant Dani Babb.

JP Hansen, career expert and author of The Bliss List: The Ultimate Guide to Living the Dream at Work and Beyond, recommends that if it is possible to go to school and keep a job—that’s the best strategy.

“If you choose to focus two years for a full-time MBA, the intrinsic value of the degree far outweighs the time lost,” he says.

Can You Afford it?

Graduate school and the associated costs are not cheap, especially for students no longer working. Eligible students should take advantage of federal student loan opportunities.

Hansen explains that some employers will help employee-turned-students with the cost of grad school while they continue to work for the company. Depending on the degree, some schools offer online degree programs, evening classes, or a remote Executive MBA program with financial assistance.

“It is advisable to accept a job offer with a company which offers a strong education reimbursement program,” he says. “Most graduate programs offer flexible accelerated degrees and several companies are willing to foot the bill.”

Will it Help With Long-Term Job Prospects?

Obtaining a graduate degree can provide more job security in the long run, especially for employees at large companies, says Babb.

“Their opportunity for advancement or to change disciplines within the same company goes up over 40%,” she says. “We also saw that 70% of hiring managers were more likely to hire someone in today’s market that has a masters degree or an MBA in business, so it definitely is playing a long term role in their ability to move up, to be flexible, and reduces their chance of being downsized if that company goes through layoffs.”

Is grad school for you?

Stevens recommends looking at different data points such as financial commitments, required student loans and how long they will take to pay back and current earnings.  

“If you’re going out of the job market in order to go back to grad school, that needs to be part of the model that you create to determine what the level of investment is,” says Stevens.

For younger workers, the decision to go back to school might be more simple. Stevens  points out that workers in their 20s have more years of earning potential to make an advanced degree worthwhile than workers in their 40s.   

“If your earnings are going to increase as a result of your investment in yourself and education, it makes total sense, but you have to look at multiple data points,” she says.“Based on the students that I’ve directly worked with, graduate schools have been a significant benefit to them in where their career takes them, as long as they have a plan.”