Shaun Young
Many millennials aren't being strategic about graduate school. Shaun Young, pictured here, got his MBA at Harvard but says he owes more on his student loans than on his home mortgage. Shaun Young

For Patrice Lee, the lure of graduate school was too much to resist. After getting interested in politics at the undergraduate level, she went on to earn her master’s degree in political science from Boston College, with a concentration in international relations and comparative studies of South Africa. Now 33, Lee has over $80,000 in student loan debt and a job where she’s not using the expertise she developed in graduate school.

“Sadly, I didn’t have a specific target career,” says Lee, who works in Washington, D.C., as a national spokeswoman for a youth advocacy organization. While she doesn't quite have the lavish salary she'd hoped for, she says she is able to pay her bills and stay current on her student loan payments.

Still, experts say Lee, like so many young adults in today’s economy, made a key mistake. According to TIAA-CREF , far too many millennials are “not being strategic about graduate education.” By not weighing job placement rates, comparing average starting salaries versus financial capability and student aid options, and determining “if the math works out,” millennials can quickly find themselves “falling deeper into student loan debt,” TIAA-CREF reports.

Lee says she assumed the nonprofit job she held while in school would generate enough income for a full salary. “My fallback was that I could get a good-paying job since the graduate degree would put my resume above my peers with bachelor’s degrees.”

Projected Aggregate Student Loan Debt | StartClass

Getting Strategic

Kendra Gaines, 26, knows what it feels like to fall deep into debt. An art director in New York, she went to Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter, “one of the best portfolio schools in the nation,” she says, to earn her graduate degree after deciding to pursue advertising. She used loans to finance her mission and graduated with a whopping $90,000 in student loan debt, which included about $17,000 from her undergrad studies. Before entering grad school, she says, she was concerned about incurring heavy debt and intentionally picked a career with starting salaries ample enough to cover her payments.

“I figured there was a lot of money to be made in the ad industry and that if I stuck with it, I would be able to handle whatever the loan servicers threw at me,” says Gaines, who has paid off about $2,000 in credit card debt over the last four months and is now aggressively attacking her student loan balance. She plans to pay off the $90,000 by making $1,500 monthly payments for the next five years. "That's crazy," she says, "but by the time five years is up, I'm hoping to have doubled my salary."

Although she’s happy in her new career, Gaines says if she had to do it over again she would have taken an “alternate route” to grad school. “I probably would have tried to get an internship or a [job] in the industry,” says Gaines. “School was totally worth it, but there are alternatives to getting into the ad business. You don’t need to go to a portfolio school.”

Average Tuition for Graduate Business Schools | StartClass

Two Paths

The co-founders of healthcare membership program provider Ardina, in Columbus, Ohio, took two decidedly different educational paths to get where they are today. Stephanie Murnen, 29, majored in business at the undergraduate level and then earned her MBA at a small, local liberal arts college on a part-time basis within two years. Her company offered tuition reimbursement, so she graduated with zero debt.

“I specifically chose that route and it was good from a financial standpoint,” says Murnen, “but I missed out on some long-term earning potential by not going to a school where there would have been more recruiting from top companies.”

Shaun Young, 37, took a different route to his current role at Ardina. He’s been accumulating student loan debt since he was 18 and decided to attend pharmacy school. Young worked several years as a pharmacist before applying to the MBA program at Harvard University. The prestigious program offered Young no scholarships and he wasn’t eligible for financial aid. And while few would question the financial value of a Harvard MBA in the corporate world, Young was on the entrepreneurial track and more interested in starting his own business.

“Today, my student loan debt is higher than my mortgage [principal],” Young admits. “I’ll never dismiss the value of an MBA – particularly from Harvard– but it’s still a level playing field out there when it comes to paying tuition and taking out loans.”

Looking back, Young says he would have approached his undergrad studies differently and attended a two-year community college or in-state school first. That would have left him with more room to take on Harvard-level debt. “I'm actually a big fan of community colleges now,” says Young, “just because of the debt that I now have.”

Average Starting Salary for Business School Graduates by State | StartClass

The Road Ahead

At 26, Erin Eife has already accomplished a lot on the educational front, having earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and completed a fellowship in Ireland (funded via a Fulbright Scholarship). She is now hunkered down for another five-year stint as a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Intent on becoming a college professor (or, as a fallback, a market research professional), Eife has about $60,000 in student loan debt that’s currently deferred while she’s in school. Determined not to add to that total, Eife’s tuition for her current program is waived because she works as a teacher’s assistant and she also receives a stipend to cover some expenses.

Eife started repaying her loans while working at a market research firm before her Ph.D. program started and felt the pinch almost immediately. “On the 10-year plan I would have had to pay $700 a month. That was a lot,” says Eife. “I opted for the $400-a-month option and then my loans were deferred when I started school again in August.” And while she’s worried about loan interest that will accrue over the next five years, Eife considers herself lucky. “I’m hoping that after I get my Ph.D. the burden of $700 a month will be a lot less,” she says, “because I’ll be making more money than I was last year.”

To millennials who want to make the best possible grad school choices, Bryan Yackulic, 26, an assistant director at The American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., says getting “real-world” experience while in school is a good move. “While this [involves] more stress and time, I’ve seen many of my friends pursue their master’s degree, or even their doctoral immediately after their master’s, but still be unable to differentiate themselves from other candidates when applying for positions,” says Yackulic, who has a master’s degree and is currently pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration degree. “Having an unpaid internship or low-paying position in the industry you are pursuing will carry you a lot further in the long-term versus having a high-paying service job outside of that industry.”

Grappling with her $80,000 debt load, Lee advises millennials to explore flexible degree options, such as mixing traditional courses with online courses, leveraging apprenticeships, and signing up for work arrangements (for example, teaching assistant positions or tuition reimbursement that can help cut the costs of your degree). “Most people self-finance their grad degrees through student loans unless they qualify for Ph.D. fellowships,” Lee says, “and the longer they stay in school, the more loans they’re likely to accumulate and the more they’ll have to pay back when they graduate.”