Margot Besnard:How to decide if the Grad2Grad program is right for you

With fewer than four months to go before the Class of 2016 graduates, students will likely notice more advertisements for GW’s Grad2Grad program in upperclassmen residence halls and academic buildings around campus. The poster that caught my eye next to an elevator in City Hall read, “With your GW degree you’ll go far. Just imagine what you can do with two.”

Now in its second year, the Grad2Grad program offers a 10 percent tuition discount and waives standardized test requirements for seniors who go directly to most master’s and graduate certificate programs at GW. But if you’re thinking about going to graduate school at GW, it’s important to consider all aspects of the Grad2Grad program before you jump at the attractive benefits.

Juniors will be coming under greater pressure this semester to decide on post-graduation goals, so it’s a good time to figure out if we should be networking for jobs or getting ready to apply to graduate school. I’m a junior who isn’t sure what to do after college, so I spoke to graduate school students and professors to try to find out when it does – or doesn’t – make sense to go straight to a master’s program. I’ve found out that there’s no simple answer, but there are concrete steps you should take to reach an informed decision.

1. Talk to insiders
First and foremost, you should take advantage of the key feature of the Grad2Grad program: your status as a current GW student. Familiarity with Foggy Bottom and members of the academic community mean you can evaluate your program of interest more closely than you will be able to at other universities down the road.

Just as you would want to try on a pair of shoes before buying them at a store, you can lace up your hypothetical graduate student shoes and imagine walking around in them for the next year or two by talking to professors and students in your program of interest.

Ian Robinson, who graduated last spring, met with faculty, including the head of the accounting department, before applying to get his master’s of accounting degree through the Grad2Grad program at the GW School of Business.

“I recognize that there might be some bias in them encouraging me to enroll, but I did appreciate their advice,” Robinson said in an email. “I wouldn’t say that their opinion swayed me one way or the other. Rather it just confirmed my intentions.”

2. Understand the discount
One goal of the program is to encourage graduating seniors to continue their education at GW, Geri Rypkema, assistant provost in the Office of Graduate Student Assistantships and Fellowships, said in an email.

“The financial incentive demonstrates that we highly value our recent alumni and we want to keep them in the GW talent pool,” Rypkema said.

An important caveat is that not all master’s and graduate certificates are eligible for the 10 percent tuition discount. For example, degrees in data science, finance and the global MBA are not listed as eligible for the Grad2Grad program.

I think about the tuition discount the way I would think of a sale on winter coats. Of course, there’s a big difference between the two: Graduate school is an educational experience intended for you to specialize in a field you’re ready to spend many months studying, while a winter coat is a product designed to keep you warm and stylish.

But just as you wouldn’t buy a winter coat in D.C. before moving to Florida just because the coat was on sale, you shouldn’t invest in graduate school just because it’s 10 percent off. On the other hand, if you’re moving to Maine and you see a great coat on sale, you should probably buy it because you know you’ll use it and save money.

3. Research the job market
Some administrators have said that the decline in graduate school enrollment is caused by a growing economy in which it’s easier for people to find jobs. I see this trend as another reminder to find out whether or not you need a graduate degree to start working in your field of interest. Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said in an interview that students must “think carefully about master’s degrees.”

“Is the field they want to go in worth going into debt for? And potentially, will employers help pay for the degree if you go out and work first?” Kelchen said.

Convenience is a major incentive of the Grad2Grad program, but what Kelchen had to say helped me realize that, in the end, it should be career goals that drive your decision to undertake a master’s or graduate certificate program.

Adam Wolken, who also graduated last spring, knew while studying business administration as an undergraduate that he would need to complete a master’s degree to become a Certified Public Accountant. One of the biggest benefits of continuing his studies at GW, Wolken said, was staying in Foggy Bottom.

“I think the biggest benefit is that you’ve built up relationships, a network of employers in this area, and so you literally just roll into the program one more year,” he said.

4. Consider the cost
On average, graduate degree holders earn higher salaries than those with only a bachelor’s degree. However, they owe a disproportionately large share of student loans. Last July, The Washington Post ranked GW among the top 20 universities responsible for student debt with over $185 million in graduate student loans taken out during the 2013‒2014 academic year.

“You want to make sure you shop around for master’s degrees,” Kelchen said. “There typically isn’t a lot of financial aid available, and that’s different than doctoral degrees where you can often get your full tuition covered, plus get a stipend.”

Considering that tuition for many master’s programs at GW is more than $50,000, you’ll want to have a clear idea of how long it will take to repay student loans. Online cost calculators can help you get a sense of how long it will take to repay student loans if – and this is a big if – you can enter salary data for the job you expect to land after graduate school.

For students who know that a master’s degree is necessary to get the jobs they want, a bit of analysis will likely confirm that the Grad2Grad program presents a great opportunity to continue studying at GW. On the other hand, it may make more financial sense for students like me – who can’t say yet what field they want to be working in in five years – to do some soul searching at an entry-level job before investing in graduate school (even if it’s 10 percent off).

Margot Besnard, a junior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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