[dropcap]For[/dropcap] centuries, Americans have believed that education was the most effective way to improve one’s social and economic status. An individual matriculates from grade school to high school, then high school to college, then for some, from college to graduate school.

But lately, many have been wondering whether graduate-level education is really worth it.

All across the nation, graduate schools have seen a decline in enrollment, and the struggling economy and rise of higher education costs each seem to have played a part in this.

Dr. Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, believes that financial stress has had a huge impact on both students and academic programs alike, when it comes to graduate degrees.[pullquote]Small class sizes allow [professors] to be more involved in teaching each student than they could be at a larger university.[/pullquote]

So, with this in mind, when is the best time to pursue a graduate degree, and what are the purpose and benefits of most programs?

In 2014, Rogers State University in Claremore created a master’s degree in business administration program.

“Our goal is to prepare people to compete,” says Dr. Burt Tollison, Rogers State University MBA department chair.

Tollison is fully aware of the immense pressure many students face upon entering the work force, and he knows that there is no one-way to make everyone in a program successful.

“I’m a project coordinator in a support role at a major energy company, and I want to move forward in my career. Getting my MBA will expand my skills and knowledge in the business world and make me more competitive in the job market,” says Katrina Loy Herndon,  a current MBA student at RSU.

The small classes and intimate learning environment of many graduate programs compared to many undergraduate programs is a huge advantage for students. This focused learning style allows for much more collaboration and networking at the graduate level, which has a lasting effect in the classroom and post graduation.

“Small class sizes allow [professors] to be more involved in teaching each student than they could be at a larger university,” Herndon says.

Another advantage to enrolling in a graduate program is that it provides individuals with the skills and knowledge to change their career path. For many dissatisfied with their professions, graduate programs allow them to explore another field of study and gain practical experience for a career in that path.

“In short, the University of Oklahoma provided a tough, yet rewarding, 17 months that prepared me for my second career upon departing from the military,” says Richard Lee, who graduated with a Master of Arts degree in economics in 1998. “The rigors of the program, coupled with the exceptionally high quality of teaching, distinguished OU from its peers with similar programs.”

The numbers also support the overall payoff of graduate degrees. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, college-educated adults between 25- and 34-years-old with a bachelor’s degree earned an average monthly income of $3,836 in 2009, while those with a master’s degree averaged $4,772.

There are, however, problems like high student loan debt and being overqualified for some positions, that individuals with graduate degrees must sort through; but overall, the rewards may outweigh the risks.

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