If you're trying to advance your career, common wisdom says attending graduate school might be the answer. By earning a graduate degree, you can learn new skills, increase your job prospects and position yourself for higher pay.
While much is this is true, you can also leave yourself worse off financially. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year, graduate school debt makes up 40 percent of national student loan debt, even though grad students only represent 14 percent of borrowers.
According to the stats, increased borrowing among graduate students is partly because graduate school is so expensive. The average cost is $30,000 per year for public colleges and universities, and it's nearly $40,000 for private schools. And of course, graduate school debt almost always follows a four-year stint as an undergrad, too.
Graduate students tend to earn more, but there is a price to pay for that success. And sometimes, the benefit of a higher salary can't possibly outweigh the crushing costs.
Graduate education isn't the solution it was once made out to be. And it's far from the only option you have if you want to advance your career. There are a ton of ways to learn new skills and broaden your job prospects that don't involve taking on more college debt.
My greatest learning experience to date has been launching and growing my own business, for example. Not only have I learned much more than I could possibly learn in an MBA program, but I also graduated from the experience with profits instead of more student loans.
Not everyone wants to launch a startup or learn the ropes through trial and error, but there are still more than a few ways to beef up your resume without spending tens of thousands more dollars on a degree you may not need.
So, here's how to further your education — and your career — without attending grad school.
1. Attend conferences and networking events.
Graduate school can teach you the underlying lessons everyone needs to succeed, but the biggest benefit often comes in the form of the contacts you make.
Your graduate-level friends may know managers at firms you hope to work for and could potentially introduce you to valuable contacts. And when you know the right people, getting that next job or promotion becomes that much easier.
Still, you can often make similar contacts at networking events and conferences, all without spending tens of thousands of dollars to do so. Find out which networking events and conferences take place in your area, then find time in your schedule to attend them all.
Sometimes it's not what you know; it's who you know. So, get out and meet people.
2. Take free online courses.
Online learning platforms allow you to take online courses administered by Ivy League schools such as Stanford and MIT.
Coursera, for example, offers a virtual data science course through John Hopkins University and strategic management and innovation from Copenhagen Business School, just to name a couple.
Some of these courses are extremely low-cost compared to their on-campus counterparts, while other top-notch online college courses are free.
Either way, completing one of these courses shows initiative and a desire to keep improving your skills, which are qualities highly valued by employers.
3. Get a mentor.
Mentorship can be participated in whether you attend graduate school or not.
Most of the time, it's fairly easy to locate someone within your industry or desired industry, who can show you the ropes, provide valuable advice and help clear your head of any misconceptions about their career role or purpose.
Networking is usually the best way to find a mentor, although it occasionally works to reach out to someone you may not know personally but already respect and trust.
The worst that can happen is they say no, but you'll never know unless you try.
4. Start a business.
If you're considering a master's degree in business administration or entrepreneurship degree specifically, it can pay off to learn the ropes in the school of hard knocks instead of graduate school.
Oftentimes, the best lessons are learned through doing. And if you have a legitimate business plan already, don't let not having a graduate degree hold you back.
Remember, the Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates people of the world started businesses without worrying whether they had the right degree or the credentials to back up their pursuits.
For a lot of successful entrepreneurs, the key to their success was their mindset. You either have it, or you don't. And if you don't, a graduate degree won't help.
Earning a graduate degree can seem like a rite of passage if you're intent on climbing the corporate ladder or building a business from scratch. However, the growing costs of higher education are making it more difficult for professionals to recoup the investment of both time and money.
Before you earn that graduate degree — and more student loans — take some time to think through every aspect of your situation carefully.
Hanging your framed degree might make you feel accomplished, but the lingering bills may leave you wishing you had done something else.