It seems like a simple question on the surface, with an equally obvious answer. Yes, you might say, as do millions of Americans who pursue further education. And for the better part of the 20th century, nearly any graduate degree was a surefire way to advance your career and get a strong return on your investment.

However, as the Wall Street Journal recently demonstrated using an interactive tool, it appears that this age-old wisdom may not hold up in modern times. Certain schools and programs, especially in the arts, have significantly higher debt burdens compared to earnings. Even with the cachet of a prestigious Ivy League school, earnings may be slim.

Chalking this up to the universities bilking students of their money might be an exaggeration of a particular cause, but it appears that do see “master’s degree programs as largely unregulated cash cows that help shore up their bottom line,” according to Kevin Carrey. However, I think that there is another element that this argument overlooks: inflation. Since the 20th century, we have seen a divergence of income to cost of living and a divergence of productivity and income.

In combination, these factors contribute to a far more unequal society whereby the tools to achieve social capital are no longer attainable without a large amount of familial or dynastic wealth.

Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, 2021

I encourage you to check out the tool and input degrees from school that you are interested in attending, currently attend, or have attended in the past. While it is not comprehensive (some fields such as medicine only show a limited subset of schools and programs) there are definitely nuggets of information present in this data.

On a side note, I think it’s fascinating to see how well this information is represented visually. It makes the data far more compelling than a table and I especially like the case study animation as you scroll down the page culminating in the full data set.


“Is a Graduate Degree Worth the Debt? Check It Here,” by James Benedict, Andrea Fuller and Lindsay Huth, July 15, 2021.

“‘Financially Hobbled for Life’: The Elite Master’s Degrees That Don’t Pay Off,” by Melissa Korn and Andrea Fuller, July 8, 2021.

“Master’s Degrees Are the Second Biggest Scam in Higher Education,” by Jordan Weissmann, July 16, 2021.