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What's your degree really worth?

Is an international education really worth the investment? When you add up tuition fees, accommodation and travel costs, and loss of income while you study, it can add up to a significant amount. How long will it take to return that investment through an increased salary, faster career progression or global opportunities?

It can be difficult to measure, but it is possible. Here’s how.

Cost versus returns

First, you need to get a true picture of the cost of your degree. Tuition fees are just the beginning. You’ll also have flights, insurance and visas, room and board, books and laptops, and perhaps some fieldtrips or study tours.

Plus, you’ll also forgo some income while you study. These may not be a huge amount if you’re an undergraduate, but if you’re taking on an MBA after four years in the workforce, the cost of not working for two years may add up to as much as the MBA itself. Not to mention the opportunities lost in your current career.

Now, what about the returns? All surveys point to a higher salary on graduation. Your new degree may also give you the chance to work in a different but more financially rewarding area – leap-frogging into senior management or consulting, for example.

The EMBA Council’s 2009 Student Exit Benchmarking Survey reported that average salaries for working managers grew 9% on completion of an Executive MBA program, from US$125,029 to US$136,722. Raises fluctuate with the economy, so this increase during a global financial meltdown was seen as very encouraging.

In a tough job market, many turn to consulting. And with good reason – consultants can make 50% more than their employee counterparts. So if you’ve developed expertise in a specialised area, it’s a rewarding option. Consulting areas tipped for growth include computer software engineering, HR, environmental engineering, forensic accounting, internet marketing and cyber security.

It’s not only about the money, of course, Another survey in 2009, conducted by Impact International, found that 90% of graduates looking for work wanted the opportunity for career progression, compared with 64% saying they needed a salary that could fund their lifestyle.

So, let’s say you can expect to earn US$15,000 more than your less-educated colleague, straight away. How many years until you pay off the cost of that education?

In the US, BusinessWeek compared the return on investment for top schools by state, based on historic graduate earnings and college costs.  “Some schools are bargains and others less so,” it concluded. “And not always the ones you’d think.” For example, graduates of the Georgia Institute of Technology and University of Notre Dame earn almost the same amount over 30 years after repaying the cost of their degrees – $1.4 million more than a typical high school graduate. In the same survey, Harvard came second to MIT.

The true value of your education

Some benefits, such as salary, are quantifiable. But others are not. What is the real value of your new global networks? The friends you make and the experiences you have; these things will shape your life. Can you really determine how much faster you’ll move along your chosen career path? Can you truly predict what new opportunities may come your way?

So… is that MBA really worth it?

The most important thing is to choose the right course for the right reasons. So, when it comes to MBA programs, some people believe they are overrated, especially if you already have a good business or commerce degree. Yet they remain an expensive – and prestigious – educational landmark.

The cost of an MBA includes tuition fees of at least $50,000 (more in the US and at top-ranking schools) and potentially several hundred thousand dollars in lost salary. They were originally designed for graduates with science, engineering and math background who wanted to work in management. So if you’re not an engineer with five years of technical experience, is it worth the money?

Others may choose an MBA to get a head-start as an entrepreneur – but Guy Kawasaki, Apple pioneer and venture capitalist, argued in Forbes a few years ago that an MBA is of little use in the start-up world – what you need is the ability to imagine and deliver a product. In other words, an engineering degree is more valuable.

If you are looking to fast-track into a senior management role, and the chance to build networks with like-minded professionals, then look at some more cost-effective MBA options. Part-time MBA programs let you continue your career (and still receive a paycheque), one-year MBA programs let you get your new skills into the real world sooner, and off-shore or distance programs can give you a recognised qualification for a lower tuition fee.

If you’re already working at a major blue-chip company, it might also be worth proving yourself a little longer and asking them to cover at least part of your post-graduate education costs.

So, if you’re concerned about the time and money you will be investing in your education, it pays to research all your options and look outside the predictable paths. Because whatever you decide on, it will change your life.

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