Ask Money

Another degree?

Chris Farrell Aug 16, 2010

Question: I recently turned 30 and have been an on again off again student for the last 12 (wow) years. I have a BS in Business Admin and currently am thinking of pursuing another degree in Architecture. I work part time, have used most of my savings to pay for school but as of now have about 15K in student debt (direct/stafford loans) and about 6K in car/CC debt. Couple of questions. If I continue in school for the next 4 years I will need to take 100% or more in student loans as I don’t qualify for any other financial aid, and it concerns me to end with upwards of 80k in student debt, and most likely not being able to pay off other debt. I have about 20K in a Roth Ira but don’t want to touch that. Is it worth debt load or am I better off using my current degree to build equity rather than debt over the next 5 years? Thanks- Dan, Fargo, ND

Answer: Congratulations on earning your college sheepskin. It has been a long journey. I’m worried about another 4 years of schooling and a lot of debt for a graduate degree with potentially a relatively low salary, however.

The job market for architects–especially those with 5 years or less experience–has been abysmal in recent years. Little wonder considering that real estate was at the epicenter of the downturn and that the commercial real estate market is reeling.

Of course, real estate will come back over time, but I imagine it will be a tough job market for quite awhile. The starting salaries of new architects are pretty low considering how much skill and education the profession requires, too. You’ll need to run the numbers, but after eyeballing salaries in the profession it’s hard for me to see you coming out ahead financially with this degree for a long time. After all, if you go for the degree in architecture you’ll be 34 years old with $80,000 in debt–and most likely much more than that– and not much of a work history.

Many people considering a graduate degree face similar dilimmas. A career should be a passion, but you don’t want to end up a debt slave either. The income numbers need to work out.

It has taken you a long time to get your degree. It seems to me now is a good time to position yourself to reap some of the economic benefits of your hard-earned degree and build up your resume.

However, if it turns out that being an architect remains a genuine desire I’d do some in-depth research over the next year or two. I’d talk to architects and visit with some firms. I’d ask newly minted architects how they are handling their debt load. Do they think the trade-off of debt for degree was worth it? And I’d look for creative ways to lower the cost of getting a degree. In other words, I’d come up with a well thought out plan before taking the plunge.

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