The High Price of Professional Degrees on Your Finances

There was a time not so long ago when many parents wanted their children to become lawyers or doctors because of the prestige and high salaries those positions garnered.  We still often think of lawyers or doctors being wealthy, but behind the scenes, there can be a dramatically different story.  There can be a high price to a professional degree.  Read the following situations to see what I mean.

A Law School Drop Out

Scott is a 28 year old who just graduated with his M.A. in Political Science.  Before enrolling in a M.A. program, he went to law school for 1.5 years.  During that time, he acquired $48,000 worth of debt.  Midway through the program, he decided he did not want to be a lawyer and quit law school.  Of course, his debt followed him.  He enrolled in the M.A. program and acquired another $12,000 in student loan debt.  Now, he cannot find a job in his field.  He is paying $469 a month toward his student loan debt; if he continues to pay at this rate, he will have the loans paid off in 30 years, when he is 58.  He is lucky because he made it through his undergraduate degree with no debt.

Scott currently works part-time at night for UPS and lives at home rent free.  He makes just enough to pay all of his bills and have $40 a week leftover.  That $40 is for gas, spending, haircuts, etc.  If he could not live at home, he would not be able to meet all of his expenses.  He does freelance writing jobs on the side to supplement his income while he applies daily for jobs within his field.

A Law School Graduate

Scott has a friend, Jessica, who was enrolled in law school at the same time he was; she completed the program and passed the bar.  She has since moved to South Carolina, taking her thousands of debt with her.  She could not find a job at a law firm and finally took a job as a public defender making $30,000 a year.  Her boyfriend moved with her, and they now live together.  Without his contributions to the household, she would be unable to pay both rent and her student loan payments.

A Medical School Graduate

Mike just recently graduated from medical school.  He is currently in a surgical internship and expects to remain in that position for five years.  He makes $45,000 a year working 80 hour work weeks (he has determined he is making roughly $3 an hour); he has student loan debt of $238,000.  After graduating from medical school before starting his residency, he took a trip to Poland and a trip to Florida.  One would think he would try to conserve money, but at this point he feels numbed by the debt.  He figures what is a little more debt on top of the debt he already has?


Career Ladder

Will your profession put you in debt?

Many students willingly assume such a high debt load because they think they will start their careers making a decent salary that will only increase over time.  They expect a six figure salary, which makes it easier to pay down student loan debt.  However, in the current economy, many of them are having trouble finding jobs and the student loan debt often becomes an unbearable burden that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

When Scott was asked if he regretted attending law school, he said no.  He learned a great deal personally during that time, and he also learned that he could work hard, harder than he has ever worked in his life.  He plans to use that same determination to conquer his debt.  He has been living frugally out of necessity.  When he obtains a full-time job, he plans to continue living the same way and applying all of the extra money to his student loan debt.

Suggestions for Students with Debt

If you are attending a professional program, keep these suggestions in mind when managing your debt:

Try to attend the school that offers the most in the way of financial aid that is NOT loan based.

Live frugally when in school.  Don’t spend money on a nice apartment and dinners out.  You will just have to sacrifice further when you graduate and have to begin paying the loans.

Monitor your debt.  It is one thing to know that you will graduate with $60,000 worth of student loan debt.  It is another to know that if you want to pay off the debt in 10 years (the standard repayment plan), you will need to pay $690 a month and will have paid $22,000 in interest over the life of the loan.

Remember that you may have to take a low paying job initially, especially in this economy.

When you graduate, keep these suggestions in mind:

You are NOT your debt.  Many students rightly feel burdened by their debt and actually assume their debt as part of their identity.  This only leads to stress, depression, and anxiety, all feelings which sabotage the job hunt.

Focus on paying off the debtWhile you don’t want to think about your student loan debt 24/7, you should focus on how to pay it off.  Where can you cut corners to apply a bit more to the debt?  Can you make extra money to apply on the loan?

Delay making large purchasesYou may want to buy a new car or even a home when you graduate with a professional degree, but often that will just increase your stress level as it will put you further in debt.  Focus on managing your student loan debt before acquiring more debt.

Being an attorney or a doctor can be rewarding.  Unfortunately, these professionals often begin their careers saddled in debt.  While there may not be a way to avoid all of the debt, there are ways to limit the debt and to eliminate it in a more timely manner.

What do you think of the high price of professional degrees in this economy?

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Published or updated December 6, 2012.


  1. As I read your post, I consider myself very lucky to live in Australia, where paying back the cost of a university education depends on the amount you earn each year. It is worked out along with your tax at the end of each financial year. Therefore if you have a low income, you make lower repayments (if any at all), and take longer to pay it off. I guess in the end we all have to pay it off, but there are allowances for circumstances beyond our control, such as an inability to find work due to the current crisis. Without this scheme (know as HECS historically, and now HECS-HELP) tertiary education would not be possible for a massive number of people.

    • That sounds like an interesting system Lauren. Seems like it keeps an incentive for people to study a subject they love without the fear of not making enough to pay back their loans after graduation.

  2. No Debt MBA says:

    Your tales of caution represent the reasons I’m trying so hard to get my MBA without any student loans. Like law or medical school, the cost of business school is exorbitant, but fortunately only lasts two years. I’ve picked a top program that would provide an excellent ROI if my results match their reported median, but I am cautious enough to want to avoid leverage for this purchase. Nothing is guaranteed with a professional degree.

    • Your last sentence there is key – The is NOTHING guaranteed. These days, when you graduate, you are one of many that are looking for work.

      Best of luck on your MBA!

  3. Your associate Mike the surgeon must not be very good at math.

    A 40 hour workweek translates into about 2000 hours of work a year. Double that to get to an 80 hour workweek and you will arrive at 4000 hours of work a year.

    Divide his salary of $45,000 a year by 4,000 hours to get $11.25. Not exactly $3/hour. Not what I would want for myself, but let’s not exaggerate.

  4. Being a lawyer consistently seems to be one of the biggest mistakes people have made. It’s curious why it comes up time and time again. It’s probably because of the costs and idealization.

    • I think a lot of people go into law because of the earning potential and also because it can open up a lot of other opportunities as well. Unfortunately, when you chase after money for your career you may find that you aren’t satisfied with what you do.

  5. In fact, for Mike to work for $3 an hour while making $45,000 a year, he would have to work just over 41 hours during every 24 hour day, every single day for an entire calendar year.

  6. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says:

    What about studying abroad at an accredited school? Aren’t some programs cheaper else where?

  7. True, his $3 an hour does appear to be an exagerration. Perhaps it mirrors the desperation he feels. However, he will end up earning $10 an hour if he only works 80 hours a week (and he may end up working more depending on the hospital load). After taxes, he is still looking at making less than double digits per hour.

What Do You Think?