Don’t look at the price tag.

In the United States, well-reputed schools’ annual tuition, fees, and expenses per student easily exceed the median household income. Many students see those numbers and immediately rule out the possibility of ever attending a prestigious university. But it’s not that simple.

That annual cost estimate reflects the price of providing an education, along with the many other services on campus, to each student. But the trick is, it’s not generally an indicator of what students pay for their education. So don’t let the bulky number that pops up when you Google “how much does Stanford cost per year?” sumo your dreams quite yet.

“Don’t let those bulky tuition and fee figures sumo your dream education quite yet.”

The Sales Event of the Year

Think of the price tag on your education as the MSRP on a new car. It’s what’s written on the sticker, but it’s probably not what you’re going to pay. Because you’re almost inevitably eligible for a discount—or a few of them. In the world of higher education, your discounted price will be the result of two factors: your academic potential and the school’s endowment and research programs.


Academic Potential

Basically, academic potential is your likelihood for success in higher education. There’s no objective measurement for academic potential, which is why admissions officers exist. They use your application to make a guess at how likely you are to be successful at their school.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that schools are businesses. Like all organizations, they rely on income and reputation for their continued existence. And while it may seem counter intuitive, schools want students that will be wildly successful a lot more than they want students that will pay tuition and fees. 

That’s because their reputation rides on their graduates knocking the baseball of life out of the park. And reputation gets them the big bucks: more students, more grants, and more endowments. Which means they’d rather invest a full-ride scholarship in a student with stellar academic potential than accept full-price tuition and fees from a student with who may or may not do well. And that’s why academic potential matters.


Academic Potential Factor 1: The Numbers

Test scores and GPA used to be the silver bullets to academic potential, and incredible numbers are still the heavy hitters in determining academic potential. However, as grade inflation has reached epidemic proportions and more and more students clamor to get a degree, schools have begun to consider other factors more heavily when identifying academic potential. That’s where Factor 2 and 3 come into play.


Academic Potential Factor 2: The Story

What’s the point of those onerous motivation and personal history essays anyway? In short, admissions officers are searching for evidence that you have personal characteristics, such as passion, grit, tenacity, or inspiration, that will help you achieve tremendous success in academia (watch for our upcoming article on writing great application essays). A killer essay shows these characteristics through a compelling story.

Your story may be that you’ve been obsessed with solar panels since the age of 5, or that you grew up in a refugee camp and beat the odds as an immigrant in North Dakota. Whatever your story, writing it well is key. Yes, this system favors strong writers. It also favors people who are willing to put in the work and get the help they need to write a great essay. It’s the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that grit and tenacity they are looking for, and excellent practice for all the essays you’ll be writing for classes.


Academic Potential Factor 3: Diversity

Schools are expected (and sometimes required) to have a student body that more or less reflects the demographics of the region. Sure, it would be great if everyone began the race at the same starting line, and we could just reward those who were most successful without considering their gender, color, or income. But as it stands, our social system givessome group a significant head start through no virtue of their own .  Ensuring that a representative proportion of those who had to start 10 paces back get a chance to keep running the race is the least we can do.

In addition, many donors of scholarship funding seek to support individuals that are overcoming this in-built systematic social discrimination by getting an education.

That means for each of the below that applies to you, you’ll get a bonus point or two in the academic potential department:

  • Female
  • Racial minority
  • Ethnic minority
  • Non-native English speaker
  • Low income
  • Immigrant
  • Non-US citizen


Academic Potential Factor 4: The Hole-in-One

Counter-intuitively, all-star athleticism buys you winner-takes-all academic potential. Even if you never really learned to read well. (This only applies to undergraduate degrees. Graduate program admission remain uncorrupted by collegiate sports.) This bizarre exception is so widely practiced, in fact, that it became a massive back-door entry to academia, which was only recently uncovered in this blow-out scandal.

That is not to say that excellent scholars are not or cannot be outstanding athletes. That is to say that, as previously mentioned, schools are ultimately businesses that rely on income and a great reputation. Crazy good athletes attract huge crowds of paying fans and loads of press. And they go on to professional sports careers that schools are proud to add to their list of achievements. So if you’re high-achieving in both sports and academics, more points for you! Leverage your athletic prowess to get your dream education.

And if you’re just high-achieving in sports…well, you still get all the points. And the university will take care of the academic stuff for you.


Academic Potential in Sum

Academic potential is a game of both quality and quantity. Think Malala. She’s a female, low-income, non-native English speaker minority immigrant with outsized academic performance and a story of grit and determination so inspiring as to make her a household name. And she’s been offered full scholarships and honorary degrees at renown institutions around the globe.

You needn’t narrowly escape death to be admitted to school, but the point is:

  • the better your GPA…
  • and the stronger your test scores and…
  • the more compelling your story…
  • and the less American-born middle-class white male you are…
  • or, of course, the more likely you are to get recruited to pro sports…

…the higher your academic potential.


So what does academic potential get you?


A Funded Education



Scholarships. Fellowships. Grants. We all want them. But where does the money come from? In large part, from endowments.

Endowments are the institution’s cache of funds. It comes from myriad sources, including sizable alumni donations and bequeathed estates. Many donors specify who their donation should support. (For example, students of a particular minority, geography, or in a particular field of study; this is another reason why diversity helps your academic potential.)

In general, the more reputable the school, the bigger the endowment. And the bigger the endowment, the more students get discounts on their tuition, fees, and expenses. (We get this question frequently: Very few scholarships hand you a check; they just cancel out the cost on your bill. That means you can’t, for example, live in a hyper-cheap apartment and send the extra money home. You just have to live in the dorm room that’s been paid for you on campus.)

Research Programs

In addition to endowments, reputable institutions also win funding for large research programs. That means teaching assistantships and research assistantships. In these cases the student becomes a type of employee of the school, with compensation being cancellation of your tuition and fees (including health insurance) and maybe even a living stipend paid directly to you. 


So What’s the Sale Price?

The most prestigious schools have massive endowments and concomitant generous funding opportunities, and they also charge the most for an education. That means that, ironically, a steep price tag may well be an indicator of abundant opportunities at a full-ride education.

The students with the highest academic potential at the schools with the largest endowments get the steepest discounts on their education. If you’re a golden ticket, like Malala, you’ll probably have multiple full ride scholarships to Ivy League schools to choose from.

So don’t pay too much attention to the ticket price.  Far more important is the percentage of the student body that gets financial assistance, and on average, what percentage of their total costs are covered. From there, consider your academic potential. If you’re above or below average in terms of academic potential, then your discount probably will be, too.

Watch for our upcoming article on maximizing your academic potential in your application process.


“It was so great to talk to a returned volunteer that has COSed and found her way. As a current volunteer I struggle with the ‘whats next’ and it was incredible to talk to Meg and be frank about my feelings knowing that she gets it. She really knew how to give me great relevant advice that is setting me up for success down the road.” -PCV Fiji

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“If you’ve decided that it is indeed time for you to do a graduate degree, congrats! But should you be considering an international degree? “


Grad school abroad in 2019?

Here’s the factors you should consider.


Have you ever considered going to graduate school in another country? Here’s the low-down on why grad school abroad may or may not be a great fit for you.

Before you go any further, make sure you read our other articles on grad school. They’ll help you figure out when and if to go to graduate school.

If you’ve decided that it is indeed time for you to do a graduate degree, congrats! But should you be considering an international degree? Here’s all the important factors to consider when comparing international and domestic degrees.


1. Best reputation

Having the name of the best program in the business on your resume makes a huge difference. No employer is going to research the unknown school you attended to figure out the quality of your education. They’re going to go with the candidate whose education they know is cutting-edge.

So before you do anything else, find out what academic institutions are the best in the world for your area of study. Be aware that many U.S. resources will release “best schools” rankings that only consider U.S. schools. This is one of the reasons many Americans incorrectly believe that the best education is always available in the USA.

Find out why the top 5 or so are ranked highly, and which of these factors are of high priority to your career. For example, if you know you want to be an international aid nurse, then a nursing program with an international or community development focus might be your top pick, even if it’s not #1 in the rankings.

Also consider your personal well-being. If your social life circles around diversity and inclusion, check the student demographics. If long winters depress you, think twice about Canadian and Northern European schools.


2. Price

American schools are notoriously expensive compared to those in just about every other country. Many students are able to pay international school fees out of pocket without loans. Given the massive American student debt crisis, loans are a bullet well worth dodging. (Watch for our upcoming post on grad school costs!)

The Golden Rules of Grad School dictate that you shall not pay for your education. This generally holds true internationally as well, with some important qualifications. Since grad programs are generally affordable in other countries, there are fewer mechanisms in place to enable students to pay for school. As such, you may find at foreign schools you get e.g. all fees waived, but no stipend to cover personal expenses. Local students likely work to offset these expenses. As a foreigner, you will likely be allowed to legally work on campus only.  Under-the-table work opportunities vary widely from one country to the next. Not all foreign schools, even the most well-reputed ones, are approved for US student bank loans. Invest some time into thoroughly understanding what financial situation you’ll find yourself in.


3. Length

International graduate programs may be shorter than those of American schools. This is particularly true for MBA programs; the standard in the USA is 2 years, while in Europe and Asia it is just one. The length of the program affects how many years you’ll be paying for fees and living expenses. Even more importantly, it affects how many years you’ll be out of the workforce. The lost income (and the interest it doesn’t generate between now and retirement) is by far the greatest monetary cost of each additional year of schooling.


4. Networks

One of the most important aspects of grad school is getting to know and work with the current and future leaders of the field. This is another reason why #1 is so important. You’ll develop personal relationships with the most widely respected academics and professionals in your field. And don’t forget to be nice to your classmates; within 5 years they’ll be in the position to help you get a job. Programs that foster strong classmate connections, support alumni networks, and help you get placed in your first job position give you a leg up in this regard. Networks—not applications–are how most great jobs happen.


5. Desired future location

The network of people you build in grad school will inevitably spread out. But most will tend to stay in the economic region where they’ve studied. Consequently, that’s the region where you’ll have the most network opportunities. And as I just mentioned, networking, not applying, it what gets the job. That’s why it’s smart to go to grad school in the world region you want to live in, or at least one you would be happy to live it. So if you really want to settle in the USA, Europe may not be the place for your degree program.

This isn’t to say that you’re sentenced to work in the country where you earned your degree. Rather, the opportunities to make a leap across the pond will be fewer and farther between, and you may initially have to compromise on your ideal to get your foot in the door. There’s also plenty of international organizations that will have you globetrotting, or maybe even getting assigned to an international post.


6. Orientation toward employment

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the American education system is almost completely unfocused on developing employable skills in its students. Many European grad programs take a much more modern and practical approach, in which immersion in the industry is a significant portion of students’ education. Look for professional placements, internships, and first-job rates in the program descriptions. Take note, this is applicable to professional studies (e.g. Business Administration). Approaches to academic studies (e.g. Literature) tend to be, true to form, academic, on both sides of the pond.


7. Language of instruction

The most well-reputed programs tend to teach in English to accommodate the significant international student population. So if you’ve followed #1 above, you’ll likely have an English-language option. This might be a bit disappointing to you polyglots. If it is, dig around the Internet or ask the program coordinator about options to take courses in the local language. You’ll likely have to prove fluency in order to be eligible. Importantly, also ask if you’ll retain the option of switching into English-taught courses as needed. It might bruise your pride a bit, but this is a great option to have should you find your grades at risk in a particularly challenging course.


8. Degree rigor equivalency

Just because the degree carries the same name doesn’t mean the same amount of work went into earning it. For example, in Europe, Masters programs are quite challenging and rigorous, while PhDs are relatively quick add-ons. The in USA it’s the opposite: Master’s are pretty quick and easy, and PhDs are in for the long haul. In the end, a European PhD holder and an American PhD holder will be equally qualified. But Masters holders might find themselves caught off-guard. Your hard-earned European Masters will likely be underappreciated in the USA. And your American Masters could mean you’re in for some major catch-up work to get the most out of a European PhD program. Don’t let this be a deal-breaker. Just be aware of it and ready to adapt as needed.


9. Internationalism of your field of work

If your field of study has the word “international” in it, then studying outside of your home country is a two-for-one deal. You get a degree AND some relevant experience in cultural adaptation. The weight of this factor varies with the extent of your previous experience abroad, and how similar your study environment is to your future work environment. Plan to study International Business and never been abroad? A program in any developed country, and especially in an urban area, will add significant cred to your resume. Just got back from Peace Corps and plan to study International Development? You’ve already got all the international street cred you need. Of course, if you want to work for the European aid organizations, showing them you can actually live happily in Europe can only help you.



If the above list helps you identify a slam-dunk graduate program, huzzah! More than likely, however, you find yourself grappling with a toss-up of advantages and disadvantages. If that’s the case, it may be helpful to consider that the above are generally listed in order of importance (greatest to least). That means that whichever program is best reputed should seriously get your attention, while the internationalism of your field of work only warrants a bonus point or two. Of course, your unique circumstances may mean one factor has an outsized impact.

If you’d like our thoughts and input on your particular situation, please schedule a call with us! It’s totally free, and we won’t try to sell you stuff. We just like helping Peace Corps folks.


“It was so great to talk to a returned volunteer that has COSed and found her way. As a current volunteer I struggle with the ‘whats next’ and it was incredible to talk to Meg and be frank about my feelings knowing that she gets it. She really knew how to give me great relevant advice that is setting me up for success down the road.” -PCV Fiji

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Should you get a graduate degree?

You’re thinking of going back to school, but you’re not sure if you’re ready.

Is the expense worth it?  Will a degree get you where you want to go?  Which degree should you pursue?


Follow your gut

Should you get a graduate degree? The short answer is: Until the Golden Rules of Graduate School are in place, it’s probably not the right time.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of alternatives to graduate school, ways to figure out if it’s right for you, and methods for accelerating yourself towards those Golden Rules.

In this article we highlight 12 extracurriculars that no prospective student should ever overlook.


Going through the steps we outline here will help you in 3 important ways:


  1. If you have a lot of interests or don’t know what your career goals are: 

This is absolutely the only way to get clear answers to those questions. The key to success here is to make this process an exploratory, “safe to fail” and “safe to learn” experience. Realizing that you actually hate the day-to-day of your lifelong career dream is a GREAT THING. Spending money on classes that ended up being meh is absolutely awesome. Why? Because you gathered crucial information—about yourself and the world around you—that you will inevitably use in the future. Think of it as putting together a puzzle or going on a treasure hunt. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does.

If you’re like me, you really eschew the idea of a career goal. Why focus in on one thing that may not ever happen? You’d rather keep your eyes open to all the amazing possibilities and let opportunities come to you organically. DON’T lose that mindset! It is becoming increasingly crucial in today’s job economy. However, DO channel your powerful curiosity through the process described in this article before you let it burst onto your professional scene. You’ll find that you’re able to explore a lot more at a much more reasonable cost. Jobs and grad programs are huge sucks on time and money. Life is just too short and too full of opportunities to give everything on the buffet 1+ years of your attention out of simple curiosity.


  1. If you know you need a boost, but you’re not sure whether a degree is the answer, or which degree is best: 

One of these options will probably do the trick. Many times, just following the steps below is powerful enough to catapult your career to the next level. This is especially true if you pursue several of the options we suggest. Why? All of these activities will give you the confidence and foundational knowledge to speak intelligently on a topic and quickly learn more. And the best part is, unlike a grad degree, none of these will suck away years of your life and/or thousands of dollars.


  1. If grad school really is the answer to your career goals:

Then it will become clear to you through this process. As you become increasingly involved in your field of interest, you’ll realize where most of the job opportunities lie, what skills you need to move forward, and where all leaders in the field got their degrees. You’ll learn about scholarships, internships, and organizations that aren’t widely known. You’ll build a network. And all of this will foster your advancement organically, including helping you discover your ideal grad program.


Find the answer


Step 1: Gear Up

This step is especially important if you can’t decide between your many job and degree options, or you just don’t know which one is best for you. That clarity is crucial to making a graduate program worthwhile.

First, establish a running list of the job fields and degree programs you’re considering.  You can add and remove items from this list whenever you want. Ultimately, the goal is to whittle it down to just one shining star option that you’re absolutely in love with. This process will guide you toward that goal via dedicating some of your free time to the kind of work or study you’re considering. If you’re like most people, your shining star is not currently on your list. But don’t worry—it will show up!


Step 2: Get Your Feet Wet

OK, you’ve got your list and you’re ready to get started. Find one way to explore each of the potential options on your list in a free or low commitment way. We’ve listed a few ideas below. Some of these ideas are better suited to different topic areas than others, and you don’t need to try all of them. If these low-commitment activities begin to feel anything less than exciting, abort mission and mark that option off the list. Keep the ones that become a highlight of your week. Try to be cognizant of the fact that a dismal environment can make even the most intriguing of topics miserable. So if the professor is awful or you can’t find a club in your area, give it another shot before striking that option off the list.


  • Audit a class

University professors typically welcome people who are truly interested in their course material. If there’s a community college or university near you, find the course schedule online. Email the professor in advance or show up early to class. Explain that you’re interested in the topic and ask if you could sit in on one or more days of class. If they give you the opportunity to submit homework and tests, take it.


  • Informational interviewing

Find people that work in or have previously worked in your field of interest. Let them know you’re considering something similar and ask them to share their insights. What tasks do you perform daily? What’s your favorite parts of the job? Least favorite parts? What do you wish you had done differently? Who else would you recommend I speak with?


  • Join a club or Meetup

If there’s not one in your area, try creating a Meetup group and see who joins.


  • Online skill building

There’s plenty of free and low-cost resources online to brush up on your skill set and get your brain back in gear. Almost all jobs require computer skills; if you aren’t proficient with Excel and Powerpoint, it’s time to get started. Learning the basics of online communication platforms (like Slack and other project management softwares) and more advanced computer programs (Photoshop, GIS, Premiere Video Editor, Articulate, Access) will put you another step ahead. Vanessa Da Costa, who offers career services for those in public health-related fields (and discounts for RPCVs!) has a regularly updated list of online learning resources. Khan Academy, YouTube, Esri, LinkedIn Learning, Udacity, SAS Programming, SwirlStats, edX, and Open 2 Study are great places to start.


Step 3: Jump In

You’ve marked some ideas off your list, and hopefully you’ve added some new ideas too that you’ll be testing. For those that have already made it past Step 1, the next test is to publicly commit some time and/or money and see how much you still enjoy it. We’ve listed a few more ideas below.

As you try these out, notice how you feel. Do you find yourself getting excited about what you’re hearing? Dreaming of all the ways the information is applicable in real life? Learning more in your free time just because? Are you feeling invigorated? Do you find yourself naturally connecting and forming friendships with the people in this field? These are great signs; on to Step 3! In contrast, if the topic feels like a chore, or you can’t wait to get out of there, then mark it off the list. If you’re not excited now, you definitely won’t be after graduate school.


  • Take a course

Sign up for a class at your local community center, county adult education office, university, or college. Alternatively, there’s lots of classes available online. But be sure to do your homework! A weak instructor can make the most riveting of topics miserable. For online courses, find out how much face time you’ll actually have with your instructor and classmates. Interacting with people will give you a much better feel for how much you enjoy the topic.


  • Attend a conference

Find a conference on your topic area of interest and register. The level of focus is important here. If you’re broadly interested in community development but not sure where you’d like to go with it, don’t go to a conference on modeling groundwater contaminant fluxes in developing communities. Instead, look for an event schedule that covers topics ranging from community water resources to maternal health to sustainable farming to community entrepreneurship. If you’re a groundwater modeler considering community development, then the former might be just right for you.


  • Volunteer

Whether you’re interested in community organizing, teaching, or corporate marketing, there’s likely an opportunity to volunteer out there. While an opportunity to try your hand at what you actually want to do would be great, it’s also good to take on a supporting role that allows you to see a lot of the different activities happening in the organization (administrative assistants know everything). A lot of organizations don’t publish volunteer opportunities, but may well be open to having a volunteer. Their primary concern is that you won’t get in the way or cause trouble. Be clear that your priority is to learn and assist without impeding them in any way.


  • Intern

Similar to volunteering, except that the organization has recognized that the work you do will actually benefit their operations. You’ll be asked to commit for a given period of time. In exchange, look for some type of reimbursement of your expenses (mileage, free lunches, lodging, etc.).


  • Consult

Another step up from interning, and a more appropriate term for anyone that brings relevant experience to the table. Typically paid, but in some cases (like Farmer to Farmer) only expenses are covered.


Step 4: Grab Your Goggles

Peace Corps folks are by nature Jacks and Jills of all trades. We are also really used to getting done what needs to be done without considering whether we want to or enjoy doing it. That can make it really hard to home in on a great career choice. If you’ve gotten through Steps 1 and 2 and it still feels like there’s a million different ways you could go, then it’s time for some outside perspective. This can feel like an unnecessary cost, but it’s a lot cheaper than realizing 3 years from now that you don’t like your job.

Peace Corps Transitions by Songgaar has an Career Assessment that’s especially designed for Peace Corps folks. You can add it to your wishlist, request pro-bono services, or even book a free session.


Step 5: Start Swimming

You’ve been taking classes, volunteering, interviewing, and learning a ton. You’ve added things to your list that you didn’t know existed before, and you’ve marked off plenty of things that might be fun once in a while, but aren’t meant to pay your bills. Now you’ve got just one or two items left that you never seem to get tired of doing. That means it’s time to up the ante by committing even more time or money to those things. We’ve listed a few ideas below for getting invested. You should love the things on your list enough that these suggestions sound like a freaking blast. If your initial reaction is more along the lines of “ugh, that’s a lot of work” then go back to Step 3. It’s better to take your time now, while you’re in the “safe to learn” zone, than try to backtrack later.


  • Part-time work

Computer-based work naturally lends itself to part time schedules. There’s tons of writing, coding, teaching, marketing, and design jobs out there with flexible work schedules. For other fields, you may have to take a non-directly related position that nonetheless gives you tons of exposure to the day-to-day in your field of interest (think admin assistant).


  • Complete a Certification

A certification typically consists of a series of classes with some time of award or title granted at the end. This could be anything from an EMT certification to a Project Management certification. It typically takes some time and you have to pay out of pocket. May be online or in person. Bonus points if you’re currently employed and can make a case for your employer to pay for the classes.


  • Intensive short courses

Similar to a certification, except the coursework is done intensively over a short period of time. Short courses are typically done in person. This might feel more inconvenient than an online course, but getting facetime with future potential colleagues is a massive advantage. This is also a very unique opportunity to gauge how much you enjoy being immersed in your topic of interest for multiple full workdays on end. Intensive short courses are usually on pretty specific topics. By this point you should have enough context in the field to know what specific topics you need and want to learn more about. If you don’t, go back to Step 3.


You did it!!

Take a moment to turn around and enjoy the view from the incredibly beautiful mountain you just climbed. You’ll know you’re where you’re supposed to be because you loved every minute of the hike, AND it got you where you wanted to go. 


So, should you get a graduate degree?

What did you learn? What would you change? Comment below, or email us anytime! We read and respond to every single one.


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“It was so great to talk to a returned volunteer that has COSed and found her way. As a current volunteer I struggle with the ‘whats next’ and it was incredible to talk to Meg and be frank about my feelings knowing that she gets it. She really knew how to give me great relevant advice that is setting me up for success down the road.” -PCV Fiji

Need some help?

Try a free transition advising session.

No sales pitches, we promise.

Try it free    

  More about services