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
  • LGBTQ
  • 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

 

Endowments

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.

 

Overwhelmed?

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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Try a free transition advising session.

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5 Reasons in Favor of Grad School After Peace Corps

and 4 Reasons Against it

 

The Golden Rules of Grad School After Peace Corpsare the heavy hitters in the battle of school vs. work. If you have both of them in the bag, the decision is pretty easy.

But life is messy, and sometimes the two Golden Rules end up in opposite corners of the ring. Or some twist in the plot that makes things not so clear cut.

Here we share some other factors to keep in mind when deciding on school. These are frequently overlooked, but always worth a second glance.

 

in favor of school… 

The job market is terrible.

To be clear, “terrible” doesn’t mean that you personally can’t find a job you want. It means that experts in the field agree that prospects are temporarily poor for professionals in your field. If you want to work for the Environmental Protection Agency or the US Agency for International Development, this might be you. 

Your degree isn’t super useful on it’s own.

Some bachelor degrees are foundational. For example, a B.A. in History doesn’t qualify you for a lot of jobs. Add a M.A, and you can teach at a community college. Get a Ph.D, and you can teach at a university. Go for a J.D., and you’re a lawyer.

Your field of work is tiny.

If your field is steadily shrinking, the pay is terrible for everyone, or employment prospects are long-term poor, then it’s time to shift gears. A grad degree is a great way to do that without starting over completely. 

It’s been almost 6 months since your last skill-development position.

A skill-development position is work that helps you grow your marketable skill set. Peace Corps definitely falls into this category. If you’ve been looking for work but haven’t found anything beyond entry-level customer service-type gigs, then it’s time to move on. Grad school is an expensive fallback, but less expensive than stagnation.

You need a supportive cohort.

Maybe you don’t have a home to go to, you really need a morale boost, or you reel at the thoughts of being away from your fellow PCVs. Much like Peace Corps, grad school surrounds you with a community of like-minded people doing exactly what you’re doing. In contrast, meaningful connections in the workplace are more challenging or even discouraged.

in favor of work… 

You want a PhD.

You have Peace Corps non-competitive eligibility for 1 year, or up to 2 if you go back to school. Legitimate PhD programs take longer than 2 years. So if you’re aiming for a PhD, consider taking advantage of that non-competitive eligibility to load up on cash and experience before you hit the books.

It’s an online or part-time degree.

Degrees that allow you to continue working full time are much more likely to be funded by your employer. When you get that glowing one-year review, come prepared with rationale for how the program will make you an even better worker, and offer to take it in lieu of a raise. 

You’re ready to earn money.

Student loans are hanging over your head, or you’re just overdue for a vacation that doesn’t involve a hostel. Bring home them dollars for a couple years. In the meantime, you’ll definitely learn more about what you want to do in grad school, and you might find a grant or employer to pay for it.

You still feel like a kid.

Grad school is like Peace Corps–you live your job. If you went straight from high school to college to Peace Corps, you might be pretty sick of structured environments and always feeling like a newbie. Dying to finally knowing what’s going on around you, be proficient at something, get paid for it, and clock out in time to raise a ruckus at happy hour? Then hold off on grad school. 

 

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