Would You Like a Tesla with That Degree?

Would You Like a Tesla with That Degree?

When being a smarter education consumer is like getting a degree AND a $50,000 sports car.


A few weeks ago the Department of Education released new scorecard data with loan debt by field of study. To the surprise of some, graduate degree programs have the highest levels of student loan debt, with several programs graduates holding debt at or above the six figure range.

Obviously, many choose to fund a grad degree with debt because it can have a more direct and quicker return on investment for someone well into their career in the form of promotions, raises, new career opportunities, etc. For example, in many states there is an automatic raise for teachers who obtain a Masters degree.

On the other hand there are situations where a 6-figure debt load probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, and where knowledge and choice about degree options are at a premium.

One of the more popular Online Master’s in Social Work (MSW) degrees is at the University of Southern California. It’s a well-known program developed in partnership with an OPM company called 2U, and despite some serious recent challenges, it’s a highly respected program with over 3000 students at its peak.

The sticker cost for a part time student (i.e working adults) in this program is over $115,000.

We can all agree that the role of a social worker is incredibly important and impactful. But it’s also not incredibly lucrative. The average income for a social worker is around $60k, and the income growth beyond that is limited.

The question for a social worker goes beyond whether spending twice your salary on a Master’s degree is wise, but extends to the opportunity costs of that decision.

In 2018 we worked with a client who wanted to switch careers and obtain an online MSW. Cost was a concern, but so was finding a strong degree program that would be respected.

In her case we presented 17 different programs for her initial list, the majority of which were at well known schools with reputations quite comparable to USC, including Arizona State, Temple, Indiana, BU, UCF, Fordham, Rutgers and the like.

Of those 17 programs, the average total tuition was just over $42,000, with the lowest at just under $23k and the highest at $62k.

In practical terms, assuming after using $30,000 in her employer’s tuition assistance she took out student loans for the remainder, the difference between the USC degree and the most expensive program in our initial list is nearly $500 per month!

This isn’t to say that USC’s program isn’t a terrific program. The question is whether the students who are enrolling are doing the right level of research to decide whether USC is twice, three times or even nearly 5x as good as another solid program (based on the cost difference)?

But let’s assume that someone really wanted to spend $115,000 while getting their Online MSW. Here are some options they could consider in comparison to attending the USC program:

  • Get an online MSW from one of the largest colleges in the country, buy a brand new Tesla Model 3 PLUS throw in another Online MSW from that same school for a friend.
  • Attend a top-tier Big10 school, buy yourself a Tesla Model 3 PLUS a 2020 Toyota Corolla for one of the kids.
  • Attend a large SEC school, buy a Tesla Model X SUV for the family PLUS a 2-pound pure gold medallion to wear to graduation.

These are obviously ridiculous ways to spend your money, but it’s not that much more ridiculous than the reasons some students overspend by tens of thousands on an online degree.

Knowledge is not only power, it could be enough to get you a new Tesla (or a cool gold chain).

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