Is Going Back to School Worth It?

Most HR jobs don’t require more than a bachelor’s degree. But that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from additional education.

By Rita Zeidner November 21, 2022
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Is Going Back to School Worth It?

Bob Oberstein was in his late 60s when he decided to go back to school. After working in labor relations for more than 40 years, Oberstein realized he needed more training to fulfill his dream of starting a business that would help others settle workplace disputes. 

To shore up his knowledge of workplace rules, he enrolled in Tulane University’s online Master of Jurisprudence in Labor and Employment Law program. After receiving his diploma in 2020, he hung out his shingle as an independent arbitrator, mediator and workplace investigator.

“I have lots of friends who moved to Florida to retire, but that wasn’t for me,” says Oberstein, who is now 73 and runs his business out of his home in Edmonds, Wash. “I plan to work for as long as my health holds out. This is Act 2 of my career.” 

Most HR-related jobs don’t require education beyond a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from going back to school. Regardless of where you are in your career, expanding your knowledge in areas such as HR analytics, workplace law and emerging technology will make you better at your job and may help you land a more desirable position.

But which path is right for you? Here are the stories of several HR professionals who dramatically improved their career prospects by earning an additional degree or credential.

Master’s Degree Programs

For anyone wishing to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to become an HR leader, particularly in a large organization, there may be a case to be made for earning a master’s degree in HR, business or a combination of the two. Curricula for these programs typically include courses in finance and accounting, as well as data analysis, human capital management and organizational strategy.

There also are several law-related master’s programs like Tulane’s that may be useful to HR professionals who want to specialize in workplace compliance or labor-management relations, even though these degrees don’t qualify graduates to give legal advice or practice law.

Most master’s programs take two to four years to complete and can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000, depending on the school, the type of program, and whether the courses are taught in person or online. Programs with online courses tend to be more affordable than in-person programs and are less likely to require an entrance exam. The only entrance requirement for many online master’s programs, besides the ability to pay tuition, is a bachelor’s degree. 

But given that master’s degrees are rarely required for a career in human resources, perceptions of their value vary widely.

Oberstein maintains that earning his degree was instrumental in getting his business off the ground. Besides expanding his expertise, he says, it has helped to allay the concerns of potential clients who might otherwise worry that he’s biased in favor of labor or management. The degree, he says, “lends to the parties’ perception of credibility.”

In some industries, having a master’s degree is the cultural norm, even if it’s not technically a job requirement.

Kris Greening had worked in HR for 15 years and held a senior HR professional certification when she was hired to head the HR department of a community college in Arkansas. Still, she quickly realized she would need a postgraduate degree to be taken seriously by her colleagues in academia. 

“Most high-level administrators and almost all faculty have graduate degrees,” she says. “To be seen as an equal, it was beneficial to me” to complete a master’s degree program. 

Greening used benefits available to her as the spouse of a military veteran to help cover the tuition for a Master of Business Administration degree through Capella University’s online program. Lessons learned through the coursework, she says, made her a more valuable member of the college’s management team. And she recouped some of her out-of-pocket costs when she received a raise of several thousand dollars per year after completing her degree. 

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The MBA also opened the door for Greening to teach college classes, which she finds fun and which provides an additional income stream.

Not all employers are impressed by master’s degrees, however. Melanie Shong Helm, director of HR for Crown Health Care Laundry Services LLC, an 1,800-employee commercial linens company in Pensacola, Fla., says she has been underwhelmed by some of the job applicants with newly minted master’s degrees who have applied for HR jobs in her shop.

Some candidates assumed, incorrectly, that their postgraduate degree automatically qualified them for middle-management jobs and the pay that goes with them. But some degree-holders didn’t make it past the first interview because they couldn’t answer basic questions about Title VII or the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

“Master’s [degrees] are a dime a dozen and not worth the investment,” Helm says. “If you want more training, get a certificate.”

Skilled Credentials

Earning a professional certificate can be a relatively quick and affordable way for HR professionals to boost their skills. This option generally requires taking a few short classes and, in some instances, passing an exam or completing a project. Costs for a certificate in an HR-related field generally top out at about $3,000.

About one-third of human resource professionals have earned certifications offered through the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and other HR-related organizations, according to a survey by Payscale that found a link between HR certification and higher pay. The size of the pay bump, however, varied depending on the credential, industry, work location and job level. 

Some HR professionals say they have benefited from earning certificates with a broader business focus.

Hoping to land an executive-level HR position, Ann Piccirillo enrolled in Harvard Business School’s online leadership certificate course in 2021 and is now working toward a certificate in business strategy from the school. She started getting calls from recruiters once she added her certificate and coursework to her LinkedIn profile, and she believes having the certificate led to an offer for a position in the C-suite at a New Jersey-based outsourcing firm.

“My career was stalled in middle management prior to taking these courses,” Piccirillo says. “I’m now in a senior leadership position where the CEO considers me his business partner.”

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But some people hoping their certificate will wow a future employer may be disappointed. While many prestigious schools, including Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia, market this option as an affordable, timesaving way for professionals to build their skill sets, some employers have been slow to embrace certificates and other skilled credentials, according to recent SHRM research.

Job seekers holding a professional certificate may also come up against a technical obstacle since the automated applicant tracking systems many employers rely on to screen candidates don’t always recognize credentials, though vendors of these systems say that barrier is being addressed.

A Law Degree

To practice law, you must go to law school. The majority of lawyers get their degrees studying full time for three years after completing their undergraduate studies, although a four-year night school program also is an option.

A law degree requires a lofty financial investment. In 2021, the average cost of law school was $205,744, including nearly $46,000 for annual tuition alone, according to the Education Data Initiative. Meanwhile, the average annual salary for an employment lawyer is about $93,000, according to Salary.com.

Christine Walters, SHRM-SCP, says she “fell in love” with the HR profession in college and held several HR jobs after graduating. But a law degree was the ticket to the kind of labor and employment work that really interested her. After passing the bar exam in the mid-1990s, she ran a sexual-harassment-prevention program at Johns Hopkins University and taught college-level HR classes. 

For the past 20 years, she has headed up her own HR consultancy in Maryland, helping employers avoid HR-related problems and providing legal assistance when things do go wrong. She also has written a book for managers on maintaining positive employee relations.

“The law degree has opened up all sorts of opportunities in HR,” Walters says. 

Tuition costs have soared since Walters attended law school. But even back then, she worked two jobs after passing the bar to help pay off her student loans.

“I didn’t see it as a sacrifice,” she says, “because I was doing what I wanted to do.”   

Rita Zeidner is a freelance writer in Falls Church, Va.

Photograph by Fatcamera / iStock.

Making the Right Decision

Considering a return to school? Here are five tips to help you figure out your next steps:

Define your goals. Think hard about your career goals and whether you actually need more schooling to accomplish them. Are there other ways to acquire the knowledge or skills, such as working in a different department in your organization, switching jobs or volunteering? Get input from colleagues, your supervisor and instructors to find out which path is right for you.

Talk to recent graduates. Seek proof that any program you’re considering is worth the time commitment and financial investment. Ask administrators at any schools you have your eye on to put you in touch with recent graduates who can talk specifically about what they got out of the program, particularly in terms of pay increases and expanded opportunities.

Compare costs versus benefits. Look closely at how long it will take to recoup the cost of your schooling. Is a degree that costs $50,000 worthwhile if it will bump your annual pay by only $5,000? Are there other benefits of the program that help justify the cost? If not, it may not be a wise investment.

Be mindful of your career level. Make sure any program you consider is appropriate for where you are in your career. If you are a midcareer professional, you’ll want to avoid programs designed for people right out of college. Likewise, don’t choose a program geared toward midlevel managers if you’re just starting out.

Ask your employer to help pay. You may not have to finance your continuing education entirely out of your own pocket. Many employers have education assistance programs and will cover all or part of your tuition, even if the classes aren’t related to your current job. If your organization doesn’t have a formal assistance program, present a convincing business case for why your employer should invest in your schooling. —R.Z.

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