I took on $61,000 of student loans for graduate school, but it turns out my most valuable career lessons cost a fraction that much

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  • I graduated college without student loans, but took on $61,500 of loans for a masters program in creative writing.
  • I learned a lot from my program: I learned to have confidence as a poet, to connect with a community of creative people, and to find role models and mentors familiar with the path I wanted to follow.
  • However, when it came to the business of writing, my most valuable lessons on earning enough to support myself and running my own business came from a $200 online course, and free networking with other writers and creatives.
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I come from a financially frugal family, and I love it. My grandfather, an active investor, instilled a sense of prudence in all of us. I've picked up some great lessons along the way, and I'm grateful.

However, I was the first person in my family to attempt a creative career path. Without a roadmap, I made the decision to go to graduate school for creative writing, a choice that I am still paying off today.

The rise of the graduate writing degree is a topic of controversy for both creative and financial reasons. Roughly 50 years ago, there were only about 13 graduate-level creative writing programs affiliated with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, the nation's largest literary writer membership association. Now there are more than 550. 

Creative writing degrees contribute more than $200 million a year to universities, and according to LitHub the average cost of an MFA program was between $20,000 and $30,000 in 2016. 

I didn't get my MFA. Instead, I chose a low-residency MA program that allowed me to work while studying. But, I still took on $61,500 of student loan debt to do it. So I often wonder: Was my master's degree a good investment?

Here's my short answer: Yes, but ... it's complicated. 

Graduate school introduced me to important mentors. Growing up, my role models were nurses and teachers - people who made practical career choices, but in fields I was ultimately not interested in. My graduate professors were, thus, invaluable in teaching me about my craft and helping me find my footing as a creative. I also found a sense of belonging within a group of people who shared similar interests. At such a pivotal time in a young person's life, this counts for a lot.

After I got my master's degree, I taught at independent schools following the advice of a professor. At first I was satisfied, but soon I started adding up the numbers in my head. When I calculated what my salary would be in a few years with a 1% to 3% annual raise, I lost faith that I would be able to have the lifestyle I wanted and pay off my loans in a timely way.

So, I found other mentors - this time, people who would bluntly answer the question "How will I make good money as a writer?" 

Turns out, I could have had access to that answer all along with an investment of $200. I enrolled in an online freelance writing course that focused less on literary craft and more on how to run a good business. It's a good thing I found it before I enrolled in an MBA, because at the rate I was going, academia had convinced me it was the only way!

Just why is this important?

Because money and education both grant access. Money gives access to education, and far too often education is the only way to access opportunity, mentors, and networks that can help you build the life you want. Our system of academia knows this, and delivers this access through an ivory key that costs thousands of dollars to turn. And, for a person expecting a nice six-figure salary on the other side of that door, it might just be the right choice.

But, for most of us, the best ROI comes from getting savvy.

There are, of course, many valid reasons to seek advanced degrees or strive for a status school. For many, it is a mark of personal pride. One way of giving back to families and communities is to become a college graduate and gain prestige that benefits the whole family structure. I know plenty of people who have done this with the help of scholarships and without. These are valid reasons, and they are worthwhile to bring into the conversation about ROI. 

In my case, taking out loans to go to graduate school gave me time to develop a plan for my life and also helped me work on my craft. I met people who showed me that a creative life was worthwhile, and I developed the confidence to consider myself among the ranks of those who carry the title "poet." My poetry has been published, which I am thrilled about, and I am working on a novel. I could not have done this without my graduate professors.

But, ironically, I've learned more about making a living as a writer from accessible online courses and networking with other writers - for free. 

So, what's in an ROI? There are a few factors: financial, emotional, creative, and professional. Each is important, which is why I've learned to think outside the box when defining what "education" means. I encourage others to do the same, and to ask yourself just what a degree means to you ... and how much you're willing to pay.

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