When I look back, it's odd that out of all of life's experiences, my approach to student loans ranks as one of my greatest regrets. Like a huge ring of keys in the pocket of a school janitor, those student loan-related regrets jangle in my mind, reminding me of how careless I have been.

Feel free to consider me your student loan fairy godmother, the presence on your shoulder reminding you to be kind to yourself by not taking on more debt than you expect to comfortably repay after graduation. In short, here is some advice to help you to be smarter than I was.

A young male barista steaming some milk.

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Here are three really good reasons to work through grad school:

1. You have time to change your mind

Working full time while taking graduate courses is going to slow the process down, and that's a good thing. So what if it takes you twice as long to graduate? You'll still have a graduate degree. You're also likely to have fewer regrets. 

Allow me to share this cautionary tale (and in retrospect, an entirely ridiculous story). Back when my husband and I graduated from college, getting a job was easy. Less than 1 in 4 people in our generation had even a bachelor's degree, so we immediately moved to the top of hiring lists. In my case, it didn't even matter what the degree was in. I was able to pivot into a totally unrelated field. The mistake I made was believing that the same would be true for my sons.

In my unbridled wisdom, I promised them both that we would cover the entire cost of their undergraduate degrees, provided they meet one condition. They each had to enroll in graduate school immediately upon earning their bachelor's degrees. I feared that they would skip grad school entirely if I didn't "make" them attend while they were young.

A couple of years after each of them earned that graduate degree, they mentioned in separate conversations that they would have taken different career paths if they had it to do over again. They had great jobs and were building strong careers, but now they were older, they had a better sense of what would have made them happy. They were also more than $100,000 in student loan debt. 

You know that sinking feeling you get when you realize you've done something really dumb? Yeah, that.

What I didn't realize is that a 2017 Gallup study showed that 51% of Americans who have pursued postsecondary education would happily change either their degree type, where they attended school, or their major. 

Slowing the process down by working through graduate school gives you more time to make sure this is a field of study you're dedicated to, a field in which you can imagine yourself spending an entire career.

2. You can lessen student loan debt

A study by The Motley Fool found that total U.S. student loan debt, spread out across 44.7 million borrowers, currently rings in at a staggering $1.59 trillion.

There are several ways you can minimize your portion of that debt by working through grad school. Here are a few:

  • Find out if your employer offers tuition assistance. An International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans study found that 63% of companies offer a tuition reimbursement/assistance program. Whether they pay your school directly or reimburse you, this is by far the best way to pay for grad school.
  • Work for long enough to prepay for a few classes. While you're taking that first slate of courses, save to pay for the next set. In other words, pay as you go.
  • Start paying your loans. Most student loans do not require you to make payments while you're in school or for the first six months after graduation. However, the lender can begin to charge interest as soon as the loan is disbursed. There's no rule that says you have to wait until after you graduate to minimize the impact of compounded interest. Chip away at them before they're due.  

3. You gain all-important work experience

The advantage you have as a full-time employee that many college students do not is real-life work experience. You're building a professional resume as you increase your level of education. Yes, it is difficult, but it is also likely to impress employers who are looking for a go-getter.

Nearly 91% of employers responding to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) indicated that they prefer that their job candidates have relevant work experience. 

If you're currently working in the same field you're studying, that's great because you're racking up experience. If you're in a different field, look for ways to use what you're learning. For example, if you work in a factory but you're earning a graduate degree in industrial safety, ask to transfer to the safety department or ask about ways you can help implement safety procedures in your current department. That way, you have experience you can eventually share with a potential employer. 

Need one more reason to work through graduate school? That Gallup study also indicated that people who completed their degree at a later age (30 or older at the time of graduation) are more satisfied with the educational decisions they made.