Illustration by Mike Freiheit (FOR EXPRESS)

Graduate degrees can help people make a career change or climb the ladder in their current field. But when it comes to deciding between full-time or part-time programs, how do students choose the right fit? It’s no simple decision, so we sized up both contenders.

THE STUDENTS

Part time: Part-time programs, which often have classes on evenings and weekends, appeal to students who want to continue working while they study — either because they want to move up within the same company, or because they need to have a source of income and don’t want to take on too much debt. They also draw students who seek flexibility or time to spend with family.

Full time: Though it varies, full-time students tend to be younger than part-timers, who are often further along in their career or seeking a career change. At the University of Maryland, full-timers are about four years younger on average than part-time grad students, says Charles Caramello, associate provost for academic affairs and dean of the graduate school at the U-Md.

TIME IN THE RING

Part time: With a part-time schedule, it can take up to twice as long to graduate as a full-time student, U-Md.’s Caramello explains.

Full time: Full-time master’s programs usually last from one to three years, depending on what you’re studying.

WINS

Part time: For Kamran Hassan and his wife, Kristin Mar, both 31, part-time programs felt less risky. “You’re banking on being able to get a job after you graduate,” says Mar, who is completing her part-time MBA at George Mason University while working full-time for an IT company. Hassan, who is getting a part-time master’s degree in health-care management and a part-time MBA at Marymount University, likes that he can apply what he’s learning from school at his day job at a health-care IT company.
Some companies offer to pay all or part of current employees’ tuition, though usually that employee must commit to staying with the company after graduation. Mar’s company offers it, but she didn’t participate so she can be flexible with job options.

Full time: Full-time programs are fast and focused, appealing to those looking for a quick knockout. When Martin MacAlister, 26, was choosing an MBA program after working for a few years after undergrad, his main concern was getting the degree as soon as possible. The George Washington University grad student likes that his full-time program lets him feel fully immersed in his studies and helps him form bonds with his classmates.

“I know everyone’s name and could probably give you a two-minute bio on each of them,” he says. “It’s a huge learning experience in terms of collaborating.” The activities outside of the classroom also appeal to him, such as the GW’s “consulting abroad program,” which is only available to full-time global MBA students.

LOSSES

Part time: Hassan does miss the extras that a full-time program would offer, such as a semesterlong internship. “There’s not any internship that’s offered on the weekend,” he says. “That’s one of the drawbacks. If there was a way to meet in the middle, that would be tremendous.”

Full time: Full-time and part-time course loads may cost the same amount per credit hour, but without income, full-timers often take out more loans. Tuition for the global MBA program at GW, for example, runs $90,000. “I view it as a large upfront cost,” MacAlister says. If the degree opens up doors, he says, it’s worth it.

AND THE WINNER IS . . .

In this matchup, we have to call it a draw. “This is really a matter of the student’s personal situation,” Caramello says. “If you’re going full-time, you finish your degree earlier, but you’re foregoing that income [from working]. To me that’s a very individual cost-benefit analysis.” Some schools also offer flexibility in terms of whether students take part-time or full-time course loads, allowing them to change over time. At American University, the part-time and full-time programs are not as distinct as most people think they are, says Michael Keynes, associate dean of graduate studies. “You can kind of switch in between the two.” Same at U-Md. “The key is, we try to create programs where the student doesn’t have to accommodate to us, we try to accommodate to the student,” Caramello says.