The difference is striking: In terms of lifetime earnings, a master's degree is worth $457,000 more than a bachelor's degree, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
If that carrot isn't enticing enough, there's also a stick: Jobs that require a master's degree are expected to grow 21.7 percent through 2020, faster than the growth at any other education level.
That's 2.6 million jobs expected to be created in less than a decade, said Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools.
"There are economists who think that's severely underestimated," she added. "This looks just at jobs that require the degree. You might not always need the degree to get the job, but you will need it to do the job."
Actual mileage varies according to the degree. Workers with bachelor's degrees in managerial, scientific, engineering and technical fields tend to earn more than people with master's degrees in areas such as the arts and education, according to the Georgetown report.
Students are getting that message. According to a council survey of graduate schools, first-time graduate enrollment grew 1.8 percent between 2011 and 2012, the first increase in that category since 2009.
Gains were largest in computer science and math, public administration, engineering and health sciences.
Other fast-growing occupations such as school counseling, nurse-practitioners, marriage and family therapists and physician assistants also require master's degrees, according to Stewart.
"Graduate-degree holders are the key to solving some of the country's most pressing problems — health care, security, energy, global warming," she said.
One of the biggest challenges graduate schools face is helping more people earn advanced degrees in an era when student debt is at a historic high, Stewart said. She believes the problem begins before graduate school.
"Undergraduates with no debt are 1.7 times more likely to go on to graduate school," she said, adding that debt can keep underrepresented minorities, who often have fewer family resources to rely on in financing their educations, out of grad school.
That's why the council has collaborated with financial services provider TIAA-CREF to develop GradSense. The tool is designed to provide searchable data on education debt alongside data about pay for specific occupations. The goal is to let students balance information about potential debt with projected earnings and help them make smarter career decisions.
Another component of the council's financial literacy campaign is a three-year partnership with 15 universities across the country who will ask students to collaborate on programs that help peers better manage their finances.
The council also is implementing a project that will help schools track data about graduates' career paths and where specific degrees can lead them.
"We know a lot in the aggregate — what occupations people enter with a business degree or an English degree. But people don't go to school in the aggregate," Stewart said.