“Emotionally satisfying policies are generally bad. The world is full of bitter choices and unpleasant truths, and if you don’t base policies on these, you waste a lot of money and time,” Bryan Caplan, Professor of Economics at the George Mason University, argues. And one of the biggest wastes of time and money in the US is the higher education system. Read our interview with Professor Caplan and find out more.
In 2008, Maria was waiting tables at a local restaurant when she decided to make a change.
She quit her job, took out thousands in student loans, and headed back to school for her master’s in special education.
Teaching, however, wasn’t quite what Maria had expected. She experienced high levels of stress, limited time to spend with her family, and a significant pay cut. Soon, Maria left the field.
Four years after leaving her fledgling teaching career, Maria continues to struggle with student loan debt. She calls going back to school her “greatest financial faux pas.”
Statistics on Going Back to College
Of course, this doesn’t mean that going back to college is always a bad idea. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 7.6 million college students were 25 or older in 2018. That’s about 40% of students in higher education.
So, if you’re thinking of returning to the classroom, you’re certainly not alone.
And for every story of regret like Maria’s, there’s a success story.
Take Walter, for example. Despite having ended college with an associate’s degree, he had a thriving 30-year career in tech.
His employer began encouraging workers to upskill in areas like cybersecurity. They also announced new technology initiatives. Walter decided he needed his bachelor’s degree to remain competitive.
Soon, Walter completed his first cybersecurity course. Now, he proudly holds a bachelor’s degree and an up-to-date skillset.
Benefits of Going Back to College as an Adult
Returning to college may seem overwhelming, but being an adult learner offers several advantages.
After all, few teenagers are able to make a fully informed decision about their educational path. And more than 40% of undergraduates wish they studied another major!
Surely something you can avoid as an adult, right?
You know what you like doing.
You know what you’re good at.
You know what you should improve and learn more about.
Perhaps you want more in-depth knowledge on a subject, or maybe there’s a certain tool missing from your professional toolbox.
Whatever the case, you have the knowledge and experience to make the most of your degree program.
Plus, many colleges now provide credit for relevant work experience. And some employers will finance your education, or at least contribute to it.
Your journey to a degree could be much shorter (and more affordable) than you expect.
Drawbacks of Going Back to College as an Adult
The most obvious drawback of college, in general, is the price tag.
- One year at a private college currently costs $48,510. That’s in comparison to $22,400 in 2000. As college costs have increased, the average family income has not.
- If you’ve been out of school for a while, current costs might surprise you. Depending on your financial situation, you may have to take on debt to pay for college.
- Finally, as an adult learner, you have fewer working years remaining to pay off student loans.
Still, there are many ways to offset the cost of college. In addition, you can consider more affordable in-state public schools, as well as online programs.
Another drawback is that positive outcomes aren’t guaranteed.
Some people assume that earning a new or advanced degree will automatically raise their prospects and their income.
Although this is often true, it isn’t always the case. Will the investment still be worth it if it doesn’t result in a significant salary increase? Or if you don’t immediately land your dream job? Assess realistic career growth in your field, and manage your expectations.
Reasons Going Back to College Makes Sense
So, does going back to college make sense? The answer depends on several factors, including your reasons for returning.
Why do you want to go back to college? How will it benefit you in the long run?
Here are a few reasons that going back to college might be right for you.
Sometimes, you’re years or even decades into a career when you realize you’d like to do something different. Or perhaps new technologies have rendered your job obsolete.
If you’ve decided to switch careers, a degree is often the best way to develop the necessary skills.
Before taking the plunge, do your research. Investigate the starting salary and the availability of jobs in your area.
If possible, talk to others in the field. What can you expect from a typical day on the job? What are the pros and cons of the career?
Remember Maria? See, her vision of working in special education didn’t align with reality. Going back to college (and switching careers) is a big decision. Make sure it's rooted in well-researched facts, not just an I-might-be-good-at-this kind of feeling.
Career fields and especially technology evolve constantly. Over time, knowledge bases and skillsets become outdated.
Instead of investing in upskilling existing employees, many companies bring on younger talent. When that’s the case, older adults are often at a disadvantage.
Going back to school is one way to remain competitive. Like Walter, earning a degree can help you modernize your skillset, build on your current knowledge, and develop expertise.
Before committing to a degree program, investigate other options. Sometimes, taking a few courses or earning a new certification is enough to boost your skills.
Increasing Your Salary
Have you reached an impasse in your earning potential? Earning a degree may give your income a boost.
A college degree can get you on track for a promotion or open doors to new career opportunities. It helps you improve upon important workplace skills like communication, leadership, and problem-solving. It also shows employers that you’re driven and dedicated.
Of course, an increase in salary isn’t guaranteed or automatic. Research job opportunities in your field. What degree is required for higher-level positions? What is the median salary?
Especially for corporate career paths, an MBA is generally considered a great investment.
For some liberal arts career paths, a graduate degree in the humanities isn’t always beneficial.
For example, careers in marketing and fundraising rarely require master’s degrees because companies hire based on experience, not education level. They want to know what you've done in a practical sense.
When Going Back to College Doesn’t Make Sense
On the other hand, think twice if your reasons for going back to college include:
- A sense of uncertainty about what to do with your life
- The belief that a degree will immediately solve your problems and improve your life
- Feeling like you “should” go back to school/earn a degree
Returning to college shouldn’t be an impulsive decision. Don’t make the investment just because it’s
“something to do” or you hope it will give you some direction in life.
Remember, there are no guarantees. Weigh your options, evaluate the possibilities, create a plan, and make an informed choice.
And definitely don’t go back to college just because you feel it’s expected or you worry about others judging your level of education.
Make sure you’re on the right track by asking and answering the questions below.
Questions to Ask Before Going Back to College
- Why do I want to go back to college?
- What is the cost of my degree (including opportunity costs)?
- How will earning a degree pay off in my field? Is the investment worth it to me?
- What outcomes am I expecting/hoping for? What can I do to make this outcome my reality?
- What will I do after earning my degree? What is my plan to maximize the value of this degree?
Answer these questions thoroughly and honestly to evaluate your reasoning and form a plan. If you’re unsure, do some research. For example, you may need to investigate how your specific degree will pay off in your career field.
You should have a clear understanding of both the risks and the benefits of going back to school.
It’s also important to understand what skills/knowledge you want to pick up, what you plan to do with your degree, and the steps you’ll take to transform your plan into a successful reality.
So, what do you think?
Here’s a confession: I left graduate school early to start my company Transizion because I felt that my tuition dollars would have been better spent as startup capital. That ended up being a great decision.
At the same time, we regularly advise our customers to attend graduate school because it’d benefit their careers, bank accounts, and long-term plans.
Each case really is different.
Now, I want to hear from you.
Have you gone back to college after graduating? What was your experience like?
Would you go back to school? Why or why not?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments!