Will Going Back to School Help Your Career?

For years studies have shown a direct link between level of education and life long earnings – and its hard to argue that earning a college degree doesn't have its benefits, especially when it comes to career advancement opportunities. But does the same hold true for mid-life adults who are already in a career or don't plan on working as long at their career as recent college grads just entering the workforce? The reality is that going back to school as an adult is a different story altogether.

Going back to school as an adult can be beneficial, but is it right for you? You shouldn't make a leap into a college degree or similar education program until you're certain that it is. While earning a degree has its benefits, especially with respect to career advancement, it also has its costs, and has a huge impact on life – especially for adults who are further along in life. The following are a few things to consider before making the leap back into school.

1. Why are you considering it now? What is the motivating factor behind a desire to go back to college or earn a degree? Are you looking to make a mid-life career change and need a new skill set? Is your skill set lacking? Does your current job require a degree or certification for career advancement opportunity? Are you just feeling stagnant in your current career and looking for anyway to enhance your opportunities? Is pursuing a degree a personal goal? Is the benefit of earning a degree worth the sacrifice? These are just a few of the questions you can and should ask yourself when contemplating going back to school to earn a higher degree. While there isn't necessarily a wrong answer to any of these questions, asking them will help you determine your motivations for earning a degree and whether or not they're in line with your ultimate objectives – whatever they may be. It's not uncommon for adults to return to school only to realize that it wasn't the anecdote they were looking for.

2. Can you dedicate the time required to earn a degree? After raising seven children, my mother decided to return to school to finish the degree she'd always wanted. But what first started out as a 3-year plan to finish her bachelor's degree quickly morphed into four, then five, then six years of schooling – and she's still working on it. Any degree program is going to require several years to complete, but it often takes even longer for adults returning to school later in life. It's sort of like moving. Every time you move from one house to another, you have more stuff to move and it's just a little bit harder. Earning a degree later in life is very similar. Adults often find that their time commitment to friends, family, work and social groups is much greater than they imagined. Many adults also find themselves in a situation where they must continue working full-time as they pursue their degree part-time. While this sounds fine and dandy, just consider, earning a bachelor's degree part-time can take 5 to 6 years. How old will you be in 5 or 6 years. Will 5 or 6 years of your life, monopolized by work and school, enhance the quality of your “post degree” life enough to justify those many grueling years of school?

To save time in travel and classroom attendance, some adults pursue a college degree or degree completion program online at one of several online colleges and universities. Online learning is good option for adults who are set on earning a degree, but must also face the realities of life at the same time. But even online degrees require substantial time commitment in the form of study, group projects, presentations, homework, and research – all of which suck time and energy away from focusing on career, family, and friends.

If you've decided that earning a degree is going to be advantageous for your situation, then make sure you plan ahead. Develop a time management system that allocates and balances your time to those activities that are most important – and then stick to it.

3. Can you afford it? If time were the only consideration, we all might go back and earn another degree, however, most higher education opportunities these days are quite expensive also. Make sure that (1) you can afford the degree that you're going to pursue and (2) it's a good investment – that is, your degree makes you more money than it costs you.

I recently heard of a young women who racked up over $200,000 in student loans to complete a degree at an Ivy League school only to pursue a $35,000 a year career in social work. While there's nothing morally wrong with the story, just doing little math quickly tells you that (1) this young woman could not afford the education she received and (2) it was not a good investment – even if it was personally enriching. With low interest, federally back student loans available to any college student these days, it's not hard to graduate with $50,000 to $100,000 in student debt – but is it worth it? Does it really make sense to go into debt without any real guarantee of future benefit?

While evidence suggests that earning a college degree will increase your earning potential, there isn't evidence that suggest that your earning potential increases proportionately to the amount you spend on your education. Spend the least amount you can to get the best education you can. This means you'll need to do your research. Explore all your education options – and make sure you do the math before you jump in with both feet. Use a degree to make money, not loose money – it has the potential to do either.

If you decide a higher education makes financial sense, there are quite a few financial aid programs to help students get the education they need. Just a few forms of assistance available include low interest loans sponsored by the federal government, private scholarships, government grants and work study programs. If you're a career professional, you may even look into programs offered by your employer. Many corporations offer tuition reimbursement and scholarship programs for employees willing to go back to school and earn a degree that will help increase their job performance.

4. Is going back to school the answer you're looking for? Some adults quickly assume that getting a degree is the answer to their concerns. Whether or not earning a degree is the right answer, really depends on what your end game is. If you're just looking for knowledge, there may be quicker, more affordable ways of reaching your goal. Many colleges and universities throughout the United States offer stand alone classes and courses for working adults and aspiring career professionals that do not require a substantial time or financial commitment. Such courses provide valuable professional development and personal enrichment opportunities and often come with a certificate of completion. There are also seminars and workshops that provided targeted training designed to provide participants new skills and valuable knowledge.

Earning a degree is worthwhile endeavor, but it isn't for everyone. It requires a substantial time commitment and financial investment, and at the end of the day it may not take you where you want to be. If a college degree is in you future, take the time to fully investigate all your options. Prepare and plan. Make sure once you're head down the path of earning a degree, you don't have any reason to look back or regret your decision.

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