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Is going back to school worth it?

Lots of adults ask themselves how to go back to school — especially with jobs and families. These 5 questions help them consider their options.

Two young adults are walking on a college campus.

When Brandon Findlay decided to finish a degree in criminal justice at 32, he worried he’d be the oldest person in his classes. “I didn’t want to be the old know-it-all,” he says. Then he stepped into a classroom and saw the trend that had emerged in the years he’d been working: About 40 percent of today’s college students are over 25, and nearly 80 percent of 25- to 34-year-old students with a previous degree have year-round, full-time jobs.

There are impactful reasons for adults to consider a return to school: According to the Social Security Administration, the lifetime value of a graduate degree is $400,000 for men and $310,000 for women. Bachelor’s degrees and beyond also positively affect employment rates: For those 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree, unemployment rates are nearly three percentage points lower than those who just graduated high school.

Thinking about joining them and wondering if you should go back to school? Tackle these questions.

  1. Does this institution fit my needs? Vanessa Sansone, an assistant professor of Higher Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio, doesn’t judge students who arrive late for class or with a child in tow. “Busses run late, childcare falls through — those are things that happen with post-traditional students,” she says.

Her advice: Find your best match by looking for institutions intentional in their support of you and your needs. This could mean choosing to attend an institution that offers night and online classes, weekend support services (e.g., tutoring, advising, career services) and even childcare (yep, some offer it).

  1. What will I need to graduate? Ask specific questions about credits you’ve earned and paid for elsewhere, says Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of Higher Education at Seton Hall University in New Jersey: “Some colleges will say that they count credits toward a degree, but then they won’t count as the courses you need for your major.”
  1. Ask yourself, “Is going to college worth it?” Melinda Vanags earned a degree in management information systems while working and raising three kids, but she also accrued $58,000 in debt. She’s not alone — in 2015, the average student loan borrower owed more than $37,000 according to the New York Federal Reserve. “My wage is higher now than it would have been had I not gone to school,” she says. “But I ask myself every day if it was worth it.”

  2. What’s the intrinsic payoff? Jana Bastian worked as a tourism exec but switched to substitute teaching while raising her two daughters because it matched their schedules. What she learned: “I loved teaching.” So she earned the credits for certification and landed a full-time job teaching high school art. “I get to be with emerging adults every day,” she says. “I’m making a difference in their lives.”

  3. What’s it like to work in the field I want to pursue? Scott Jasperse spent a year studying to become a voice-over artist. “The instructors said I had a voice well suited to the industry,” he says. “And I liked the work.” But he hated the hustle for auditions. Now he’s studying information technology, a better fit with a steadier work environment. What he learned: “Ask someone to let you see how the job looks in the field,” says Jasperse. “And just run your race. There’s no expiration date.”

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