Should You Go Back to School as an Adult?
School days aren’t always over once you hit your mid-20s. The percentage of students over 25 who pursue higher education will increase over the next 10 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Older students have lots of options, from online courses to professional certifications to doctoral programs.
Why go back to school? Adult students tend to have two main motivators: learning and earning. Associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees each qualify their recipients for higher-paying jobs. And pre-professional programs aim to transition students straight into careers.
Here are a few scenarios that might make you think about returning to school:
- You want to move into a higher earning bracket and you’re confident a degree will help.
- You want specific educational training to further your career.
- You’re switching career fields completely and want training in the new field so you’ll be competitive in the job market.
- You took time off from school and now you’re ready to return.
- You have some financial security but you’d like a career you’re more passionate about.
- You’re interested in a field or course of study but not ready to devote yourself to it full-time.
It can be tough to fit school into an already busy lifestyle. The difficulties adult students report most frequently are finding the money and finding the time. While younger undergraduate students often orient their lives around campus, older students tend to structure their coursework around their lives.
How can you navigate student life and adult responsibilities? We’ve answered a few back-to-school FAQs below.
When should I go back to school?
There’s no universally “right” timeline. But there are two major signs you might be ready.
First: You know what you want. You’ve pinpointed the subject you want to study and the goals you want to accomplish through your education. You’re clear on whether you’re taking a few skill-based classes or aiming for a degree. You may have a school or two in mind. A meeting with a career counselor can help you narrow down your choice. If you enroll with a sense of purpose, your time in school is more likely to be worth it.
Second: You’re reasonably confident you can pay for it. Ideally your education should open doors to a career that will allow you to pay back any student debt. If the field you hope to enter is a low-earning one, try thinking outside the box for lower-cost higher education options. These may include associate’s degrees, online programs, and individual classes not leading to a degree. Then there’s the complex world of financial aid, which we’ll talk about next.
How will I pay for school?
Remember the FAFSA, the form you or your parents filled out the first time you went to school? You get to fill it out again, this time as an adult. The FAFSA is required for most types of financial aid, including federal grants and loans. There’s no age limit for federal aid.
If you know the school you want to attend, get in touch with its financial-aid office. Consider asking if you can enter your upcoming year’s projected income on the FAFSA, rather than your income from the previous year. This is helpful if you plan to scale back on work hours during school. With a lower income you’ll be considered for more need-based aid. Have your tax return handy if you plan to use the previous year’s income on the application.
Ask the financial-aid office about grants and scholarships. Hunt for scholarships independently too, and preferably as soon as you know you’re returning to school. Deadlines come up early! Popular scholarship aggregator Fastweb lists grants available to non-traditional, adult, and returning students. Scholarships.com has a similar list.
There may be an opportunity geared to your identity or circumstances. Some grants are designed for adult residents of a certain city or state, military veterans, women, or adult students of color, for instance. Search for aid specific to your field of study, as well.
The FAFSA will help you narrow down federal aid prospects. If you’re getting your first bachelor’s degree, your school may consider you for the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) or the Federal Pell Grant. Schools award these grants to students with great financial need, regardless of age. The Pell Grant is also available if you’re getting a professional degree.
Loans need to be navigated more carefully. As you know, you’ll have to pay them back. Federal loans are more flexible than private loans. Likewise, subsidized federal loans—where the government pays the interest while you’re attending school—are preferable to unsubsidized loans.
You may be extra cautious about taking on debt if you’re already paying off loans from previous schooling. A school financial-aid adviser can talk you through your options, which could eventually include refinancing or consolidation.
Here’s the good news: Paying for school gets you tax breaks. One common student tax credit is the Lifetime Learning Credit. You can claim up to $2,000 a year, or 20 percent of your education expenses up to $10,000, for each year you’re in school either full-time or part-time. There’s also the American Opportunity Credit—this one’s available to full-time students getting their first undergraduate degree. You can claim up to $2,500 for the first four years. If you’re taking courses to further your career, you can deduct the money you spend on tuition and school supplies.
How should I choose a program?
The United States alone has thousands of higher education institutions. Even if you know exactly what you want to study, where should you go?
Figure out what your logistical requirements are first. Do you want to find a program near where you live? Are you willing and able to relocate for the right program? If so, are you prepared to find housing on your own? What transportation will be available to you? Do you need a program to offer evening, weekend, or online classes?
Then start your research. A study by the organization Public Agenda found older and returning students are less likely to thoroughly compare schools before selecting a program. Instead they follow recommendations from friends, family, or coworkers.
While advice from trusted people in your life is valuable, it’s best combined with a good knowledge of each school’s statistics. Look up program rankings. Find out a prospective program’s graduation rate. A high graduation rate is a good sign students find the program worthwhile. Investigate how many graduates are employed and what types of jobs they have. Learn the average student debt of a program graduate. These statistics are often available on the school’s website. Research and read honest student reviews. Sites like the College Board and the Princeton Review are good places to start.
Another note: Be wary of schools that advertise heavily. If you see a school’s ads everywhere, it may be spending money on its ads and not on its students. Constant advertisement is a hallmark of for-profit colleges, or colleges run by private businesses. Because the school’s motive is profit and not education, students often pay more and receive less.
Should I pursue a certificate, a professional certification, or a degree?
The answer depends on your personal education goals.
Certificates are non-degree-granting programs
You take courses to further your knowledge of a subject. A certificate is a good choice to explore a new area or enhance the expertise you already have in an area, without putting time or money toward a degree.
Professional certifications or trade certifications require more commitment
Certifications often qualify you to perform a particular job. They’re used in technical, medical, and education fields, for instance. They may lead to state and national licensure if needed. These are great options to advance or fill a niche in your field. If you know a certain subspecialty has lots of job openings, getting your certification in that area can give you a leg up with employers.
These may train you for a specific job, or they may give you a broader education in a subject area. Associate’s degree programs usually take two years and are more job-centered. Bachelor’s degree programs usually take four years and have a broader focus—you might take classes outside of your subject to fulfill requirements. Graduate programs come in many variations. They include pre-professional programs in areas like law and business. Since many graduate students are adult or returning students, these programs offer scheduling flexibility, but may take longer to complete.
A degree program is the best choice if you want several career options. While certifications train students for particular careers, degrees make students more employable in general. The higher the degree, the higher the average earning potential. Certain subject areas may be bigger moneymakers—the sciences earn more than the liberal arts, for example. But if you’re open-minded and flexible about job opportunities, you’re likely to find options no matter what your degree. Most employers value work ethic, enthusiasm, and experience as much as they value the specifics of your education.
These degrees help fill an essential employment niche, similar to the professional certification. A master’s degree in an in-demand area, like a subspecialty of business, financial management, or real estate, can bump up earning potential. The advanced degree is a good choice if you have experience in a competitive field and want to get ahead of the game.
What if you just want to learn more about a subject?
The Internet offers plenty of free massive open online courses. Check out your local adult education center. See if a nearby college or university allows non-students to sit in on or audit classes.
Or if you want to improve your employment prospects without investing in coursework, many cities offer free job-training programs through the Department of Labor. One Stop Career Centers operate in several cities as well. Public libraries can be a good place to find more information about these programs.
Should I take classes online or on campus?
At this point in life you have more responsibilities than the average undergraduate. Add the commute to class, and school gets time-consuming. Many adult students take advantage of online courses. Some even complete their degrees entirely online.
If you find an online program that meets all your needs, this may be the best option for you. It may even let you finish your education more quickly. Online programs often have targeted degree options. This means you only take classes related to your area of study. And, of course, you can take online classes anywhere at any time—though you’ll still need to carve out the time and meet course deadlines.
But being on campus has its own rewards. One great thing about returning to school as an adult is making new connections. The professors and classmates you meet can help your career in unexpected ways. You’ll still connect with others online, but in-person meetings have more impact. Most college campuses offer in-person resources—libraries, gyms, career-counseling centers, and more—available for free to anyone with a student ID.
Several colleges and universities have hybrid programs. Students take some courses on campus and some courses online. In hands-on fields, such as nursing, students may fulfill course requirements online and complete internships or practicums in person.
No matter which method of instruction you choose, make sure the program is accredited. Accreditation, or approval by an outside regulating agency, is the biggest indicator that employers will take your degree seriously. Search the Department of Education’s website to see if your school is accredited. For vocational or career-based programs, search the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s website. You can also check the school’s site for evidence of accreditation.
Should I enroll full-time or part-time?
Full-time enrollment is a quicker route to completion. “Full-time” doesn’t mean you’re on campus or studying for 40 hours a week. It means you have a full course load each semester. You can have a part-time job while maintaining full-time enrollment. You’ll just be busy. If your goal is to get your degree as soon as possible, and you can afford to scale back work hours for a while, full-time student status might be the way to go.
Part-time or half-time enrollment is less of a time commitment each semester. Schools typically require students to maintain a certain course load for “part-time” status. In some cases, you can take one course per semester and still be a part-time student. The upside: you can maintain a full-time job and juggle other responsibilities more easily. The downside: you’ll take longer to finish your program. Usually you have the option to enroll full-time one semester and part-time another semester.
Your decision may depend on the workload your courses require. If classes are time-intensive and demanding, you want to give as much attention and effort as possible. This may mean taking it slowly with part-time enrollment, or ramping up to full-time so you can focus on school.
One important thing to remember: you might need to maintain at least half-time enrollment to stay eligible for financial aid. Find out your school’s aid requirements before you sign up for classes.
Can I work full-time while studying?
You can, and many people do.
As a bonus, your employer might help pay your tuition. There’s an incentive for the employers, too. They get a tax break for up to $5,250 of tuition assistance. This request is a no-brainer if your courses are related to your job or line of work. But even if your coursework doesn’t directly relate to the job, your employer still gets a tax deduction.
If you’re negotiating a severance package after a layoff, you can ask for tuition assistance to be part of the package.
Going back to school can be the key to the career you’ve always wanted. Or it can increase the earning potential and enjoyment of the career you already have. With research and planning, you can find a program that fits your goals, your schedule, and even your budget.
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