So, you’re considering going back to school to earn a degree.
Maybe you decided to put off college and work full time after graduating from high school.
Or, perhaps you have an undergraduate degree and believe you’ll be more marketable with a graduate degree.
Education is important and highly valued in today’s society. However, there are many things to consider before deciding to return to school.
Why I Went Back To School
I remember how excited I was when I finally finished my Bachelors degree in Sociology. With my full time work schedule and multiple major changes, it took nearly 7 years for me to finish!
After graduating, I started working in a social services role for a state government agency. While it was great experience, I quickly realized that my Sociology degree would only get me so far in my desired career path.
I considered my options, did tons of research, and decided to pursue a Master of Social Work degree.
In my situation, going back to school made sense and resulted in a good career. I have been a social worker since 2009 and have been blessed to have been gainfully employed the entire time.
How about you? If you are you considering going back to school, here are 5 questions to ask before you make your decision.
# 1 Why Are You Going Back To School?
What is your why for going back to school?
Are you underpaid? Want to quit your job? If so, do you have the patience and endurance to spend years earning a degree to find a more satisfying job?
Has your employer offered you a promotion that is contingent on you getting a degree? That sounds promising, but do you actually see yourself growing with that company?
Consider your goals when deciding whether or not to return to school. If you haven’t set any goals, now is a good time to start.
Once you’ve set goals, decide whether or not returning to school aligns with those goals or if it’s actually counterproductive and a distraction.
Determining your why will help ensure you’re going back to school for the right reasons.
# 2 Which School Will You Choose?
Today, there are many more higher education options available than state, private, and community colleges.
For-profit schools offer degree programs comparable to their not-for-profit counterparts. Many for-profit schools have an open admissions process with less strict enrollment guidelines than not-for-profit schools, which can be highly competitive. The only requirement is a high school diploma or GED, making it easier to enroll.
Online education has also become popular, especially now that people are busier than ever, juggling work, family, and other obligations. People simply don’t have time to sit in a classroom several days a week.
Before deciding where to invest your hard-earned money and time, here are a few things to consider.
This is not a question of ivy league versus state school.
Sadly, some colleges have a history of poor outcomes and suspect practices. There have been stories of schools shutting their doors due to money mismanagement, leaving students with loan debt and no degree.
Be sure to check online reviews, as well as Department of Education updates, regarding any school you are considering. Please don’t rely on reassurance from the school’s representatives. Do your own research.
Accreditation is the process that ensures that a school meets certain standards for providing quality education. Most schools are either regionally or nationally accredited, and it is important to research what the difference between the two means for your future career prospects.
You should also determine if your chosen degree program is properly accredited. Fields such as nursing, social work, psychology, and business have their own accrediting bodies that determine if the degree program adequately prepares students to work in those fields.
I once met a woman who obtained a Masters degree in mental health counseling from a popular for-profit school. Unfortunately, she was unable to sit for the licensure exam because the degree program was not accredited. Being an unlicensed counselor is sure to have a lasting impact on her future job prospects.
Research is very important. You don’t want to find out later, after investing time and money, that your degree has no value and won’t lead to the career you were hoping for.
# 3 How Will You Juggle School With Other Obligations?
When I returned to school for my Masters degree, I was working full time and had a pretty active social life.
I chose a part time Masters program that allowed me to attend school in the evenings. I was also single with no children, and was confident that I could make it work. But, it was still challenging.
Consider your current obligations before deciding to go back to school.
If your classes are held during the day, when will you work? If you’re a parent, who’s going to look after your children while you’re in class? When will you set aside time for studying, completing assignments, and connecting with other students?
It is important to remember all of your current obligations and decide if you are able to juggle them along with attending school.
# 4 Are There Alternatives To Furthering Your Education?
I want to preface this by saying that I am not against pursuing a degree. As I shared above, I went back to school to obtain a Masters degree because it was the best option for my career goals.
Still, it is important to evaluate if it is the best option for you. Here are a few possible options to consider before pursuing a degree.
Does your current or desired career path offer non-degree certifications for more experience and marketability? Examples include project management, graphic design, IT, and real estate. Many schools offer certificate programs that are less expensive and require much less time than a degree.
Continuing Education Courses
Are there courses you can take to become more skilled in a particular area? Examples include grant writing, foreign languages, photography, and business. Consider taking a few continuing ed courses and include them on your resume to complement the skills you already have.
What skills do you already have that qualify you to work in a different field? It’s common to immediately disqualify ourselves from different opportunities outside of our current field because we don’t possess required skills listed on a job posting. I’d encourage you to avoid this and brainstorm how your current skills equip you for new opportunities. Sell your transferable skills!
# 5 How Will You Pay For School?
I’ve saved the best question for last: how will you fund your education?
Now, it’s no secret that education funding is one of the most polarizing and controversial topics out there. There are many views about the high cost of education and whether or not people should even consider pursuing a degree in the first place.
As a lifelong learner, I believe in the importance of education, whether formal or informal. If you decide that a college degree is right for you, it is critical that you make the most informed decision regarding how you will pay for that education.
Here are a few options to consider for funding your college degree.
Despite the strong opinions about student loans, they remain one of the most relied-upon options for funding education.
If you decide to go this route, it is imperative that you understand exactly what you are getting yourself into. Learn about loan types, repayment options, federal versus private loans, loan forgiveness, and more. The Federal Student Aid website is a good source of information.
When I took out loans for my undergraduate education, I admit that I knew very little about loans. The school’s financial aid office was helpful, but they represent the school. It’s important that you find objective information related to your borrowing needs.
It’s important to note that I carried my student loan debt for 14 years after earning my degree. Thankfully, I am now debt free. Keep in mind how long you want to be tied to your loans once you’ve graduated.
Grants and Scholarships
Grants and scholarships are highly sought after ways of paying for college because they do not have to be repaid. For this reason, they are also highly competitive and have strict requirements and deadlines.
Some are merit-based, awarded based on prior academic performance. Others are needs-based, reserved for students of a lower socioeconomic status.
It’s worth it to take the time to locate grant and scholarship opportunities to potentially have your education costs covered.
Cash Flow Your Education
Ideally, paying for college out of pocket is the best choice if you are not able to secure a grant or scholarship.
I was blessed to have been able to cash flow my Masters degree (also with help from my mom) to avoid going further into debt.
But, the reality is that paying for college out of pocket is not easy for most people. If money is already tight, how will you afford thousands of dollars every few months for college tuition? Can you realistically work an extra job, while maintaining a full-time job and attending classes?
Many financial experts will encourage you to find a way to cash flow college to avoid going into debt. This is understandable, as student loan debt has become a national crisis.
If you’re looking for ways to pay for college out of pocket, here are a few steps to take.
Start A Budget
The first thing I’d suggest you do before deciding on your funding option is starting a budget. You may find that you have enough extra income to pay tuition, if you’re willing to make some sacrifices.
Compare Tuition Rates
Community colleges and state schools tend to be less expensive than private colleges and for-profit schools. If your desired program is offered at less expensive schools, and you can pay out of pocket, it’s worth it to consider those schools.
Consider Tuition Reimbursement
Does your employer offer tuition reimbursement? If so, it may be worth it to explore.
There are a few things to keep in mind when considering tuition reimbursement:
- You will have to pay your tuition upfront, so you’ll need to budget for it
- You’ll also have to maintain a certain GPA for the reimbursement
- They may only pay up to a certain amount per calendar year; you’ll be responsible for the difference out of pocket
- You may be required to continue working for the employer for a number of years after obtaining your degree in exchange for the tuition assistance
Increase Your Income
If you can realistically work extra hours, consider picking up a part-time job for extra income. Consider a work from home opportunity that allows more flexibility than retail or food service.
If working extra hours is not sustainable for you, consider asking for a raise or promotion at your current job. Or, apply for another job that pays more money. That boost in income may provide the extra money you need to pay for school.
Are You Considering Going Back To School?
What steps are you taking before deciding to return to school? Have you considered the pros and cons? Please share below!