These days, the typical college student is far from what you’d expect. More than a third of all college students are now 25 years or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Additionally, many of those returning to school after years or even decades spent in the workforce or raising families.
Whether you’re hoping to finish a degree, raise your potential income, follow a passion, or learn something new, here are five essential questions to ask yourself before heading back to school.
1. What type of schools should I consider?
There have never been more ways to further your education. Universities, community colleges, trade schools, and professional certifications can all provide job-ready skills for careers in fast-growing industries like healthcare, technology, and construction. Even better, many schools offer classes online, allowing you to pursue a degree from your preferred institution no matter where you live.
To find opportunities in your location or area of interest, check out Washington Monthly’s list of best 4-year universities and 2-year colleges for adult learners, which takes factors such as “ease of transfer, the flexibility of schedule, and services for adults” into account.
2. What should I study?
Perhaps you already have a potential career in mind. Or maybe you have a desire to make a change for financial or personal reasons but aren’t quite sure what that path will look like yet. Either way, professional websites like Salary.com, LinkedIn, and Indeed can be helpful as you research who is hiring in your area—and what they’re paying. Benchmarking salaries will not only help you make an informed decision about what to study but also how much time and money you want to invest in pursuing a degree. And though the market can always shift, having some idea of your odds of finding a job once you’ve earned that degree is important.
3. How will I pay for it?
Going back to school can be a big financial commitment. You’ll want to have a clear understanding of how furthering your education will impact your finances over the short-term and long-term. At the very least, you’ll need to revamp your budget to include the added costs of tuition, books, school fees, and other expenses like childcare or a new laptop. Freelancing, consulting, or part-time work, even if it’s with a different employer, may also give you the extra financial runway you need.
Student loans are also an option. A federal Stafford loan, for example, can provide fixed interest rates and flexible payback options. There are also private student loans to help those with good credit ratings to fill in the gaps. You may also qualify for tax breaks such as the Lifetime Learning Credit, the American Opportunity Credit, and deductions for tuition and education-related expenses. And some employers—including Walmart, Starbucks, Discover, and many others—offer education assistance to employees seeking to continue their education. Check to see if your employer offers a similar benefit.
4. How much time do I have?
Between classes, studying, homework, and commuting, going to school can feel like another full-time job. If you have a family, that commitment will only be magnified. The good news? Many programs offer online classes, night classes, and classes on a compressed four-to-eight-week schedule. Also, certificate programs, micro degrees, or one-off courses can help you get the knowledge and skills you want without investing as much time and focus as a degree would require.
Regardless of what you ultimately choose, you’re going to need your support system to buy-in. Take the time to involve your partner or family members in your decision-making process. Remember, it’s not only about helping you find the time to study—though that is important. It’s also about having a cheering section that is willing to pick up a little slack or do their part to ensure you can focus on your studies.
5. Am I ready to make the back-to-school adjustment?
Before you leap, it’s crucial to have a “gut-check” moment. This is helpful to be sure that the reasons you want to go back to school aren’t rooted in the temporary, but are instead substantive enough to motivate you through the challenges and sacrifices. If you’re considering school because you have a bad stretch at work, you may want to look into a new job or a different position to restore your spark before landing on school as your next step.
Like anything in life, most career paths rarely follow a linear path. At one point or another, you’ll likely consider going back to school to refresh your skills, gain new qualifications, or switch careers altogether. Whether its due to new technologies, economic events that impact the job market, or a desire to shake things up, continuing your education can help increase both your personal happiness and your potential to level-up your career.
Nothing in these materials is intended to be, nor should be construed as advice or a recommendation for a particular situation or individual. Please consult with your own advisors for such advice.