Should I Go Back to College to Finish My Degree?

A college degree can mean more job opportunities and a higher salary. And going back to college is easier than ever before.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on July 8, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Should I Go Back to College to Finish My Degree?
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As of the 2020-21 academic year, 39 million Americans attended college but did not receive a degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Nearly a million students went back to college during the 2020-21 school year — and over 60,000 finished a degree within their first year back.

But should you go back to college to finish your degree? Students leave college for all kinds of reasons, including financial issues, personal struggles, and academic challenges. Some leave to pursue other opportunities. But no matter why you left school, finishing your degree can pay off.

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Returning to college can mean a boost in earning potential and new career opportunities. And learners going back to college have more options than ever before to finish their degree.

4 Benefits to Finishing Your College Degree

College graduates benefit from higher salaries, lower unemployment rates, and more job opportunities. And those are only some of the reasons to finish your college degree.

1 Increased Earning Potential

How much does a college degree pay off? Compared to those with some college experience but no degree, professionals with a bachelor's degree earn a median salary of $22,620 more per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They also benefit from a significantly lower unemployment rate.

The increased earning potential means that finishing a college degree will boost your lifetime earnings. Research from Georgetown University shows that finishing a bachelor's degree increases lifetime earnings compared to those with some college credits but no degree by over $720,000.

2 Eligible for More Jobs

Jobs that require a bachelor's degree tend to pay more than jobs that require an associate degree or that don't require a degree. In 2021, the BLS found that occupations that require a bachelor's degree pay a median salary of $78,000. And these professions also report many job openings.

Software developers, general managers, elementary school teachers, accountants, and registered nurses will all see more than 100,000 new jobs each year from 2020-2030, according to BLS projections. Finishing college means you'll qualify for more of these in-demand job opportunities.

3 High Return on Investment

What's the return on investment for finishing a college degree? Completing your degree can mean a higher salary. But to determine your ROI, you need to weigh the increase in earning potential against the cost of college.

College-bound adults can choose an affordable program that maximizes their transfer credits to improve their return on investment. For example, in-state public universities charge under $10,000 per year in tuition and fees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The average median salary increase with a bachelor's degree in a single year covers two years of tuition, so finishing your degree is a good investment.

4 Personal Growth

In addition to the economic benefits of going back to college, you'll also experience personal benefits. A college education strengthens your critical thinking skills. You'll also gain knowledge related to your major.

College can encourage personal growth. Exploring different subjects and investing in your education will shape who you are as a person.

Signs You Should Go Back to College and Finish Your Degree

Is it time to go back to college to finish your bachelor's degree? Here are some signs that it's the right time to head back to school.

You're Not Qualifying for Jobs

Are you applying for jobs but losing opportunities to more qualified candidates? Or are you struggling to find jobs based on your education level?

Missed opportunities harm your career growth and earning potential. If you're missing out on jobs, that's a good sign that it's time to finish your degree.

You Have a More Flexible Schedule

Has your schedule recently become more flexible? Maybe your kids are back in school so you can consider finishing your degree. Or maybe you're experiencing temporary unemployment, which offers the silver lining of more time to devote to college.

If you have flexibility in your schedule, consider an online degree completion program to earn your bachelor's degree.

You're Seeking a Career Change

Are you feeling stuck in your career and want to move into a different industry? Certain sectors are thriving, including tech and healthcare. But roles in those fields typically require a college degree.

If you want to change fields, a college degree can help you change or launch a new career.

How Do I Finish My Bachelor's Degree?

Fortunately, learners returning to college to finish a degree benefit from more options than ever before. Many colleges offer degree completion programs online and in person. They also provide specialized support for students returning to school.

When you decide to return to college, you'll need to find the right program. This section covers factors to consider when evaluating your options. Resources like College Scorecard can also help you learn more about colleges.

Online vs. In-Person

You can enroll in an online or in-person program to finish your degree. Many working learners prefer online options. The flexibility of an online schedule makes it easier to balance school with work or other responsibilities.

Choosing an in-person format limits your options to local schools. With an online program, you can compare programs and choose one that fits your budget and career goals.

Time Commitment

What kind of time commitment will a bachelor's degree require? Depending on your prior college credits, you can potentially finish a degree in as little as one year.

A bachelor's degree requires around 120 credits, or roughly 30 credits per year. Calculate your time to degree by figuring out your transfer credits to determine how many more credits you will need to earn.

In addition to the length of a degree completion program, consider the weekly commitment. If you're working full time, a part-time program might make more sense for your schedule.

Cost of School

The cost of a bachelor's degree can vary widely. While public, in-state tuition costs around $9,350, private college tuition averages more than $35,000 per year.

On top of tuition, you'll need to pay for books and supplies, which average around $1,200 per year. Create a budget before you research programs.

And don't forget to look into scholarships and grants for adults returning to college. You may also qualify for financial aid through the FAFSA.

Maximizing Prior Experience

Maybe you attended college for a single semester before leaving school. Or maybe you earned credit at multiple colleges. Whatever your circumstances, maximizing your transfer credits will save you time and money on a bachelor's degree.

Many colleges offer a free transcript evaluation to determine your transfer credits. And generous transfer credit policies can make it easier to finish a degree.

In addition to transfer credits, look for schools that offer credit for prior experience. Many schools offer credit for work or life experience.

Going Back to College as an Older Learner

The number of older learners in college continues to grow. Today, the average age of part-time undergrads is 27. And around a third of all college enrollees are over 25 years old, according to fall 2019 data from the NCES.

That means you won't be alone when you return to college after a break. And the benefits of a college degree will pay off immediately. You'll qualify for new job opportunities and increase your earning potential.

Create a plan to go back to college. Reach out to schools to ask about their degree options, support for returning students, and transfer credit policies. And then make a plan to celebrate earning your college degree.

Frequently Asked Questions About Finishing Your Degree

Can you go back to college after dropping out?

Yes, you can return to college after dropping out. Students leave college for many reasons. Whatever your reasons for leaving, you can go back to school to finish your degree.

For many students, the easiest option is applying for readmission at the school you previously attended. This will also maximize your transfer credits. You can also apply to other colleges as a transfer student.

How long does it take to finish your degree?

Students with some college experience but no degree can finish a bachelor's program in as little as one year. The time to complete a bachelor's degree depends on your transfer credits.

For example, if you have an associate degree or around 60 credits, it typically takes two years to finish a bachelor's degree. With one year of transfer credits, you'll likely spend three years in college to finish.

Can you finish a bachelor's degree online?

Yes, you can finish your bachelor's degree online. Many accredited online colleges offer degree completion programs designed for working learners and returning students.

They also accept transfer credits to help those with prior college credits finish a degree. Prospective students can research the best online colleges to find the right fit.

How fast can you finish a bachelor's degree?

Transfer students with prior college credits can earn a bachelor's degree in as little as one year. Most colleges require students to earn a minimum of 30 credits toward the 120-credit requirement for a bachelor's degree at the degree-granting institution.

Students seeking a faster route to a bachelor's degree can research accelerated online bachelor's programs.

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