Should You Go Back to College?

Returning to college is a big commitment. Make sure you think through your reasons for returning and how you can make it happen.

portrait of Anne Dennon
by Anne Dennon

Published on January 13, 2022

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Should You Go Back to College?


The U.S. is currently experiencing both a historic rise in inflation and a massive boom in job openings — two factors that have become a recipe for a movement coined the "Great Resignation."

Employees are feeling the stretch in their budgets, with many leveraging the hot job market to seek higher-paying jobs. Many are also considering returning to school, whether to change careers, sharpen their competitive edge, or boost their salary potential.

A college degree has long played a vital role in employment. Increasingly, a bachelor's degree has become a basic requirement for many professional career tracks. The value of an undergraduate degree stems from its long-lasting soft skills, such as leadership and creative problem-solving, which adapt over time and across positions.

As technology drives industries to evolve and improve efficiency, more careers center on soft skills. This shift is already visible in job demand: 9 in 10 new positions require a bachelor's degree.

Evolving technology has also made returning to school easier than ever. Returning students who juggle work and kids have more options for on-campus, online, and hybrid learning.

Why Do People Go Back to College?

The time and expense of college make going back a big decision. With more personal responsibilities, adult students tend to have more factors to weigh than the typical incoming first-year student.

But these more established individuals also stand to benefit more from going. Indeed, adult learners often find that they're better college students than they were at age 20.

Whether you're fresh out of high school or mid-career, the right reasons to go to college can look quite similar:

Feeling burned out in your current job or uncertain about your next career move are some examples of wrong reasons to go back to college.

That said, a strong desire for education can be reason enough. College is a lifelong goal for many. And for those who dropped out the first time around, going back allows them to finish what they started.

Is Going Back to College Worth the Investment?

Education can be a risky investment, but for graduates it generally pays off. An individual with a bachelor's degree is projected to make nearly $1 million more in their lifetime than someone with a high school diploma alone. Graduate degree-holders make even more.

However, rising tuition costs bite into college's net value. The college affordability crisis reached a new high recently, with student loan debt hitting $1.75 trillion at the end of 2021.

Many students bank on being able to pay off debt with their future salaries. But those who fail to graduate don't share the same earning potential — and still have to pay student debt. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 63% of college students graduate within six years.

The best-case scenario is to earn credentials for free through your employer. If your employer sponsors education, that can be reason enough for hitting the books again.

Older students may be less likely to receive school financial aid or private scholarships, but there's no age limit for federal aid. College students of all ages can fill out the FAFSA to receive federal financial aid for college.

College is also a big investment in terms of time. Returning students who must juggle work and family should consider the time commitment — not just in terms of years but on a week-to-week basis. Online and hybrid options give many students with children the necessary flexibility to succeed.

If you plan to cut back on your work hours while in school, the dip in income could help you qualify for more aid. Ask whether you can enter your upcoming year's projected income on the FAFSA rather than your previous year's income. With lower annual earnings, you stand to receive more need-based aid.

5 Steps to Going Back to College

Going back to college takes strategy. You must identify your career goals, research program options, and coordinate your professional and personal responsibilities. You should also think hard about how you plan to pay for college. Following these five steps will help you return to college successfully.

Step 1: Consider Your Remaining Working Years and ROI Potential

Returning students have fewer working years ahead of them than the traditional 22-year-old college graduate. With less time to recoup costs, a college degree's value declines.

Reflect on the time you have left in your career and decide whether adding a degree will see a return on investment in that time. A degree's ROI takes years to accumulate, so the earlier you are in your career, the more time your degree will have to pay off.

If you're closer to retirement than not, it may not be wise to take on debt for a few years of a higher salary. On the other hand, if you're a young professional or mid-career, a degree to help you switch to a more lucrative field or see a big increase in your current earning potential could have long-term payoffs.

Step 2: Identify Your "Why"

It's important to outline your reasons for returning to school and how they contribute to your career goals. Those motivations can influence the type of program you choose, the amount you're willing to spend, and how risky that investment may be.

Reasons for returning to college may include upgrading your earning potential in your current field, switching fields, pursuing a professional career for the first time, or taking advantage of a free or sponsored education opportunity.

Step 3: Find Potential Programs

Once you've determined why you're returning to school, planning it all out comes next. Research schools and degree programs that fit your goals. Learning about tuition costs, program lengths, available courses, and hybrid options can help you choose the right school.

You can also look for alumni and current students to offer their perspectives and advice about the program.

Step 4: Figure Out Financing

To avoid paying off student debt during your golden years, you must try to minimize the total loan amount with grants, scholarships, and employer-sponsorship programs (if available). A growing number of companies are paying for their employees' continuing education.

Step 5: Apply!

Submitting an application and preparing all the necessary documentation to return to school is the final step. At this point, you may also begin arranging things in your personal life to accommodate the time commitment and financial obligation.

Returning to college is a major career and life accomplishment for many. A college degree can reenergize or redirect career trajectories, and you may even be able to receive credit for your professional experience.


Feature Image: MoMo Productions / DigitalVision / Getty Images

If you're longing for a career change, going back to college can be a smart choice, especially if you're interested in one of these four in-demand careers. Millions of single parents attend college each year. Learn about your enrollment options and how to earn your degree as a single parent. Returning to college to complete a degree can be a tough decision. Learn the pros and cons, how to get started, and how to succeed.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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