Should You Go Back to College?
- The national shutdown has caused unemployment to spike, with millions out of work.
- Historically, people go back to school during recessions to retrain and earn more.
- Degrees hold value on the job market, but using education to get ahead takes strategy.
When the economy contracts and jobs become more competitive, people go back to school. During the past two recessions, college enrollment in the U.S. spiked. With unemployment at historic highs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many are wondering whether now may be the right time to get a degree.
A college degree has long been an important signal to employers. Increasingly, a bachelor's degree has become a basic requirement for most professional career tracks. The value of an undergraduate degree stems from its long-lasting soft skills.
Returning students who juggle work and kids have more options than ever for on-campus, online, and hybrid learning.
While vocational programs teach hard skills — task-based knowledge that eventually goes obsolete — college focuses more on 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.
Higher education is itself an industry that changes with technology. Returning students who juggle work and kids have more options than ever for on-campus, online, and hybrid learning. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) projects that the percentage of students over 25 who pursue higher education will climb slightly over the next decade.
Determining Why You Want to Go Back to College
The time and expense of college make going back a big decision. With more personal responsibility, adult students tend to have more factors to weigh than the typical incoming freshman.
But they also stand to benefit more from going. Indeed, adult learners often find that they are 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:
The best-case scenario is to earn credentials for free through your employer. If your employer sponsors education, you don't necessarily need another rationale for heading back to school.
If you plan to finance your education entirely on your own, however, you'll want to have a clear reason for attending college. Feeling burned out in your current job or uncertain about your next career move are 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.
College Is an 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. Individuals with graduate degrees make even more.
Education's return on investment (ROI) stays high, but rising tuition costs bite into college's net value. The college affordability crisis reached a new high-water mark recently, with student loan debt hitting $1.6 trillion.
Bachelor’s degree-holders make nearly $1 million more over their lifetime than those with just a high school diploma.
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 NCES, just 62% of college students graduate within six years.
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 who are parents the necessary flexibility to succeed.
College Redirects Career Paths
In many fields, a college degree is the price of admission. Going back to school can help you develop a niche in your existing field or enter a totally new field. But it isn't the only option.
If you already have the skills for the job you want, those alone could be enough. Some innovative companies have started looking beyond bachelor's degrees, recognizing that top talent doesn't always come through the traditional college track. There's also a host of certificate programs on both vocational and emerging tech subjects.
A college degree points to durable, transferable skills that can grow with your career.
Unlike other types of credentials, a college degree points to durable, transferable skills. Critical thinking and analytical skills grow with you. While certificate programs can provide an immediate career boost, a degree supports careers in the long term.
A college degree can also help you command a higher salary. 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 your interest in returning to school hinges on increasing your lifetime earnings, consider how many working years you have left. Going back to college at 30 looks a lot different than going back to college at 40 in terms of income.
Economics aside, returning to college is a major career and life accomplishment for many returning students. A college degree can reenergize or redirect career trajectories, and you may even be able to receive credit for your professional experience.
How to Go 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.
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. What's more, during a recession, state funding cuts could cause tuition to rise.
Adult students should take advantage of the FAFSA, as there’s no age limit for federal aid.
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 to you. A growing number of companies are paying for their employees' continuing education.
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.
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.
Keeping loans down maximizes the financial benefit of returning to college and reduces the chance you'll be paying off student loans as a retiree.