going back to school

Deciding to Go Back to School as an Adult

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Last updated on January 26, 2021

Here at Consumerism Commentary, we are lifelong learners. We’ve explored the benefits of a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree here (see: Is An MBA Worthwhile?). But what about other degrees? How do you know when it’s time to go back to college, enroll in an advanced degree, or audit an extension course? If you find yourself asking, “Should I go back to school,” read on.

In this article, we’ll talk about figuring out your own motivations, going back to college, applying for graduate school, how to go back to school (finding the money and support to succeed) and what to avoid at all costs.


Almost all the advice on deciding to go back to school boils down to understanding your own motivations. Some of the best reasons to go back to school include:

  • Finishing your undergraduate degree – opening up job possibilities that were formerly closed
  • Pursuing a lifelong passion
  • Getting a promotion from your current employer
  • Dabbling in a hobby
  • Increasing your salary
  • Switching fields

How motivated are you to complete your chosen program? Be honest with yourself. That can help you determine if you want to go back full-time, part-time, or start with extension courses or community college courses.

Going Back to College

For adults thinking about becoming a co-ed again, you might be pleasantly surprised to see who is sitting in class with you (hint: it’s not all 18 year olds). Almost 40% of undergraduates are older than 25 and almost 25% of them have children. That means that colleges are having to adjust for a different type of student–one who may be working full-time, juggling the demands of parenthood, and looking for immediate value.

There isn’t a lot of guidance on how to go back to college for adults. In an interview with NPR, Rebecca Klein-Collins, author of Never Too Late: The Adult Student’s Guide to College, advises potential college students to:

Find a place that acknowledges who you are at this stage in your life. And that can manifest itself in a number of different ways. It can mean that a school is not expecting you to drop everything and go to school full-time; they understand that you have work and family obligations and they help design a program that’s going to fit into your busy lifestyle. It could also mean a program that really acknowledges the diverse experiences that students are bringing to the classroom — so instructors are not just assuming that you’re coming right out of high school, but that you have learned from your own life — and they see that experience has relevance in the classroom that can contribute to the class in a very unique way.

In the same way that there isn’t much guidance for older adults, most of the annual college rankings are aimed squarely at high school seniors and their parents. But Washington Monthly produces a yearly ranking of colleges for older adults.

And if getting your bachelor’s is to increase your salary (or perhaps to help you qualify for jobs that are out of reach at the moment), check out the government’s data on annual earnings for college grads a year after graduation. It’s worth noting that timing matters: the return on investment (ROI) for liberal arts colleges is lower at the ten-year mark than that of other institutions ($62,000 vs. $107,000) but if you have 40 years left in your career, it is actually much higher ($918,000 vs. $723,000). And every year, Kipling’s puts out a list of its best college values.

Getting an Advanced Degree

If you are thinking about a graduate degree for the financial boost, you’ll want to consider the return on investment (ROI). Forbes lays out seven steps to calculate the ROI alongside a precautionary tale where one unlucky lawyer ended up $350,000 in debt while making just $20,000 a year.

The Harvard Business Review (perhaps ironically) explored whether it makes sense to go to graduate school and came up with their top reasons:

  1. To increase your salary
  2. To change careers
  3. To follow your passion

Depending on what career you want, graduate school might be mandatory. But for other things–say business or government–a significant draw of grad school is the network opportunities. This means that you’ll want to understand the type of student you are likely to meet at each school.

How to Go Back to School: Money and Support

Colleges and graduate schools can be expensive, especially if they require taking out loans that you might be paying back over the course of your career. Do your due diligence–ask schools for graduation rates, what support they provide, and average salaries one, five, and ten years after graduating. Some schools will pay off almost immediately while others saddle students with debt.

If you are contemplating going back part-time or are looking for a promotion at your current company, ask your manager or HR what policies they have in place to support you. Your company may only be willing to pay for an extension course that helps you do your job better, but they may also foot the bill for an entire MBA. For those lucky enough to work for employers who believe in investing in their workforce, it can make the question of ROI a time and interest issue instead of a financial one. Companies like Chipotle, BP, McDonald’s, Walmart, Starbucks, Bank of America, Amazon and Home Depot all offer some sort of help with tuition.

If your company won’t pay, there are still lots of ways to fund your education. First check if there are any programs aimed at helping students like you–there are programs that are looking to help a specific demographic.  Federal loans are available to older students. If you can save up in advance, a 529 savings fund can be used to pay for classes and things like textbooks. Fastweb, an online scholarship database, is a source to find what might be available to you. And for women, the American Association of University Women provides fellowships and grants to go back to school. And if you end up paying out of pocket, know that going back to school might provide you with a tax break (assuming your income doesn’t disqualify you).

Finally, for our older readers, some states offer free college courses (as long as you audit).

Beyond the costs of going back to school, you’ll want to think about the support systems you have–or the ones you’ll need to set up. Does your job (and perhaps more importantly, your manager) support the idea? Have you pitched the classes as ways to improve on your current position? What about on the home front? If you have a partner, are they on board with you studying instead of watching Netflix at night? And if kids are in the picture, do you have a plan for who will watch them while you’re at class or studying?

What to Avoid

Education is a great thing. Watch out for scams or financial aid packages that overpromise. (Check out this article on understanding financial aid packages. It’s aimed at high school students but has lessons for us all).

And be wary of for-profit-schools. Experts say they tend to overpromise and underdeliver on post-graduation salaries. Washington Monthly writes: “For-profit schools fare poorly, despite the fact that they enroll large numbers of adults. The problem is that they tend to charge too much without delivering the increased future salaries that most adult students are looking for.” And beyond that, the Center for Responsible Lending says that “One predictor of borrower distress is whether the student attended a for-profit college. While only a small minority of students enroll at a for-profit, these schools generate the largest share of defaults on federal student loans.”

With all that in mind, if pursuing a higher degree (or just taking a few classes to better understand your passion) sounds enticing, do your homework on the programs, funding, and outcomes. You’ll be better prepared for what comes your way (and you’ll be ready to start hitting the books when classes start).