Your complete guide to going back to school as an adult


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Returning to school can help someone pivot in their career or lead to even more employment opportunities. But that potential opportunity doesn’t come without costs. Weighing the benefits of whether going back to school will be worth the costs is an important step before enrolling in a new degree program.

When thinking of going back to school, it’s important to consider your career goals, past career experiences and what you hope to gain out of more education. Think of how the degree or certificate may improve career mobility or increase your earning potential. Then factor in how much the program will cost and how you’ll pay for the costs.

There’s no one simple formula to determine whether or not going back to school is worth the cost, but these questions may help you make your own judgment.

Related: Best online MBA programs

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Determining Whether Going Back to School is Worth It

Once you’re clear about what program you’d like to pursue and have a list of schools to consider, you may want to ask yourself the following:

  • Will my investment in this degree be worth the cost?
  • Will the degree help me in my career path?
  • Is this degree necessary to continue on my career path?
  • Will this degree increase my job satisfaction (and my satisfaction in life, overall)?

There are ways to answer those questions, including strategies about how to calculate your financial return on education (ROEd), providing a way to look at how your degree combination can affect your income after you graduate.

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1. Will This Degree Help Me in My Career Path?

When going back to school as an adult, it’s important to position yourself for continued growth based upon the career progress you’ve made to date. Sometimes, your continuing education of choice will take you further on the same career path you’ve already established. Other times, you will be broadening your education to branch out into complementary fields.

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2. Talk to Trusted Colleagues

To make sure that the program you’re choosing will help you to accomplish your career goals, consider talking to people whose judgment you trust, including those who have pursued the path you’re considering.

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3. Review LinkedIn

Another resource that might be worth checking out is LinkedIn. You can search the profiles of people who work for companies you admire or who are in a job position you’d like for yourself. What educational credentials have they listed? If they have a graduate degree, which one? Does this mesh with what you have in mind?

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4. Evaluate Career Opportunities

If you’re considering a pivot to a new field altogether, investigate carefully to determine potential opportunities as well as the amount of time and money you’ll need to invest to obtain your career goals. Consider taking a single class or participating in an internship in that field before diving into full-time pursuit of a degree.

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5. Is This Degree Necessary to Continue on My Career Path?

Sometimes, of course, obtaining additional education is necessary in order to fulfill your career goals. This is true if you want to become a doctor or a dentist, a nurse or a lawyer. And in other cases, you may not necessarily need additional education to get a job in a particular field, but you might aspire to work for a company that requires further education from its professionals.

Obtaining an MBA, for instance, can provide you with skills that will suit you well in various fields. And companies are very interested in hiring MBA graduates: After a hiring slump due to the Covid-19 pandemic, companies planning to hire MBAs in 2021 has rebounded to the same level as pre-pandemic, according to The Graduate Management Admission Council. In other words, not only can getting an MBA increase your skill set, but it also may set you up for greater career and financial success down the line.

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6. Will This Degree Increase My Job and Life Satisfaction?

Any time you invest significant resources into a decision, such as going back to school, you probably have desired outcomes in mind. With college or university, you’ll likely want to receive a promotion, a boost in salary, and the like, which is reasonable. But it’s also important to consider whether those accomplishments will really make you happier.

A lot of the things in work that make us happy are intangible: a work culture and community that aligns with your values, work-life balance, or a boss you work well with. Having said that, you might need an advanced degree to get into companies and positions that provide these essentials.

Keep this in mind when deciding if going back to school is the right decision to make.

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7. Will My Investment in This Degree Be Worth the Cost?

To help you determine the answer, perhaps consider your financial return on education (ROEd). As an initial step, you might look to see the typical lifetime earning potential for graduates in your field. But if you’re pursuing a graduate degree, it’s really important to look at the value of your degree combination.

Why? Well, your undergraduate degree has almost certainly boosted your earning potential, although to what degree varies by your major. So, when you add a graduate degree to your undergraduate one, your earning potential naturally shifts.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that education pays off, median weekly earnings increase as education level increases. However, consider the average salaries for someone with a master’s degree in your specific field against the cost, and importantly, how much debt you stand to take on if you choose to go back to school. Because there is a wide range of graduate programs, not all of them offer the same earning potential or employment opportunities.

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How to Finance Going Back to School as an Adult

If you decide going back to school is worth the cost, the next step is to figure out how to pay for the program of your choice.

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1. Explore Private Scholarships

First, you can conduct a scholarship search and explore foundations and organizations that may provide funding to you based upon your professional credentials, your community, religious affiliation and/or ethnicity, etc. Also, you could check to see if your employer offers any scholarship or grant programs that can benefit you.

Recommended: How does tuition reimbursement work?

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2. Federal Financial Aid

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and take advantage of federal funding, and check out the information provided by to find opportunities for federal loans and grants for professional and graduate students. You can also find state-funded possibilities, including both loans and grants.

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3. Private Student Loans

Is combining funding from these sources, as well as any funds that you can personally contribute, enough to pay tuition and other expenses associated with going back to school? If not, you could also explore private student loans.

Private student loans, offered by private lenders, can be helpful tools to help students pay for their education when scholarships, federal aid, and savings aren’t enough to fill the gap. Some private student loans lack the borrower protections, like income-driven repayment plans or forbearance options for borrowers who run into financial difficulties, afforded to federal student loans.

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4. Refinancing Existing Student Loans

If you’re heading back to school and have existing student loans from your undergraduate degree, refinancing could be an option that allows you to reduce the monthly payment amounts or secure a lower interest rate.

Getting a lower monthly payment could be helpful if you’re saving up to head back to school. Some private lenders offer borrowers the option to put their loans into forbearance while they go back to school, similar to the forbearance options available to federal student loan borrowers.

Keep in mind that refinancing with a private lender means you’ll forfeit the benefits afforded to federal student loans, like income-driven repayment plans or Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

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What is Student Loan Entrance Counseling?

As you head back to school, you may be considering borrowing student loans. Before borrowing any federal student loan, all borrowers must go through student loan entrance counseling. This is a short, online course that is designed to help students understand the terms and conditions of their loans.

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When Do You Need to Go Through Student Loan Entrance Counseling?

Any students borrowing federal student loans will need to undergo student loan entrance counseling before borrowing a loan.

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Where Do I Go for Student Loan Entrance Counseling?

The federal government conducts student loan entrance counseling online. You can get details on the course by logging into your account on the Federal Student Aid website.

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Why is Student Loan Entrance Counseling Important?

The goal of student loan entrance counseling is to ensure that students understand the responsibilities and requirements that come with borrowing student loans. It highlights the terms and conditions of borrowing a loan, and it also emphasizes borrower rights.

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The Takeaway

When evaluating whether or not going back to school is worth the cost factor in things like your career goals, the anticipated job market after graduation, typical program costs and average salaries for the career you are pursuing with the degree.

Going back to school is a personal choice. For some it can mean opening the door to new employment opportunities. For others, it may not be worth the cost.

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