Should You Go Back to School in Your 20s and 30s?

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I'm in my mid-thirties. I've cobbled together a career I'm happy with, a little more than 10 years after I finished a two-year degree at a tiny school. It has been hard work and it has paid off. But I can imagine how it just as easily might not have paid off. That's the reality a lot of people my age are realizing. The education they have hasn't gotten them as far as they wished.

That can be a troubling conclusion. It's no secret that expensive university education has gotten a bad name since the Great Recession. Many are the college graduates working entry-level positions they could have easily gotten without the four years of effort (and associated debt). I wasn't able to afford a four-year degree when I was 18. And today I'm glad I couldn't. I don't think I was ready. I didn't know enough about myself or about the world, not to mention the value of education itself. Even though I'm not planning on it, in many ways I think school would be more valuable for me now, now that I'm mature enough to take advantage of it.

A lot of people feel this way. And it begs the question, "Should I go back to school at this point in my life?" In 2013, 40.5 percent of higher education enrollees were age 25 to 39. Clearly, many people are taking this step. But should you? And what if you're older than that? I've thought about this a lot, and I have a few requirements that I think everybody should demand of their education, especially if you are taking it on as an adult.

1. How fast will your education pay for itself? My "back of the napkin" equation for determining the value of adult higher education is: it's got to pay for itself within two years. If I'm going to get a degree and enter a new field, I want a job as soon as a graduate. And I want the extra income I earn as a result of this education I've received to pay off that education within two years. In order to do this, I've got to pick out the right degree in the right field, one which has a reliable job available to me when I complete my program. Some degrees will accomplish this and others won't. So whatever you do, be realistic about the money it's going to add to your bottom line. Unless this new career path is extremely fulfilling, it's not worth the effort if it's not going to pay for itself quickly.

2. Is this program a realistic time commitment? Grown up people are busy. You might have kids. You might have any number of demands upon your time. Many adults begin schooling programs that they ultimately can't complete. They may learn some good things in the meantime, but unless they're able to transfer this learning into a job, this is time and money that is largely wasted. So you've got to spend some time to figure out if you can handle all aspects of your school or degree program: the commute, the homework, the change to your schedule and the demands of your family and outside work. Don't let this stuff surprise you. You need to anticipate time demands well in advance.

3. Is this the best program for you? If you can afford it and handle the time demands, have you chosen the most beneficial program for your needs? What is your most important priority? Pursuing a field that you enjoy? Finding a job that pays the most money? Getting a career that gives you more time with your family? Identify the most important outcome of your new school or degree program and make sure you pick a program that maximizes the payoff in that specific area. The best choice may be a program that surprises you.

I think going back to school can be appropriate for people of all ages. But because of the economics involved, it is important to make careful considerations before signing on the dotted line. This can be the difference in a degree that pays for itself and a degree that weighs you down.
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