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Going Back to School

Liz Heintz

Written By: Liz Heintz

Published: 7/5/2022

Returning to school as an adult can be both exciting and challenging. You may be ready for a new career but feel overwhelmed by the thought of getting started. Taking a step back and developing a plan for moving forward can help you remain focused and composed as you contemplate your next move.

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Should I Go Back to School?

As you gain years of work or military experience, you may be eager to embark on a new career path that provides more fulfillment and financial security. In addition, the personal insight you've gained as you've matured and developed over the years may be driving your desire for change. However, returning to college can seem daunting if you've been out of school for several years and worry about staying organized. You may think you're too old and don't want to feel awkward or out of place in a classroom. You may also have family obligations that create anxieties about time and money.

It helps to consider the pros and cons of returning to school to see the implications. While it can be gratifying, and you may develop a sense of pride over your accomplishment, it's a major life decision you'll be making that deserves thoughtful consideration.

Pros of Returning to School

You may experience lower unemployment. In May of 2022, the unemployment rate for individuals over 25 who have a bachelor's degree was 2.0% compared to 3.8% for those holding a high school diploma only.

Your earnings potential may increase. As of 2020, individuals with a bachelor's degree earned over $500 more per week than those with only a high school diploma. This can equate to approximately $14,000 more a year and nearly $1 million more over your lifetime. Those with a master's degree earn close to $12,500 more per year than those with a bachelor's, and doctoral degree holders earn almost $18,000 more than their master's counterparts.

You may be able to turn your work experience into college credits. This is where your age and experience can be of benefit. Many schools consider work experience as prior learning and give you college credit. You may have to complete a prior learning assessment (PLA) which could require an essay or an exam to demonstrate your knowledge. This can save both time and money.

Cons of Returning to School

You may incur student debt that can be difficult to repay. Almost 37% of undergraduate students receive federal student loans annually that average $8,285, and for some, that amount is much higher. While you'll have years to repay these loans, making the monthly payment may be daunting for some. For example, larger federal student loans totaling $20,000-$40,000 can take up to twenty years to repay.

You may not receive a good return on your investment. If you don't do your research upfront, the cost of a college education may far outweigh the salary you'll earn. You'll want to make sure you'll be able to cover your current expenses and plans and pay back any student loans. Some majors offer a much higher ROI than others.

Your schedule may change from term to term. Unless you choose an online degree program, the days and times you spend in school may change throughout the year. This can make it difficult to make plans too far in advance, and it may interfere with your job unless you have a very understanding employer.

How to Go Back to School

It can be difficult figuring out how to make the return to school. There are several steps to take to help get you started.


Figure out what you want to do and do some career exploration. Make sure it's a career that's in-demand and pays what you need to cover your expenses and still be able to save towards the future. Determining the return on investment (ROI) is critical to make sure it will be worth your while. Read our article covering the degrees with the best ROI during the COVID-19 recession to get started.


Determine if you want to attend school online or on-campus. This may depend on your work schedule, your commute, program availability, and any other personal obligations you may have. If you are able, talk to your employer about your plans — they may be supportive and willing to help you make your dreams a reality.


Start researching schools and programs to make sure they are accredited and offer curriculum that meets industry standards. College Scorecard can help you determine graduation rates and student demographics, and you can read student reviews to gain valuable insight.


Check to see what funding options may be available to you. For example, there may be funding available for military veterans and their families, those receiving unemployment benefits, and through your employer. Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine your eligibility for federal funding.


Start applying for admissions. You'll most likely need to submit high school and college transcripts, military records (if applicable), letters of recommendation, a resume, a completed application, and an application fee of approximately $50.

What Should I Go Back to School For?

Several factors may drive choosing a degree and education path when returning to school. Your decision comes down to your interests, industry demand, salary expectations, and financial situation. There are various options to choose from where the need is great, the jobs pay well, and the education can be affordable and even completed online.

The BLS has identified several of the fastest growing occupations through 2030 that require a degree:

Other occupations almost always in need of qualified workers who hold a certificate or degree include teaching and counseling. Occupations within these fields include:

To learn more about alumni outcomes, employment statistics, and the labor market, view our in-depth Data Studies.

How to Finance Your Education

While dreams of the future may compel you to return to school, figuring out how to pay for your education can feel overwhelming. However, several resources at your disposal can help you manage your college expenses and financially plan for your future.

How to Afford Going Back to School

Attending school online, in the evenings, or on the weekends can help you keep your job while finishing your degree and provide schedule flexibility. Choosing one of these options can help you manage your money right from the start. You can also research other ways to help manage college expenses:

529 College Savings Plan If you aren't planning on returning to college for a couple of years, you may consider investing in a 529 college savings plan that can help you save for the future with additional tax benefits. However, it's essential to know that holding an account may impact federal financial aid eligibility.
Open Educational Resources (OER) OER materials can help save money. They are educational resources that are available online for free. Many instructors use these resources to supplement course curriculum.
Prior Learning Credits Schools that cater to non-traditional students may offer prior learning assessment (PLA) programs. These allow students to apply work, life, and military experience for college credits. You may be required to take a test or write a paper demonstrating your skill instead of completing a course. PLA programs can be an excellent way for those in military service and veterans to earn credits for time spent serving our country.
Textbook Borrowing and Rentals There are several ways you can save on the expense of textbooks and other school supplies. This includes borrowing textbooks from your school library or renting them each term. If your school's library doesn't have your book, they may be able to locate it from another school library. Companies like Amazon have a textbook rental program that can save a significant amount of money, especially if you don't plan on keeping your books.
Tax Breaks and Education Credits The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is available through the IRS to help students who are returning to school pay for their education. The AOTC is a tax credit of up to $2,500 for the cost of tuition, school fees, and course materials each year, with a $4,000 maximum credit.

How to Go Back to School Full-Time and Pay Bills

There are several ways you may be able to return to school full-time and still meet your financial obligations:

Accelerated Programs Accelerated degree programs can be a way to save time and money. While the classes are more intense, you can complete them in a shorter time period than a traditional degree program. In addition, these programs often appeal to non-traditional students who work full-time because classes can be taken online, in the evenings, or on weekends.
Online Degree Programs Online degree programs offer some of the most flexible and affordable ways to finish school. Classes are often asynchronous, meaning that you can complete them on your own time, which can be convenient if you work full-time and juggle multiple responsibilities.
Work-Study Programs or School Employment Completing a FAFSA can help determine if you are eligible for a work-study program that may be offered through your school. A work-study is part-time employment either on- or off-campus that allows you to continue to work while paying for college.

How to Defer Student Loans When Going Back to School

If you have already accrued student loan debt, you may be able to defer repayment when you return to school. You typically will not be required to resume payments until six months after you graduate or fall below part-time student status. However, you may still accrue interest if you have unsubsidized loans.

If you want to continue making small payments, you may be eligible for an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan, especially if you had to switch jobs or reduce your work hours when returning to school. IDR payments can be as low as $0, and you may be eligible for loan forgiveness if you can't repay your loans within 25 years.

How to Get Funding to Go Back to School

There may be several funding options available to you to help pay for school. Completing your FAFSA will determine if you qualify for federal grants or scholarships that don't require repayment or low-interest student loans with flexible repayment plans.

Additional funding options include:

GI Bill benefits may be available to veterans and members of the military on active duty to help pay for school. There are also several VA-approved institutions you can choose from, such as those in the Yellow Ribbon Program, that help pay for costs not covered by the GI Bill. Each school offers different benefits.

Private scholarships can be an excellent way to pay for school. If you belong to any organizations or associations, you may want to see if they offer scholarships to their members. Your school's financial aid office can help you research viable options.

A tuition reimbursement program offered through your employer can help pay for school. While they may only cover job-related courses and expenses, this can be a considerable help. Up to $5,250 in employer tuition reimbursement is considered tax-exempt each year.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) can help unemployment insurance claimants pay for school while retaining their weekly benefits. Eligibility depends on the program and school. There are over 75,000 programs available through community colleges, technical schools, and speciality schools across the U.S.

Do you want to reduce the cost of college with financial aid? Check out our Guide to Financial Aid for Online Students to learn more.

Alternatives to Going Back to School

Returning to school for a four-year degree may not be for everyone. The options below can also help you gain skills and pursue a career change to increase job security and income potential.

Bootcamps If you are interested in a high-tech career, a bootcamp may be the answer. Companies and schools offer bootcamps in coding, web development and design, cybersecurity, UI and UX, data analytics, and digital marketing. You can complete them in a matter of weeks or months.
Community Colleges Community colleges offer community education courses, certificate programs, and associate degree programs, which can be completed in two years or less. For example, you can take classes in cooking or photography, earn a certificate to become a certified nursing aide (CNA) or mechanic, or earn your two-year degree in a healthcare or business field.
Entrepreneurships You may feel others can benefit from your experience and decide to go into consulting or freelancing and work for yourself. Or, you may have created a product you can make and sell. You may also choose to become a business owner by becoming a franchisee of a local business or a large company.
Open Online Courses Several companies, such as Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, MOOC, and Udemy, offer open online courses. These are courses anyone can sign up for for a fee. Industry experts often teach them, and they can be completed in several hours. Many offer certificates upon completion. Subjects include digital marketing, writing, social media marketing, bookkeeping, and programming languages. Some universities like Harvard also have free online courses open to the general public. Google, Microsoft, and Adobe also offer training courses.
Vocational Trade Schools Trade schools offer the opportunity to take classes and earn certificates in specific occupations such as automotive technology, computer technology, HVAC, healthcare, and cosmetology. These programs often take less than two years to complete, and advisors may help students with job placement after graduation.

FAQs About Going Back to School

Is Going Back to College at 30, 40, or 50 Worth It?

Many in their 30s, 40s, and 50s are considered mid-career and are looking for a career change and a salary increase. We often develop different interests and gain more clarity the longer we've been in the workforce. Interestingly, the NCES found that 41% of part-time undergraduate students were 25 and older in the fall of 2019. Earning an advanced degree and learning new skills can improve your marketability and income potential at any age.

Why Is Going Back to School Important?

Going back to school is vital if you need additional education for job advancement or a career change. You may also be able to increase your income by earning a degree. For some, it's an emotional decision that can fill you with a sense of accomplishment and confidence. Regardless of the reason, returning to school can be life-changing and open the door to greater opportunities.

Is Now a Good Time to Go Back to School?

If you are motivated and eager to move your career forward, this may be an excellent time to return to school. First, however, you'll want to carefully consider your financial situation and current expenses, the time you can give to studying, and any other obligations that may interfere with your intentions. It helps to see the complete picture before you make a final decision.

Should I Quit My Job to Go Back to School?

Not necessarily. You may be able to complete your degree online on your schedule and balance it with your job. If not, it may be worth speaking with your employer about your plans and seeing if they can accommodate your schedule. If you are an employee in good standing, they may be willing to work with you to ensure you can meet your goals.

Bottom Line

When returning to school as an adult, it can help to speak with others who have a similar shared experience. You can learn a lot from others' mistakes and victories. It can also help to keep yourself surrounded by people who support your endeavors and can help you in a pinch if you need childcare, a ride to the library, or help running errands during finals week or while preparing to graduate. You may be surprised at the number of resources available to you and the support you receive as you work to build a better life for yourself.

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