By Kathleen Sullivan
Back to school reminders and promotions are everywhere this time of year. It is easy to get swept up into the rhythm, excitement, and challenge of going back to school this fall. However, deciding to go back to school has serious consequences for your career, finances, and lifestyle, some of which have long term effects. Here are important factors to weigh to determine whether going back to school is the right choice for you.
1. What are your goals for going back to school? You may long for a new role in your field, a career or industry change, the status or higher income that a degree or professional certificate can confer, or the satisfaction of your intellectual curiosity about a topic. Take the time to assess and clarify why you want to go back to school and the outcomes you are seeking.
Based on your motives and the results you desire, is going back to school the best way to achieve your goals? Will the degree or certificate you receive qualify you for a new or higher position or meet your financial objectives? Do you also need additional practical experience to be qualified for the position, professional advancement, or industry you are seeking? If you are satisfying your intellectual curiosity, can you do this with more targeted workshops, readings, and self-directed study?
One way to determine if going back to school is a means to achieving your goals is to speak with people in your desired role, level, or industry. They can offer advice on the best steps to take to be qualified for these opportunities. If school is not the primary way to achieve your goals, you may wish to blend specialized training with on the job experience, internships, or apprenticeships, or enlist a mentor to take the right steps to reach your career or personal goals.
2. How will you finance your educational costs? The cost of going back to school can be very steep. The average cost of one year of full-time graduate school at a public institution can range from $10,000–$15,000 and at a private school, $30,000 or more. A year-long professional certificate or training can average $5,000–$10,000. What resources do you have to meet the costs of going back to school? Do you have personal savings or assets you can use? Can you obtain financial assistance from family members? Is it enough to cover all of the associated costs of education like books, equipment and supplies, travel expenses, etc.? Will you need to take time out of work to go back to school? If yes, how will you compensate for the lost opportunity of working and earning a salary? Do you qualify for financial aid? There is government, private, and institutional funding for continuing education, but often it is in the form of loans rather than scholarships or grants.
If you are taking out loans, can you borrow enough money to finance your education? Do you understand your repayment obligations and can you meet them? If you are over 50 years old, how will financing your educational costs and your repayment obligations affect your money for retirement? Is there tuition reimbursement available from your employer? Some employers offer full or partial assistance for education or training, which often must be related to the skills needed for your current job. Do you know if you qualify and whether you can meet any obligations to the employer for accepting this assistance? Can you take advantage of any tax breaks? Tax credits, deductions, and savings plans can help offset the expenses for continuing education. Do you have the information to know if you can take advantage of these tax benefits? Before going back to school, determine the real costs of your education or training.
Research multiple options for financing your education and create a realistic budget for the time you are in school. Be sure that you can afford to meet educational and living costs and any long-term obligations. To get information about financing your education, check with financial aid professionals who work for federal or state assistance programs or at colleges, universities, or career training schools. Also, speak with human resources staff at your employer to find out if you qualify for tuition reimbursement and any related conditions for accepting these funds. To determine how you may qualify for tax breaks, consult the IRS web site under the Tax Benefits for Education section for more information
3. What impact will going back to school have on your lifestyle? Going back to school has a significant impact on your time and energy, your personal life, and your family and friends. How will you manage the impact of going back to school? Can you develop a realistic schedule that balances the time you need to attend classes or training, complete homework assignments, do your job, and fulfill family obligations and any other personal commitments or interests? How will your family, employer, and friends react to your being in school? Will they understand that your time and attention are divided? Do they appreciate that you may have a limited budget that restricts expenditures and activities? Are they willing to adjust to these changes? Will they be supportive or resentful? Are you willing to forgo some personal, professional, and recreational opportunities while you are back in school? Do you have the commitment and determination to make sacrifices to complete your degree or certification?
Before going back to school, determine how you will balance your school, personal, and work life. Put a framework in place including a schedule and budget. Have frank conversations with family and friends and your employer. Ask for their understanding and support. Be sure you personally have the conviction to go back to school. Going back to school is an investment in time, money, and lifestyle.
Before you make this significant decision to go back to school, evaluate the return on your investment. Be sure that going back to school is the right course to achieve your professional goals and personal fulfillment, assess whether you are able to finance the costs, and ensure that you have the support and balance in your lifestyle to make it happen. Only you can determine if this is the right choice for you.