Back-to-School Planning for Returning Students

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By Nat Sillin
College campuses have more mature students these days – but is a mid- to late-career return to school right for you?
In recent years, older Americans have been heading back to school part-time and during evenings in greater numbers than students of typical college age. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollees 25 years of age and older account for 40 percent of all undergraduate and graduate students – by 2020, that number will rise to 43 percent.
Statistics proliferate on how much more valuable undergraduate college degrees are than high school diplomas alone. A recent Pew Research Analysis study reported that college graduates aged 25-32 and working full-time earn about $17,500 more a year than employed adults in that age group with only a high school diploma. It’s an indication why college is a fairly clear sell for younger people.
Yet for people over 40, there are no similarly clear-cut reward measurements. Without the right due diligence, returning to school close to retirement can be a financially risky move. That’s why it’s particularly important to get advice and do extensive research before returning to college or any other training program, particularly if they can’t afford tuition out-of-pocket.
Here are steps to take before making a mid- or late-career return to the classroom:
Realize a degree doesn’t mean a job
That may seem obvious given the recent hiring fortunes of younger, first-time college grads. However, even though some job indicators are looking up for older workers, that doesn’t mean past experience and a high-quality degree or certificate program will immediately lead to employment or better pay. You should start with a thorough examination of working conditions and hiring forecasts in your chosen field. If it’s a complete career change, part of that review should include extensive face-to-face networking and observation of the job in action, if possible. Most of all, know whether employers in that specific field really are interested in hiring older workers and have a record of doing so.
Fully evaluate your finances
Spending money on school when you’re older is a much riskier proposition than when you’re young. Consider that late-life tuition is money that won’t go to retirement, a child’s tuition, an older relative’s needs, consumer debt or financial emergencies. In other words, it’s an investment that really has to pay off. Student debt has become an enormous financial risk to individuals because it is one of the few forms of consumer debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. This is why it is important to seek qualified financial and tax advice before committing to spending savings or taking out student loans to return to school. Such advisors might also be able to help you identify sources of scholarship or grant funding that won’t have to be paid back.
Determine how long you really plan to work
A 2013 Gallup poll indicated that three in  U.S. workers plan to work past the conventional retirement age of 65, but no one really knows how long they’ll be able to work given health and other factors. Will you be able to recoup the cost of training based on the number of years you hope to work?
Find the most affordable training possible
If a field is friendly to new workers your age, what will you have to invest in training to get the right job? Will it require a masters-level degree, a four-year degree or a training certificate that makes you a specialist in a specific skill? Will some employers accept free or low-cost online courses being offered by many colleges and universities? The American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Initiative is a useful clearinghouse for lower-cost training options at community colleges throughout the country. Also check with your chosen industry’s leading trade associations to see what certificate training is most popular within the field and what it costs. Sometimes a highly rated, specific-skill training certificate can be more valuable to an employee than a two- or four-year degree.
Pick a program that offers networking opportunities
One thing hasn’t changed no matter how long it’s been since you were in the classroom. Instructors, lecturers and employers remember students who are gung-ho about getting job experience and making contacts. In short, make sure the program you’re interested in offers opportunities for project work, internships or volunteer opportunities you can put on a resume.
Choose a program with a solid alumni network and career assistance
Investigate a school’s alumni network and job-assistance services before enrolling. A superior school job network can employ graduates faster, enabling a quicker payoff for your education investment.
Bottom Line: For mid-career workers, education is a great way to remain vital in the workforce. It can also be a risky financial investment. Experienced workers should fully investigate all degree and training programs for maximum payoff.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It’s always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.
Nathaniel Sillin is the Head of Global Financial Literacy at Visa Inc. and runs the company’s financial literacy program in the United States, which includes the award-winning Practical Money Skills for Life and What’s My Score programs. As part of his work at Visa, Sillin is a frequent public speaker and an active voice in the financial literacy community.
Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.