Is Going Back to School at 30 the Right Decision For You?

Are you considering going back to school, yet you are concerned that you may be (gasp!) too old?

“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” – C.S. Lewis

Well the good news is that you’re definitely not too old to go back to school—if a 71-year-old can do it, then so can you.

In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2012-13 school year, 40.5% of enrolled students were 25 to 39 years old, which is not a far cry from the 46% in the “traditional” 18-to-24 age group. And 12% of students enrolled during the school year were over 40.

So the question really isn’t am I too old?

The right question to be asking is whether or not this is going back to school at 30 or older a good decision for you. Going back to school at 30, 40, or even 50 years old is a major life decision that needs to be carefully considered.

going back to school at 30

Let’s face it—you’re not 18 anymore, and you’ve already made quite a few major decisions from which you can never, ever return. From each of these choices, you’ve experienced successes and failures and piled on a whole ton of responsibilities while you were at it.

You may have had kids (and grandkids!), gotten married (and divorced and married again!), bought a house (or two or three), moved across the world and back (or not), and walked down more than a couple of different career paths.

And here you are on the brink of another big, life-changing, and pretty much irreversible decision.

Should you go back to school?

This is part one of a two-part series that will help you answer this question.

In this post, we’ll discuss four important questions to ask yourself when deciding whether going back to school is the right decision for you. I also interview a 30-something student and ask her for her best advice.

So, Is Going Back to School at 30 Your Best Option?

The number one, most important consideration you need to address before signing up for a college program is: should you go back to school? I mean, are you 100% completely certain that this is the right next step for you?

Without a shred of doubt?

The answer is based entirely on your unique situation and life goals. With that in mind, I’ve come up with four critical questions to ask yourself to help you decide whether going back to school is really your best option.

1. Can you get the credentials you’re seeking through an alternative means?

Are you looking to make yourself more promotable in your current industry? If so, is stepping away (or limiting the hours) from your paying job for two or more years really necessary?

Or, would you be better off taking a certification course to help enhance your existing skill set?

Not all education comes in the form of a university degree. If you are already working in a gainful occupation, sometimes adding a couple of certifications to your name will help make you more sought-after in your career.

Certifications take less time and are a lot less costly than going back to school.

A certification may give you more bang for your buck than a college degree will! (Tweet this)

The U.S. Department of Labor offers a handy certification finder to help you find out more about different certifications you can get in various industries. If you are already working in fields such as real estate, nursing, or IT, for example, then certifications may be the better choice for you.

going back to school at 30
Here is a sample, partial list of certifications for computer programmers.

If there are no certifications in your field of interest, or if you’re really looking for a BIG CHANGE in your life, then perhaps going back to school is still your best option. So read on!

The next question you should ask yourself:

2. Is going back to school at 30 or older worth the money and time that you’ll need to invest?

This question becomes more and more important the older you get because, let’s face it, the older you are, the fewer working years you have ahead of you (hooray!). Going back to school is sort of like pushing the “pause” button on your working life—even if you continue to work while you’re in school, you won’t have the time to put in extra hours or effort on the job.

Going back to school is going to take a lot of resources from you, including a great deal of your time, energy, and money.

But you knew that already, right?

That’s why it’s important to figure out your potential return on investment (ROI).

Common wisdom says that a better education means more earning potential. This wisdom is backed up by some pretty impressive numbers, too.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that people with higher levels of education received higher weekly incomes and were subject to lower unemployment rates. Check out this informative graph from the U.S. Department of Labor:

going back to school at 30

Based on those numbers, getting your bachelor’s degree can help you almost double your income compared to having no college degree at all. What’s more, having a bachelor’s degree drastically increases your potential for employment.

That said, not all majors and fields of studies are created equally.

Are you looking for an occupation with potential earning power? It might do you well to review these occupation statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It offers a plethora of interesting stats about the highest- and lowest-paying jobs and the highest- and lowest-employing industries.

  going back to school at 30

Judging from the above table, you can potentially double your income if you are currently working as a hospital orderly (at $25k/year) and decide to earn a bachelor’s degree in mortuary science (at $53k/year).

For argument’s sake, let’s say you earn your four-year degree at an in-state school and spend $30k to do it (more on how much school could cost you in next week’s post).

Assuming all goes well, and you get a good-paying job as a mortician in year five, your earnings will increase by $28k/year, which means that for you, school will pay for itself in just over one year of working.

going back to school at 30 Hooray, you ambitious mortician, you! Going back to school was the right choice.

I suggest you run through a similar ROI evaluation for your decision. First, calculate your potential income change, and then figure out how long your school investment will take to pay off. If you end up being able to recuperate your investment in five or fewer years, you may decide that going back to school is a great choice for you.

That said, any wise person will tell you to never, ever do anything just for money. If you don’t pick an industry that fuels your curiosity and passion, you may not succeed at all, and any money you throw at the endeavor might just be dollars down the drain.

Let me play devil’s advocate for you. While most people think the decision to go back to school is a great plan, here are a few people who think going back to school can spell futility:

Robert Chen says returning to school because you can’t find a job is a bad idea. He writes, “There was a time when an advanced degree was special and having one set you apart from other candidates. Now, not only do more people have advanced degrees, but the cost of higher education is rising much faster than the salary boost it can bring.”

Well that’s not very encouraging!

Daniel Lemire says returning to school for a PhD isn’t a good idea if your only motivation is money. He writes, “I tell my students that they should be in it for the pursuit of knowledge.”

Probably not a bad idea.

Forbes contributor Chereen Zaki says getting an MA hurt her career prospects! She writes, “Two years, twenty-five pounds, and an obscene amount of money later and my master’s degree didn’t sound like a credential, but a mark against me. In the end, I wasn’t offered the job and could only wonder whether my master’s degree was the reason why.”

Twenty-five pounds? Now, that’s a pitfall I hadn’t considered yet!

All of these negative perspectives make me wonder:

3. Would you be better off taking the risk of starting your own business?

Many of the world’s most influential and successful people don’t even have a college degree. If you’re going back to school because you are trying to find a new purpose in your life, you may consider opening your own business.

If you have the expertise, passion, patience, and work ethic to make something grow out of nothing, being an entrepreneur may be a more rewarding option than school.

Both going back to school and starting your own business can be risky. But, if you’re even thinking about plunking down $60k for an MBA, in particular, then I suggest you consider that the money might be better used to fund your business vision instead.

Not sure if being an entrepreneur is right for you? Check out this great Lifehacker article discussing the pros and cons of becoming a business owner.

Now, I’m not saying that education has no value; I’m just challenging you to consider whether furthering your education has a specific and measurable value for you and your goals.

Hopefully the above questions helped you determine whether going back to school is the right choice for you. If you’re still wondering, maybe you should read this post by Donald Asher on 7 reasons to go back to school.

Now, I’m guessing that if you’re still with me and haven’t drifted off into dreaming about opening your own cupcake shop, then you are still thinking school is your best choice.

That leads us to another important question:

4. What are you going to study?

Do you have a well-defined career path in mind?

Chances are, you already know what you want to study—after all, you’ve been on this earth for a while now and have probably figured out some of your major interests in this world.

But, if you’re looking at your choices with the open-minded optimism of your 18-year-old self, now’s your chance to really think this decision through.

After all, you’re paying for college, not your parents, and you probably can’t afford to change your mind after you’ve set out on your educational path.

A great place to start is by visiting the Department of Labor’s list of things to consider when choosing a new career path.  And if you’re seeking to find out more about your strengths and weaknesses to help send you in the right direction, then consider taking this free aptitude test.

  going back to school at 30

Another great resource is AfterCollege.com. The site tries to help you figure out what types of jobs you can seek with your particular education, and then it helps connect you with employers.

going back to school at 30

It’s a great exercise to run through a few scenarios on this site before you commit to a degree. This way you can get a better idea of where the best opportunities are.

*Bonus* AfterCollege also has a list of scholarships, including a possible $1k prize just for signing up.

Now that you’ve considered whether going back to school is the right choice for you and have thought about what you’re going to study, let’s talk to one student who is successfully managing an adult-student lifestyle.

Interview with a 30-something student: Meet Chelsea

Chelsea is a 35-year-old attending Regis University. Here’s her story.

Me: Hi Chelsea, thanks for chatting with me today.

Chelsea: You’re welcome! I’m actually on a break from school right now, so I’ve got more time.

Me: So what are you studying at Regis?

Chelsea: I’m getting my Bachelor of Liberal Arts with a Specialization in English, minor in Psychology.

Me: Wow! That sounds like a lot. So when do you expect to graduate?

Chelsea: Someday! With working full time, I can only commit to one class at a time, so it’s a long process. I am hoping to be able to walk across a shimmering stage in a nice flowing gown by the spring of 2015.

Me: So aside from slowly knocking out your degree, what do you do?

Chelsea: I live in my fabulously bohemian apartment with nine plants and six brimming bookshelves. I work full-time as an Executive Assistant to one C-level Executive, two Directors and two Project/Product Managers, along with supporting both the development and engineering teams at a start-up software company.  While business hours are typically 8am to 5pm, an assistant’s work is never done. When I’m not doing my homework, I’m usually at Stitch-N-Bitch working on the latest knitting or art project.  Otherwise, I spend a lot of time not doing my laundry or the dishes, but reading non-fiction and poring over Pinterest.

Me: Sounds like you’ve got your hands full. How do you find balance among all of your responsibilities?

Chelsea: One of the best things I taught myself when I was young was how to be organized.  From making myself take computer typing classes to attending Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” workshop, I’ve always learned to prioritize by urgency and importance.

I’m fortunate to have a supportive and understanding boss too, who honors my school schedule and is flexible with my work schedule on the days I have class.

Me: What is your secret to success?

Chelsea: I find it is important to attend EVERY class.  Sometimes I’m not able to finish my homework, or it’s been a vicious day at the office – but I still go to class. Showing up is vital. Also, ask your professors for help, email them for clarification, form a study group with your classmates and take advantage of writing labs and all the support your school offers.

Me: Wow! It sounds like you are taking your education very seriously. Why did you decide to go back to school?

Chelsea: I decided to go back to school for several reasons. As an existentialist, I believe I have an obligation to society and myself to maximize my potential.  I believe in education – I believe it is the key to human evolution and overcoming societal issues like prejudice and hate.  After having entered the workforce, I lost sight of my education.  Existing became about paying the bills and being able to take nice vacations.  I took two years “off” to work overseas in the US Antarctic Program.  When I returned to the US, I realized I had to fall back on my previous work experience to get the job I already had, rather than being able to use a degree to move forward and get the job I want.

Me: And what job do you want?

Chelsea: I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Taking classes and working on my degree has helped me discover areas of interest I might not have otherwise. Working while I take classes has also helped me realize areas of non-interest such as writing code, while also highlighting aspects of my job that I really enjoy like event planning and office management.

Me: Well good luck finding your heart’s desire over the next few years.

Chelsea: Thank you! It’s a work in progress.

Me: Do you have any stellar advice for someone considering going back to school at 30 or older?

Chelsea: Sure, make sure the schools you look into offer the classes you want for your area of focus.  It helps immensely if you already know your area of focus so that you can form a clear degree plan.

Always go to class! Make sure you fit your homework and reading into your schedule a little bit every day.  It will be a lot easier to manage an hour every day than trying to cram it all into one weekend.  Be prepared: know your learning style, take notes.

Be sure to consider books in the overhead costs as well as project materials, I originally budgeted for tuition and then suffered from sticker shock in having to spend upwards of $200.00 on books.  Studies show that notes taken on a laptop or other electronic device do not have the same effectiveness as taking hand-written notes. Dream big and then dream bigger.

Me: Wow! Thanks for that, Chelsea!

Final Thoughts on Going Back to School at 30

Going back to school at 30 or older is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Before enrolling in classes, you should carefully consider whether this is the right choice for you. Try to envision what your life will be like after you achieve your degree. Will it be better?

In the next post, I’ll cover topics on how to cover the cost of tuition and how to manage your time as an adult-student with a zillion other responsibilities. So tune in next week!

Good luck!

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