If you’re a working adult and you haven’t yet completed your degree, you might be trying to decide whether going back to college is worth your time and effort. The general return on investment, or ROI, of a college degree is certainly important to keep in mind. But how can you know whether—and when—finishing your degree makes the most sense for you?
Below are seven questions to consider as you assess the costs and benefits of returning to school. You’ll also gain insight into when might be the best time for you to re-enroll so that you’ll be setting yourself up for success.
Why do you want to earn your degree?
Above all else, clarify your reasons for finishing your associate’s and/or bachelor’s. Is it a personal goal, such as earning the degree for its own sake or proving you can overcome challenges? Do you want to broaden your job prospects, earn a promotion and/or raise, switch jobs, or change careers? Are you trying to improve your family’s financial situation? Knowing your true motivations for returning to college can help you suss out whether it’s worth your time, energy, and money.
Consider as well whether your reasons for attending school have shifted since you were last in college. For example, many first-time college students enroll merely because it’s what’s expected of them, which ultimately isn’t a strong motivator. Adult learners who return to college because of the personal rewards—because they want to learn, grow, and finish what they started—are more likely to successfully complete their degrees.
How will you juggle coursework with work and family?
You’ll have competing obligations, so think carefully about whether you’ll be able to balance your coursework with family and work. If you overextend yourself, you’re more likely to burn out and less likely to achieve your goal, so plan carefully!
For example, brainstorm how you’d carve out time to attend classes and study around your current work schedule. Will you have the energy to devote to homework, essays, and projects before or after work hours and on weekends? Remember, the expectation is that for each college credit hour you take, you’ll spend two to three hours per week outside of class studying or doing homework. Is there any flexibility in your work schedule to accommodate exams and group projects? Think about whether you’d need to cut back on work hours or limit how many credits you take per semester at school to get everything done.
You may also need to lean on loved ones. For example, if you’re a parent, ask yourself whether your kids are old enough to help out around the house. Is your partner willing to take over some of your current responsibilities, such as school pickup or grocery shopping? If you’ll need childcare, can you afford it? Or will you have dependable friends and family who can watch over your kids? Think too, about whether your family is willing to sacrifice some time together so you can study and finish homework.
If you find yourself answering no to many of these questions, think about whether waiting a year or two—or five—would make fitting school into your schedule more manageable.
Can you learn and grow without returning to college?
Although a university education has multiple benefits, college isn’t the only path to success. You may want to explore other opportunities that will help you gain new skills and knowledge. These include professional development through your employer, certificates (which usually require less time than degrees), certifications, or volunteering. Attending a vocational school to learn in-demand skills or trades, such as plumbing, web development, or paralegal training, is another option. You can also ask mentors or trusted colleagues how you can hone your soft skills, such as communication or teamwork.
Other factors besides not having a college degree could be holding you back too. You may need to assess whether big changes besides returning to school would help you achieve your goals. For instance, if you work at an organization with few growth opportunities, you may need to consider applying for jobs elsewhere. Or if you live in an area where jobs are scarce, ask yourself whether relocating is feasible for you.
Can you afford it?
OK, we have to talk about the green elephant in the room: money. Are you able to handle the monetary burden of paying for college? How will you budget for tuition and fees alongside other financial responsibilities? The expense of college may have an impact on family members too, so ask them how they feel about the potential tradeoffs.
To determine when would be financially optimal to return to college, you’ll have to do some research and then some math. How much will finishing your degree cost? Will your degree definitely or very likely lead to a higher-paying role or career? If so, how much might you expect to earn between graduation and retirement? If those earnings outweigh the net cost of college, it might make good financial sense to return to school.
How close are you to retirement?
ReUp has helped learners in their 70s and 80s finish their degrees, so it’s never too late to go back! But as you consider when to return to college, keep in mind that a 50- or 60-year-old has fewer working years ahead of them than a 20-year-old. That means there’s less time to recoup the cost of college in terms of both paying back student loans and improving your lifetime earning potential.
To put it concisely, the financial ROI of a college degree declines the older you are—unless, of course, you are independently wealthy (we can all wish!) or qualify for substantial financial aid or reduced or free tuition. So make sure you’re calculating that ROI realistically.
How do you want to learn?
Consider your options for returning to school. Will you be able to take online, in-person, or hybrid courses? Can you take courses at night or on weekends? Are classes entirely self-paced, or do they require regular assignments and exam periods?
Once you understand what choices your school offers, think about how well you learn in those different environments. For instance, some of us need a lot of structure to succeed academically, whereas others are OK with flexible syllabi and deadlines. Some of us benefit from lots of interaction with classmates and faculty; others prefer to study and learn independently. And some of us are comfortable with technology, while others prefer in-person communication.
Given what your school offers and how you prefer to learn, are your options and preferences aligned? If not, you may need to consider whether completing your degree makes sense right now. You might also evaluate whether you should transfer to another institution that will better fit your needs.
What would need to be true for you to make returning to school a reality?
Consider your responses to the above questions about your motivation, time, energy, flexibility at work, support from loved ones, finances, and learning preferences. Are you in a place with those resources that make school realistic for you right now? Think also about whether you have your ducks in a row at school, such as unblocking any holds on your student account and a clear sense of which requirements you’d need to meet to graduate. Then, ask yourself whether you have what you need to succeed or whether you still have work to do. This can help you determine your timeline on returning.
Completing your degree requires a lot of time, effort, intrinsic motivation, and commitment. However, with careful planning and realistic expectations, you can definitely finish what you started! And since the doorway to your education never truly closes, you can always choose to return to school later if now is not the right time! It’s all about doing what’s right for you—when and where you’ll have the proper support you need. I hope that working through these questions helps you determine the future you truly want so you can move forward and achieve success with confidence.
Still trying to decide?
Choosing whether and when to return to college involves asking yourself some tough questions. Fortunately, ReUp’s Success Coaches can help you work through the decision-making process. Ready to start the conversation?