Going Back to School: 7 Things to Consider

Going back to school has the potential to boost your career and income. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you make your decisions.
Student with kid finding ways to go back to school

Going back to school can be an exciting endeavor—advancing your education can open new paths in your current career, or offer a fresh start to a new career entirely, and otherwise be personally rewarding. Here’s a quick guide to help you navigate the process of going back to school as an adult.

Should I go back to school?

Whether your reasons for going back to school are personal or professional, there are several benefits of achieving a higher level of education.

Professional benefits: Getting a degree may open doors to new jobs, help you make a career switch, or advance in your current one.

Financial benefits: A higher education level is correlated with higher incomes. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found in a 2019 report that a college graduate took home an average of $33,000 more in a year than a high school graduate in the US [1]. Graduate degrees can stretch that number even further. Here’s a breakdown of median weekly earnings by education level:

Education levelMedian weekly earnings (2019, US)
Less than high school diploma$592
High school diploma$746
Some college, no degree$833
Associate's degree$887
Bachelor's degree$1,248
Master's degree$1,497
Professional degree$1,861
Doctoral degree$1,883

This information was adapted from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [2].

Achieving your personal goals: If you’ve always wanted to get a higher degree, or finish one you started in the past, going back to school can be a source of personal satisfaction. Furthering your education can also help you discover new passions, grow more independence, and meet new types of people. Whatever the reason, be sure to think through your decision to ensure you’ll be making the best choice for yourself.

What are the downsides?

Attaining a degree can be costly. That said, there are several signs that point to long-term financial benefits if you complete a degree. Make sure you minimize your costs where you can, and pick programs that align with your personal and career goals. If you’re looking for a quick career change, other options—like professional certificates or bootcamps—can be worth considering.

7 Things to Consider When Going Back to School

1. Will this help me in my career, or help me switch careers?

Going back to get your master’s degree or bachelor’s degree can connect to higher earnings over your lifetime, or be the first step in switching careers. If you’re going back to school for career impact, you’ll want to make sure your field of study is relevant to the work you want to do.

2. How will this impact my finances?

While the financial benefits of getting a degree have been well-recorded, school can still be expensive. Having a plan to pay for your education can save you headaches down the road.

The price of higher education can vary depending on several factors. Is the school private or public, in-state or out-of-state, online or in-person? How much financial aid can you expect to receive? There’s evidence that public, in-state, and online schools are cheaper than their counterparts.

Don’t put off applying for financial aid. There are several scholarships specifically for returning adults. Plus, you can apply for federal aid for both undergraduate and graduate programs—get started by completing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) [3].

Read more: 7 Ways to Pay for Graduate School

3. What should I go back to school for?

What you choose to study can depend on the reasons you’re going back to school. If you’re going back for a career change, it can be a good idea to find what job areas are growing in your desired career area [4]. This may help you land in a field where jobs are more readily available and your skills are in demand. If you’re going back to school to fulfill your personal goals or learn something new, this aspect may not be as high a priority.

Not ready to commit to one field yet?

Though it’s a good idea to have a sense of what you want to study, colleges should have opportunities for you to take elective or general education classes that can expose you to different fields. In grad school, the opportunities for electives may narrow—it’ll be hard to take an English class in an international relations program, for example—but you may get the chance to explore different specializations.

4. Do I want to go online or in person?

Online and in-person schooling both have their merits. Online degrees can afford more flexibility, and allow you to access schools and professors that are geographically far, often at a lower cost than in-person equivalents. You likely won’t have to worry about relocating, and have more flexibility to stay in your job or take care of family.

In-person schooling on the other hand can allow for more structure, and the face-to-face interaction with peers and professors can be beneficial to those who prioritize it.

5. Full-time or part-time?

A part-time schedule can be helpful if you hope not to disrupt your current life situation. Part-time programs exist for both in-person and online schools.

A full-time schedule can mean putting a pause on your current job, but you’ll probably be able to finish your degree faster. Think about what’s needed in your situation.

6. How should I pick a school?

Cost, reputation, program quality, networking opportunities, location, and flexibility can all be factors in your decision to attend a school.

An online school should be accredited by a regional or national organization to guarantee a baseline of quality. Some online programs have entirely pre-recorded lectures (called “asynchronous” classes), while others feature live sessions; some courses are taught by university faculty while others are taught by teachers hired by the school specifically for online courses. Programs may offer hands-on projects, or robust alumni networks. Think about what you want out of your online degree and see if the programs you’re interested in stack up.

Should I pick a school based on its ranking?

A school with a good reputation can impress employers and be a sign of quality education. That said, chasing after big names can make you miss out on great programs at other schools that have departments that are just as good, or even better, than programs at highly ranked schools. A school located in a specific area may also have better connections to local employers.

7. Do other options make more sense to me?

Some careers don’t have specific degree requirements. Other options like professional certificates and online courses can equip you with the skills needed to switch careers or satisfy your curiosity.

Professional certificates: Professional certificates can open doors to careers that don’t call for specific degrees, and often don’t require any previous related experience. Some will prepare you for in-demand jobs by the end (like these Google Professional Certificates).

Bootcamps: Bootcamps are short, intensive programs designed to quickly get you specific skills. Though perhaps associated with coding classes, bootcamps exist for a variety of other fields, like UI/UX design, data science, and graphic design.

Online courses: Online courses can introduce you to new subjects, or else offer targeted instruction in a skill area you want to improve.

Going back to school online: Getting started

Going back to school, whether online or in-person, is a huge achievement. But the sheer volume of options can be overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to take the time you need to do your research and think through your choices.

In the meantime, you can browse through Coursera’s online masters and bachelor’s degrees.

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Article sources

1. Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "Despite Rising Costs, College Is Still a Good Investment, https://libertystreeteconomics.newyorkfed.org/2019/06/despite-rising-costs-college-is-still-a-good-investment.html." Accessed March 29, 2021.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Learn more, earn more: Education leads to higher wages, lower unemployment, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2020/data-on-display/education-pays.htm." Accessed March 29, 2021.

3. Federal Student Aid. "FAFSA, https://studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa." Accessed March 29, 2021.

4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Fastest Growing Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm." Accessed March 29, 2021.

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