Going Back to School: 5 Steps for Comparing Costs and Benefits

Is going back to school worthwhile? Whether you’re making moves toward your first college degree, an advanced degree or new certifications, taking the plunge and going back to school can be a daunting decision. You want to make sure that the potential benefits outweigh the costs.

But how can you possibly know? Here are five steps to help you make your decision.

1. Write It All Down

Making a detailed list of pros and cons can be a great way to get all your thoughts and feelings down on paper. It will also help you to contemplate your decision objectively. First, look at the potential benefits. Will you have new job opportunities or a promotion? If you feel unfulfilled in your career, increased education or even entering an entirely new field may greatly improve your quality of life.

If lists aren’t for you, try a more creative approach. Mind maps can be a great way to figure out your feelings. Even free-form writing can be immensely helpful.

2. Count the Costs

Be honest and don’t sugarcoat possible struggles. How much will tuition and books cost? Is there a cost of living difference if you live on campus, commute or take online courses? Calculate what you’ll need in student loans or out-of-pocket expenses and how long they’ll take to pay off. Will a promotion or new job balance that out? If you’re unsure what your salary bump might be, check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

The return on your education can vary widely. For example, people who get vocational degrees in healthcare may see a 65 percent income increase per year, while a certification program in business or IT might bring a return of 1 percent or less, according to the Hechinger Report. If you’re considering switching to part-time work while in college, you’ll need to factor in the income decrease.

There are also intangible costs to consider. You won’t have as much free time. Going back to college may put stress on you and your family, as you might not be able to help as much around the house. However, if you’re unhappy in your current job, will the stress from school really be greater than what you feel now?

3. Find Ways to Fund Costs

While you’re calculating your costs, look into how you can afford and possibly lower them. For example, you might qualify for scholarships that can fund your tuition, such as the Aspire Scholarship Program. This scholarship helps cover tuition and other educational costs. Recipients are picked based on financial need, academic achievement, community involvement and a written essay. In 2016, ADP awarded $125,000 to 75 people.

Also, you might qualify for tax credits, according to the IRS. You might be able to put current student loans on hold, as Nelnet explains.

4. Talk to Friends, Family and Experts

As you start compiling your list, get input from your family and friends. Is your family ready to shoulder more responsibility? Do your friends have any helpful tips from their experiences? Having a strong support network can make all the difference. Consult professionals in the field. They may have a better idea about the current job climate and how your new degree could work out.

5. Talk to Your Boss

If you’re getting a certification or degree in your current field, your boss might be really excited about this step. Some employers have flexible work options that give you time off for classes. This is something that, if available to you, can be a huge game changer. Employers offer time off for classes because the end result might benefit the company, too. If your boss is excited, that could be a huge “pro” to add to your list.

Looping your boss into your career plans is always a good idea. It shows that you’re driven, which can be a big plus when annual reviews come around. Moreover, by letting your boss know you are going back to school, they can be mindful of your workload and schedule. Even if your degree isn’t directly related to your current role, keeping your boss in the know will help the two of you work together successfully as you take on this new challenge.

When considering going back to school, look carefully at the costs versus the benefits. Then look at how you feel about the whole thing. Is going back part of your dream? Can you picture yourself being successful and happy with the decision? If you’ll feel more fulfilled, the costs aren’t too great and you have a good support network, then returning to school could be a great choice for your future. If you’re ready, the Aspire Scholarship Program is a great way to get started on the right foot.

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