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Going Back to College as an Adult: Potential Benefits, Costs & Saving Strategies

Personal Finance
Adult man taking notes on a tablet after going back to college

It's never too late to become a student again. Whether you're getting your bachelor's degree for the first time or taking individual courses to further your education, there are many potential benefits to going back to school. But before you enroll, you may want to do your homework on how to pay for it so that you can plan ahead and learn how to save for college.

If you're thinking of going back to college as an adult, here are some financial considerations, plus some options for paying for higher education.

Why Go Back to School as an Adult?

Older students may be more common than you think. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), about 19.7 million students will attend a college or university in fall 2020. Of those, it's estimated that 7.5 million college students will be age 25 or older — which accounts for 38% of all college students who are enrolled.

If you're considering furthering your education, there are a number of reasons why it may be a good idea. Here are just a handful:

  • Pursuing a new career: If you'd like to make a transition into a new field of work, pursuing higher education could help you pivot toward your new professional path.
  • Career advancement: Going back to college to obtain additional degrees could potentially open new opportunities within your current field. Depending on your line of work and the degree you'd like to obtain, it could help you boost your earning potential.
  • Personal fulfillment: Perhaps you've wanted to go to college, and want to satiate your curiosities about an academic field. If you find yourself in early retirement or taking a work sabbatical, you might have extra time to go back to school as an adult.
  • Finishing what you started: If you started obtaining your college degree earlier in life and had to stop, you might want to return to school to complete the requisite coursework and graduate.

Important Considerations When Changing Careers Midlife 

Perhaps a decade or two or more after earning your college degree, you've decided on a career change and are considering going back to school. Are you ready to roam the halls of a college campus again? Chances are you're excited to feel the rush that comes with learning new things and trying something entirely different. You're probably also excited about the opportunity to possibly earn more as a result of additional education.

You're not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans change jobs often throughout their lifetimes. Data from the bureau shows that individuals born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of 12.3 jobs between the ages of 18 and 52. And it's safe to assume that some of these individuals experienced some sort of career change at some point in their lives.

Going back to school for a career change can be exhilarating, but it could also require some adjustments. Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself when making a midlife career change and going back to school.

Do You Really Need to Go Back to School?

When making a career change and considering additional education, you need to determine whether or not you really need to go back to school. You may have jumped to the conclusion that a new career requires a new degree. However, that's not necessarily true if you have adequate and relatable work experience.

If you're simply looking to make a lateral move to a new company, you likely don't need to go back to school. Depending on the job you're looking for, your experience both in and out of the corporate world may be enough. For example, do you have volunteer experience or hobbies that could help you land the new job? Could you learn the skill you need from a book instead of having to go back to school? Considering these alternatives may reduce your perceived need for more schooling.

Of course, there are many instances where a career change would require going back to school. Perhaps the most obvious is if your new career requires a certification or a specialized skill set. You also may consider returning to school if you plan on entering a competitive job market or an entirely new industry. Even a promotion within the same company may sometimes require some additional schooling.

At the end of the day, it all depends on the kind of job you're seeking. So before deciding to go back to school, you might want to carefully consider what your new job would require.

Are You Prepared to Live on Less?

Let's say you've determined that you do need to return to school for your midlife career change. This will undoubtedly affect your finances since you now have to find a way to pay for the courses. Paying for school out of pocket — meaning without loans, grants or scholarships — could really throw a wrench in your budget.

If you want to go back to school, you may have to find ways to reduce your current expenses. Three areas that could help make the most difference (and free up the most money) are transportation, food and housing. Perhaps you could trade in your current car for a bus pass (with a student discount, of course). Consider cooking meals at home instead of eating at restaurants multiple times per week. Or think about downsizing into a less expensive residence.

In addition, you'll want to find as many ways as possible to lower the cost of your education. There are several options, depending on your situation. If you need to return to school for a different position with your current employer, you may be able to get the company to pay for it. You also can investigate available scholarships for older adult students returning to school or for specific age ranges, locations or industries.

A midlife career change is quite common these days, and with good reason. With a rapidly changing market, sometimes the best way to earn more is to do something different. But doing something different doesn't necessarily require additional schooling. By determining what your desired position actually entails, you then can decide whether or not going to school is necessary to your career advancement. If you decide it is, you'll need to determine whether or not you're prepared to do what's necessary to pay for it.

What Are the Costs of Going Back to School?

The costs of pursuing a college education can be steep and continue to climb. According to The College Board, the average cost of undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board at a public four-year out-of-state institution was $38,640 (with estimated room and board) for 2020-2021.

That doesn't include other costs such as books, supplies, equipment and travel. Books and supplies alone cost an average $1,240 at four-year public colleges in the 2020-2021 school year, according to The College Board.

Besides tuition and related expenses, consider examining all the costs involved in going to college as an adult. If you'll be taking time from working, then you'll likely earn less money or have less paid time off for your other interests. Plus, you might miss out on advancing professionally and furthering your current career.

You also may not be able to save as much for retirement or be able to pay off existing debt as aggressively as you'd like. If possible, try to avoid allocating money away from your other financial goals and priorities. Of course, how you pay for college will depend on your unique situation. If you plan and save well enough in advance, you may be able to avoid having to make a difficult decision.

How to Save & Pay for School

While the costs of attending college can be high, there are a number of options to save for a college education.

529 College Savings Plan: If you don't anticipate going back to school for a few more years, you might consider saving separately and more aggressively for your return to college. You even could open a 529 college savings plan, which offers tax-deferred growth of your investment. It's important to remember, however, that no investment type can guarantee growth, and it may lose value over time instead. When it's time to take money out of a 529 account, purchases you make for qualified educational expenses may be tax-free.

Financial aid & scholarships: You may want to consider applying for financial assistance. In particular, explore what existing scholarships might be available for adults going back to college. You might be surprised at what scholarships exist for older adults or for those returning to school to expand their opportunities.

Consider less expensive options: Instead of going back to school full-time, you might explore degree tracks for working professionals or online education. These routes may be more affordable. Plus, it might be easier to continue working while pursuing your degree. If you're a retired senior, you may want to consider looking into discounted, or even free, courses that help you continue your education.

Knowing the costs of going back to college as an adult may help you determine whether it's the right choice for you. Understanding the benefits of returning to college also can help you understand how pursuing higher education plays into your bigger life plans.

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