A degree isn't the only way to change your life. Read our guide before you go into debt.
If your long-term goals aren't aligning with your current career, you might be considering going back to school. There's a lot to consider before you start filling out applications, though. Many people who are unhappy in their jobs believe that going back to school, whether for a graduate or undergraduate degree, will guarantee them a job in their dream industry and solve their work woes forever, but that's not always the case.
It's important to make your decisions about higher education in an unemotional, logical way, and that's exactly what this guide will help you do. Work your way through these steps to make the best choice for you, your future career and your financial life.
1. Know your motivations for going back to school.
Going back to school requires a large investment of time and money, and it should only be undertaken if you're moving toward a clear goal, not just away from an unsatisfying job. Lots of people toy with the idea of getting an additional undergraduate degree or a master's degree so they can transition into a "better" field. Some may define "better" as making more money, and for others it may have more to do with quality of life, impact on the world or interest level.
Daren Upham, vice president of academic operations at Western Governors University's College of Health Professions, noted that several of his students have returned to school to pursue a new career path that allows them to leverage their current expertise in a different way.
"We often see scientists and engineers who, after successful careers, want to become math and science teachers," said Upham. "This also happens with successful businesspeople. These people want to give back by sharing their knowledge and experience with students."
If you want a complete career overhaul, you should select a field that not only has great growth potential but that you are truly passionate about.
"What are you interested in?" said Angel Diaz, senior recruiter at Cubic Corporation. "Choose something that you are going to stick to through the end."
"Identifying what it is that you love to do is so critical before you make a move," added Heather Monahan, founder of career mentoring group Boss in Heels and author of Confidence Creator (Boss in Heels, 2018). "Journaling can be a fantastic tool to help you see what it is you like to do with your free time. If you are someone who loves to paint but are stuck at a computer running numbers all day, it isn't shocking you are considering making a move. Discover what your superpower is and lean into it."
Indeed, understanding the particulars behind your desire to change careers is essential. If, after journaling about it and discussing it with friends, you find your main goal is to have a better work-life balance, be in a different type of work environment, or have more autonomy over what you do, you might consider other ways to attain these goals, such as by switching roles within your field, applying for a related job at a different organization, or working as a consultant. On the other hand, if all your reasons for going back to school involve being in a certain field or industry to which there is no other path, investing in more education may be the smartest move.
2. Investigate alternative routes to get the job you want.
Don't forget for a moment that higher education is a business. People are led to believe that the only way to get ahead is to take on more debt and earn more degrees, but it is entirely possible to change careers without going back to school.
You may not be able to get any job without certain degrees, of course – for example, if you want to be a lawyer, then going to law school is a must – but just because you have an undergraduate degree in psychology doesn't mean you also need a computer science degree to work in technology. In fact, most people don't end up working in the exact field their undergraduate degree lists, and the average worker changes careers multiple times over the course of their working life. The idea that you must get a formal degree in a new field anytime you want to change careers is a modern one, and it only benefits the business of higher education.
Lots of skills are highly transferable and can be rounded out very cheaply using online resources and drawing from past job experience. If you are willing to put in the work, possibly take a temporary pay cut and generally put yourself out there, you may find that you can move into your dream field without going back to school. Ask people who have the job you want what their backgrounds are and what they studied in school. If you can't talk to them, talk to headhunters or even HR representatives in the field.
Seek out free online resources and find out if there are clear ways to demonstrate ability other than a degree, such as a portfolio, internship, apprenticeship or certification. Look at entry-level jobs in your dream industry and see if you can swing a few years of a lower income to get closer to your goal. Taking a pay cut may seem like moving backward, but paying for college is its own type of pay cut, and it may be cheaper to take a pay cut in an entry-level job for two years than to pay for tuition for the same amount of time.
Going back to school may be the right choice for you, but since education is so expensive, it's worth shopping around a bit before you commit to a degree program.
3. Plan your finances for going back to school as an adult.
The financial aid office at the college you plan on attending is a good place to begin gathering information about tuition and financial aid, but it should only be the first step in your research. Financial aid offices serve a broad student population, so they focus on disseminating basic information and not on individualized counseling.
When it comes to personal finance planning, you should look at your specific situation and come up with a plan not only for how you will finance your education, but for how long it will take you to repay any student loans you'll have, and how much you'll end up paying in interest by the time you've paid off the loans. You should weigh these costs against what you can expect as a starting salary, and it will benefit you to do so prudently – many people go back to school for degrees that end up costing them a lot of money without much financial gain. Long-term career goals are important, but so is being able to afford your life.
If you are going to school for the first time as an adult, one of the best ways to save money is by getting an associate degree at a two-year college first and then transferring to a four-year school for your bachelor's degree. Community colleges are far less expensive than four-year colleges on a per-credit basis, and many states offer students, including nontraditional students, deals on in-state tuition for bachelor's degrees if they earn above a certain GPA in community college.
If you are concerned about how community college might look to future employers, it might surprise you to learn that when you graduate with a bachelor's degree, your degree will only list the four-year institution you attended and not the community college. The credit you get from community college classes will count toward your final degree, but as far as your diploma is concerned, it will look identical to that of a student who paid full price for a four-year program. You can also reduce your cost per credit by taking winter interim classes and summer classes. Both winter and summer classes are more intensive and shorter in duration, but they're also cheaper, even at private four-year schools.
It is entirely possible to minimize your student loans by doing a combination of these things, as well as things like attending only public institutions, targeting high-income fields so you can pay off loans easily after graduation, and working while you're in school. The aim isn't to take on no debt, just to take on as little as possible while following your dreams (so you don't end up with a new dream career but also a boatload of crushing debt).
4. Research a career change before quitting your job.
The most important factors in how much you can afford to pay for a bachelor's or graduate degree program are how much you will earn once you graduate and how much you can work during your education.
Make sure your long-term goals are realistic and informed by research, not anecdotes or grabby headlines. Not all STEM jobs pay a huge amount of money, and the region you live in has a massive impact on the job market. For example, just because you live in a tech hub city doesn't mean you'll be all set with a tech-related degree – in fact, sometimes it's the opposite. Oftentimes, cities with a wealth of tech jobs (Houston, for example) also have a surplus of highly educated professionals with tech degrees, so they are far more competitive. You should look at statistics on employment options, starting salaries, and workforce demographics that are recent and specific to your region. It never hurts to know the facts.
5. Research schools when you're going back to college.
Once you've decided to go back to college and you know how much you're willing to spend on an education, you need to carefully research different programs. Online degree programs are popular with nontraditional students because they offer remote learning options and flexible course schedules, but make sure the program you choose is accredited (whether it's an online or brick-and-mortar school).
The best way to find out if a college is accredited is by looking it up here. If the college you are considering is not in the government database of accredited institutions, do not apply, regardless of the promises you are hearing from college staff. At some unaccredited institutions, workers are treated like sales associates and get commission for recruits, so you shouldn't believe everything they say.
You should also look up the following statistics for any college you consider attending. If you cannot find these stats about your desired program on the college website, contact someone at the school and ask them. You will learn a lot about a school by the way you're treated when you ask difficult questions:
- What percentage of students in your program are employed in their fields within one year of graduation?
- How many courses are taught by teaching assistants?
- How many courses are offered in evenings and on weekends?
- Can any classes be completed online?
- Does your program offer opportunities for work experience before graduation?
- What percentage of professors in your program are adjunct versus full-time?
It's also smart to look up the deans and professors in the school you'll be attending and do a little digging on their backgrounds. Find out if they're all lifelong academics or if they have work experience in the fields they teach. In some fields, being taught by someone who is primarily a teacher and researcher is fine, but in others (especially those that change quickly, like technology, or that rely on connections, like PR), it's advantageous to have access to professors with recent work experience.
Above all, do not be shy about asking anything you want to know. Your education should suit you, and you deserve to know everything upfront before you pay a cent of tuition.
Checklist for nontraditional students
- Clearly define your motivations for going back to school and know your long-term goals.
- Consider alternatives to paying for a degree and see if those will get you where you want to go.
- Do research about your future career prospects. Know what type of salary is realistic upon graduation – don't just look at high salaries for seasoned professionals.
- Research different schools and ask the tough questions that matter.
- Plan your long-term payment strategy and look for ways to minimize the cost of your education.
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon and Sammi Caramela. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.