Are you thinking of going back to school and continuing your education after you've had a family? If so, you aren't alone.
Around 8.1 million students age 25 and older were enrolled in college in 2015, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Because many older students have spouses or kids, completing an academic program can be more challenging.
Despite obstacles you may have to overcome, there are often major advantages to going back to school as an adult. "My return to school benefitted my family in ways both tangible and intangible," said Kristine Stevenson Seale, an IRS-enrolled agent and financial coach.
"My degree allowed me to apply for positions with a greater opportunity to earn more income. It also showed my then grade school- and high school-aged children the value of perseverance, how important higher education can be, and the importance of setting goals," she added.
Because going back to school requires sacrifices, it's a decision you can't take lightly. To help you make the choice, here are a few key issues to consider:
1. How can going back to school benefit your family?
Returning to the classroom can often help your family financially. Research shows that a higher degree could increase your earning power.
In the first quarter of 2018, full-time workers with just a high school education had median weekly earnings of $713; those with a bachelor's degree earned $1,169; and those with advanced degrees earned $1,533, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While your career and industry will impact how much you earn, a 2015 Georgetown University study found that the typical difference in lifetime wages between high school grads and college grads is around $1 million.
Getting a degree can also make parents happier and boost self-esteem. "I'm a mom of three who made the decision to return to school," said Sherese Patton, now a CEO of a Detroit-area media relations firm. "My return to school benefited my family because it gave me a new outlook on my life and my career. It's giving me a newfound sense of self, and also a new drive to be successful in the eyes of not just my family, but my children especially."
You can also set a great example for your kids by returning to school. Stevenson Seale, for instance, believes her kids benefited by seeing her hard work pay off. "Plus," she said, "they got a kick out of seeing Mom do homework."
2. How can you find the right academic program?
As a parent, it's important to find an academic program that works with your schedule and allows you to earn a degree that advances your career.
Some colleges catering to returning adult students are for-profit schools. But these schools are often expensive and may not open the door to new opportunities due to their poor reputation. Be sure to consider all of your options, including community colleges and state schools, to find the most respected academic program at a price that works with your lifestyle.
Do the following as you weigh your options:
- Make sure the school is accredited.
- Research the school or program's reputation using unbiased sources.
- Determine how long it'll take to complete your program.
- Find out the cost of attendance and whether you're eligible for federal financial aid.
- See if the college will accept any credits you wish to transfer.
- Check if credits earned at the school would be transferable to other institutions.
- Ensure you can earn the necessary credentials for your chosen career.
One way to find an academic program is to tap into your network. "I chose the school and program after hearing about it from one of my girlfriend's adult daughters," Stevenson Seale said. " I was able to take over 50% of my courses virtually, plus there's a satellite campus that allowed me to take several upper-level classes much closer to home."
3. How will you pay for it?
While going back to school has big upsides, there are downsides, including the high cost of academic programs.
To keep expenses as low as possible, explore funding options that don't have to be repaid, including employer contributions, adult scholarships, and grants. "My employer was able to pick up the tab for a few classes because there was a correlation to my work," Stevenson Seale said. "I also benefited from Pell Grants and a few scholarships because my income was lower and my grades were good."
If you can't afford to pay out-of-pocket for your return to school, consider both private and federal student loans. Federal student loans are offered by the Department of Education and often come with affordable interest rates and borrow protections. For example, you could be eligible for income-driven repayment plans or even loan forgiveness after graduation, depending on your circumstances.
But if federal loans don't cover your full tuition costs, explore private student loans. These loans are offered by financial institutions, such as banks or online lenders. If you have good credit, many lenders offer reasonable rates. Plus, your lender may allow you to put your loans into deferment during school, meaning you won't have to make payments until after graduation.
No matter what type of loan you use to fund your education, borrow as little as possible to keep student loan payments manageable later on.
Overcoming financial challenges and other obstacles to earn your degree could end up being the best thing for your family, so don't give up if returning to school is important to you. As Patton advised, "Definitely fulfill your dream, definitely continue your education. Trust me, there's nothing better than being a strong, independent, and educated you."