Managers frequently ask me if they should go back to school to get an advanced degree, and this is an important question. You may have heard the term “professional student,” and people who enjoy school often pursue additional education without a clear goal in mind. Whether you're considering this path to increase your potential in your career career or using it as a jumping off point to a new career, you should first perform a cost/benefit analysis to determine how a degree program will help you. Let's look at a few key steps.
Check out the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook to see what education is needed for your chosen path, and then map out a plan for how you’ll use the training and degree to facilitate it. When you return to school after a few years in the workforce, it might not be as easy as it was when you were 18, for now you might be balancing a spouse, children, work, community responsibilities, or even the care of elderly parents or grandparents. You should determine, upfront, if it’s realistic to fit school into your life at this time.
Depending on your anticipated career trajectory, different educational options may be open to you, including:
As a result of your research, you may learn that returning to school for a formal degree is unnecessary. Instead, you might consider short-term training workshops in your new field, a certificate or vocational program offered through a local community college or university extension program, or a retraining program through a career center or outplacement service that focuses on the acquisition of a specific group of skills.
If becoming a full-time student isn’t conducive to your lifestyle, many educational institutions accommodate part-time schedules in which classes are held in the evenings and on the weekends. Distance learning shouldn't be ruled out either. The only drawback to alternative approaches is that it may take you longer to finish a program.
Once you’ve decided on the type of program, scour the Internet and reference books for the schools that offer what you need and make a list of your top choices. Every institution on your short list should be accredited, which means that it has been independently evaluated and has met standards of quality set by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Long-term, formal degree programs should be vetted by interviews with current faculty members or students before you apply. What should you ask in these conversations? The website MsMoney.com provides these sample questions for those considering business school:
Higher education is indeed expensive, but the situation is not as bad as you might think. The website Back2College.com and the College Board recently reported that 65 percent of students at four year schools pay tuition of under $9K a year, and 56 percent pay between $3K and $6K. Additionally, 62 percent of full-time students receive grants. Aid in the form of grants and tax benefits averaged about $2.2K per student at two year public schools, over $3.1K at public four year schools, and $9K at private four year schools.
You can calculate the approximate costs for obtaining an additional degree by inputting the schools you’re interested in and the number of years you’ll be attending on the Princeton Review, CNN Money, and Yahoo! Finance websites.
Scared by the number? If you plan to keep working while you’re in school, your company may have a tuition assistance program of which you can take advantage. You can also use online scholarship search services such as www.finaid.org and www.scholarships.com, visit your bank of choice to learn about low-interest loans, and work with your accountant to leverage education tax credits such as the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit.
Don’t assume that you won’t qualify for financial aid, as many sources are offered regardless of financial need or credit history. Most federal and state aid programs don't have age limits, and if you’re a single parent, you may be automatically eligible. As soon as you make the decision to return to school, submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what assistance Uncle Sam can provide!
For those who are considering returning to school, what has your decision making process been like? What factors are most important, and how has is your current role as a leader in your organization influencing you?