Written and provided by Jenna Harvey-Reed
I hate my job… I’m going back to school!
You dread going to work. Sunday evenings are filled with the anxious desire to turn back time, or stay up late to binge watch TV and delay the inevitable Monday morning drag. To be fair, many people would rather be off the clock than on it, but as the saying goes “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” This seems to be the mantra of adults returning to the classroom, but can lead to hasty decisions and little or no improvement in quality of life.
Higher education isn’t cheap, so it’s important to understand what it is you hope to get from going back to school. The answer to that question will reveal what your needs are, and your options for fulfilling them. Below are some common reasons why parents go back to school and how re-enrolling may or may not be the best solution.
Oh the drudgery! Menial tasks like answering phones, filing memos, or folding shirts can make 8 hours feel like days. Even with fair or high pay rates, people require stimulation. Consider your own “need for cognition”. This term refers to a person’s personal interest in and satisfaction received from being mentally engaged. (Cacioppo et al., 1984)
While a full degree may be nice, you could also benefit from enrolling in a single course at your local community college. Having new information to think on during the work day (and likely homework for your lunch break) could be just the stimulation you need. Talk to an advisor there to see if non-credit courses (which may be offered at a lower tuition rate) could later be applied to a degree program.
If enrolling in classes isn’t an option, consider feeding your curiosity through reading or internet research- just be careful, not all content is created equally. You may also consider your current work, and look for ways to advance or take on more engaging tasks.
With all of this said, even the most intellectually inclined people tire of student life from time to time. Contentment is a state of being, not a destination.
You want to earn more money.
So you like the work you do, but you are living paycheck to paycheck? Does the guy in the next cubicle make more than you with a higher degree despite a clearly inferior work ethic? Maybe you feel that advancing your education may be the ticket to vacations in sunny places, or buying your dream home.
There is support for the idea that higher education leads to higher salaries. The National Center for Education Statistics compiled income data for young adults (ages 24-35) based on their educational attainment. Workers with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $20,000 more than those with a high school diploma. This difference is smaller for those who have a Master’s degree over a Bachelor’s, but still enough to make life more comfortable (about $11,000 annually). Keep in mind that these are the national averages of young adults across all occupations- the data isn’t in on those who return to advance their education later in life, and the value of an advanced degree varies across fields of study. There is also not a comparison group for doctoral degrees or certificate programs. In some areas, a certificate program tailored to SEO marketing may have a greater return on investment than a Master’s degree in education. Finally, no amount of education can guarantee later employment in a crowded candidate pool.
Even if you are guaranteed better earnings, education doesn’t come free. In fact, full time enrollment at a 4-year public institution in the 2012-2013 school year was $17,474 for full-time attendance (NES, 2014). Costs have only increased over the years, and if you find yourself taking on part-time courses to fit in your other responsibilities, you’ll pay more per credit. In general, graduate-level tuition also costs more per credit.
Unless you plan to pay as you go, or have amassed a large savings during your years in this low-paying position, you will likely need to borrow tuition money. Publicly-funded Stafford loans have current interest rates ranging from 4.29% to 6.88%, depending on your income and level of education (US Dept of Education, 2015) The upside to having dependents as a college student is that you may qualify for Pell Grants, but even for the lowest income students attending community colleges these subsidies are not large enough to cover the costs of tuition and living expenses. You could look into employer tuition reimbursement. If you will be using your new knowledge and skillset to benefit your company, they may be willing to help get you there.
Do the math on your potential costs and gains, or even attempt to “live” on a student budget before making any final decisions. You can complete the FAFSA (federal application for student aid) to see what grants and loans you qualify for. Just don’t rush into quitting your day job and taking on massive debt in the hopes of an instant six-figure salary four years from now. While there is no fairy-godmother at graduation handing out employment contracts, student loan officers can be real-life financial dementors.
You have an unfulfilled passion
I’ve known many children in my life, and never one who said “when I grow up, I want to be a mid-level manager at a paper company” (although, the world does need its Michael Scotts). If you find yourself dedicating 40 plus hours of weekly energy to a cause that doesn’t motivate you, it may be time to consider pursuing your dream.
Not all passions require a degree. If you’ve always hoped to join the fight to cure childhood disease in a lab-coat, your dream would depend upon higher education in biology or medicine. On the other hand, if you want to support children who have limited educational access, you could volunteer to tutor or advocate for education reform. Consider the many ways you can find fulfillment, and whether that requires returning to school.
In some cases, who you know and what you’ve done carries more weight than what courses you’ve taken. Consider ways that you can get hands-on skill building and networking opportunities.
You always wanted to go to college.
Twelve years ago, when all of my friends were flipping through college brochures, I was picking out baby names; while they were pulling all-nighters with pizza and beer, I was cleaning up midnight diaper blowouts. In the years following, I literally ached at times over the missed experiences of living in a dorm and immersing myself in knowledge.
Despite completing an Associate’s, a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, I’ve still never had those experiences. As a “non-traditional” student, your experience will be just that. Study sessions will involve your grade-schoolers, not your peers; the wild and crazy fraternity parties will be replaced with Chuck E. Cheese mayhem; while classmates may head to exotic locations for Spring Break, you’ll be catching up on neglected household chores. So I caution that you check your perceptions against your reality, and focus on gaining the experiences that are accessible to you.
Maybe you’ve just always respected the degrees that others hold, and hope to be a college graduate yourself. This is not an unreasonable feeling, but starting such a big undertaking just for the sake of saying you did it has its drawbacks. Without an internal motivation to succeed, you may struggle to keep up with the demands, and ultimately land yourself in deep debt without a known purpose.
These considerations are not to say that returning to school is a bad idea in your own personal case. Rather, they are meant to provide alternative views and a reality check. Working closely with the advisors and financial aid offices at your intended institution, exploring personal motivations, and planning for success can make the difference between huge personal career growth and the beginning of insurmountable debt and frustration.
Family advocates may also be able to assist in planning and maintaining your pursuits while balancing the other responsibilities in life. Contact us at Family Strengthening Network to meet with one of our trained Family Advocates!