Going back to school after spending a brief or extended period in the workforce is not uncommon. Motivations around the questions of “Should I go back to school?” or “What should I go back to school for?” include gaining a new skill set, changing career direction, or seeking a higher income. Though pursuing more education is a big commitment, it is an important financial decision at any stage of life. Studies show that the number of people over the age of 25 seeking further education is expected to increase in coming years, suggesting that many adults going back to school see value in furthering their professional knowledge and training.1
There are a lot of educational options today. Formal degree programs, online courses, and certifications can range from quick and inexpensive to costly and time-consuming. Ways to train, learn, and get educated continue to evolve, making it easier to qualify yourself for higher-paying jobs through relevant accreditation or degrees and certifications. Whether your goal is to gain a new skill set, move into a more senior job role, or change careers entirely, going back to school can often help you progress. But as educational costs are continually rising, and there are some important questions you should ask yourself before you commit to further education.
The short answer to this question should affirm that your education will result in financial gain. This will likely be long-term; it could take you a while after you complete your education to establish a career upgrade and higher salary level. If you will need to take on debt to put yourself through school, calculate the amount you’ll owe when you finish and return to work. You can then figure out how long it will take to pay off the debt you accumulate and whether that debt will interfere with other goals (like buying a house or starting a family). If you’re taking on a student loan, you should consider having some form of financial protection like life insurance, especially if you have dependents. If you have whole life insurance and have had it for a significant length of time, you may be able to access some of your policy’s cash value to help pay your education costs.2 Some businesses provide tuition assistance to employees. If you are lucky enough to work for such a company, that will make your decision easier. But additional education will still require a significant investment in time.
There are many reasons why people return to school, but one of the most common is to further their careers. Devoting the time and spending the money to gain an education should come with a payoff that provides you with new opportunities. Education can be viewed as an investment in yourself and your potential, so consider the likely scenarios—as well as worst-case scenarios—that you’ll face after you complete your studies. There may not be a guarantee that you’ll walk out of graduation into a higher-paying job, but there should be a probability that your career will be enhanced.
For many people who plan to return to school, the decision involves stepping away from work. Education requires a significant investment in time, and if you have children who depend on you, time can be a scarce commodity. Other obligations, like caring for a parent or being responsible for a small business, can also factor into the decision to invest the time necessary to do well in school. It may make sense to continue working part-time as you study, so you can maintain your current career and continue to bring in some income. If the time you spend at school impacts your ability to save for retirement and progress financially, will you later be able to make up for that lost ground by earning a higher salary and increasing your contributions to savings vehicles? Ideally, the answer would be yes.
A lot of people feel that this is the most important question to ask yourself. If you’re already well into your career and earning a living that allows you to support your lifestyle, it may not be necessary for you to leave what you have to pursue an education. But if you’re unhappy with your career and have other aspirations, going to school to pursue something you’re passionate about may be the right decision. There’s value in working hard and saving for the future so you can enjoy the lifestyle you want. But you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your personal happiness and well-being to get there.
2 Accessing cash value reduces death benefit and available cash value.