Should You Go Back to School?

Should You Go Back to School?

Introduction

An adult or independent non-traditional student is typically defined as a student attending a college or university who is 24 years old or older and has surpassed the usual age of a college or university student and is not dependent on a parent or legal guardian for financial support. If you’re reading this then chances are you are 24 years old or older and have asked yourself, and probably Google, some variant of the question, “Is it too late for me to go back to school?” Or maybe your search query was “Should I go back to school as an adult?” If you’re anything like me, this is probably not the first time you Googled that question. Probably hoping, like I was, to find some definitive answer or justification, to be convinced that it either is or isn’t a good decision at your age or stage of life to go back to school.

Perhaps, like me, you considered quitting your full-time job and dedicating the next four years of your life to returning to a college or university in pursuit of that bachelor’s degree you never received. Maybe you convinced yourself (or maybe others convinced you) that without at least a four-year degree you’ll never reach your professional career goals and that you will continue to work a low-wage job that barely pays the bills and certainly doesn’t afford the lifestyle you wish you had. Not one of luxury perhaps, but definitely one of financial stability. Or perhaps like me, you have also been looking for a more fulfilling career?

In this behemoth of an article I have reviewed the statistical data on whether or not it’s worthwhile for someone who has surpassed the traditional college age range (18 – 22 years old) to return to college for the degree they didn’t complete during their youth or never pursued to begin with. Not only do I cover the data, but I also go through the process of how to return, which includes reviewing schools, making a selection, the admission process, and a review of financial aid. While this isn’t everything you’ll need to think about or do if you want to return to school, it is a huge hurdle that has to be crossed in order to truly begin the journey.

By the end of this article you may come away feeling empowered and motivated to return to school, or you may feel like it’s a total mistake and decide that it’s a phase of your life to which the door has already closed. Each person has to make the decision for themselves and while many people will give you advice or their opinion, you’re the only person who has the final say on what you choose to do. No matter what decision you make, the consequences will impact your life for years to come.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve wondered whether or not I should return to college or university. In fact, I have enrolled and withdrew four times since I was 18 years old, and I’m now 35. My first attempt was the longest I spent in a college or university, when I had managed to stay enrolled for two weeks before quitting because I was an 18-year-old in the midst of a psychological breakdown and was in no condition to be sitting in a classroom, certainly not pursuing an associate’s degree I didn’t want, in a subject matter I didn’t understand. Overwhelmed by an internal battle and external pressures, I quit school and unknowingly launched myself into the next 17 years of my life where I would routinely wonder if I had made a mistake all those years ago.

I often found myself considering whether it was too late or if I still had the option of going back to school. Sometimes I’d think about it after meeting someone who worked in a career field that interested me but that required a bachelor’s degree. Sometimes I thought about it after scrolling through job postings and realizing that I was woefully lacking in post-secondary education. Sometimes I would apply for a job that preferred candidates with post-secondary education but that noted work experience would be considered a potential substitute on a year-for-year basis, only to later be told that not enough of my 16 years of work experience were relevant.

Many times I felt as though everyone around me had received post-secondary or higher education, I also felt trapped or stuck in my career, believing myself professionally stagnant by the fact that I didn’t have a four-year degree and that I had spent too many years working in the same field, a field that I was good at but didn’t enjoy. Not all of these were rational sensations, in fact I was doing well financially at a salary of almost $40,000, as according to the U.S. Census Bureau the average 2019 American only earned about $31,000 annually.

If my desire to go back to college could not really be justified as a need for higher income, then what was it and would there be any benefit in actually returning and receiving a bachelor’s degree if by the end of the experience I would be lucky to be earning a few thousand more than I was already making without it? Have you found yourself perplexed by the same dilemma, pondering whether all of the financial costs and other challenges would actually be worth it? In order to answer that question, we need to look at the data.

Part I: A Data-Driven Evaluation

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) – the U.S. government’s center responsible for tracking and publishing all education statistics, the rate for undergraduate students enrolling at degree-granting institutions decreased by 5% from 2009 to 2019, suggesting that fewer high school graduates were interested in pursuing higher education. In 2018, only a reported 31% of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled as undergraduate students in a four-year college or university. An additional 10% were enrolled in a two-year institution, but the remaining 59% were not pursuing post-secondary education at all.

Of the 94% of 25- to 29-year-olds who had received a high school diploma or higher by 2019, only 9% reported they had received a master’s level degree or higher, only 30% had received a bachelor’s degree, only 10% received an associate’s or two-year degree, and the remaining 45% completed high school or the equivalency but demonstrated no interest in higher education.

Of the U.S. high school graduating seniors who enrolled in a four-year or bachelor’s degree-granting institution (including public, private non-profit, and private for-profit) as full-time undergraduate students in 2012, a total of 62% attained their degree by 2018 (over a six-year period). On average, only 41% of full-time undergraduate students attending for the first-time will receive their bachelor’s degree within the traditional four-year timescale. This issue has become so commonplace that the term “super-senior” is widely used to refer to a student who has exceeded the traditional four-year timescale. This is an issue because it adds an additional significant financial burden on the student that they should have otherwise avoided. There are three main causes for this problem: students being indecisive about or changing their majors, students taking less than 15 credit hours per semester, and students experiencing financial issues and leaving school for a semester or more.

If you’re considering returning to college, you likely have spent time thinking about what you might want to study. The below figures show the most popular fields of study within associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs, respectively. Each also includes a graph identifying the ratio of men to women who received the degree in the specific field of study.

Popular Fields of Study for Associate’s Degrees

Popular Fields of Study for Associate’s Degrees by Sex

Popular Fields of Study for Bachelor’s Degrees

Popular Fields of Study for Bachelor’s Degrees by Sex

In terms of the financial burden of attending college or university, 43% of first-time undergraduate students attending full-time, received a loan in addition to any scholarships or grants they received during the 2018/2019 school year. Student’s who graduated with an associate’s degree on average borrowed $19,700 and those with a bachelor’s degree borrowed $31,800.  Among bachelor’s degree holders, those who attended public institutions received the lowest cumulative loan amount at $28,600, followed by those who attended private nonprofit institutions at $33,900, and those who attended private for-profit institutions at $43,900.

The reason for this should be pretty clear, education is expensive! Even after scholarships and grants have been applied to the average cost of attendance, students still face significant costs: first-time undergraduate students attending four-year institutions for the full-time were still required to pay $13,900 after scholarships and grants were applied at public institutions, $27,200 at private nonprofit institutions, and $23,800 at private for-profit institutions during the 2018/2019 school year. Of course, trying to understand the average cost is difficult and doesn’t really paint a clear picture because students have so many factors that determine how much they will eventually have to pay, including how long it takes them to actually attain their degree.

The Cost of Attendance

Among full-time undergraduate students in 2018, a reported 43% were employed while attending post-secondary education, compared to part-time undergraduate students who had an employment rate of 81%. For 25- to -34-years-old who graduated from a post-secondary institution with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 87% had full-time employment in 2019, compared to 74% of the same age group who had completed high school or the equivalency but did not attend any post-secondary institution.

In terms of annual income for 25- to 34-year-olds who were employed full-time in 2018, the average income of those who had received a master’s degree or higher was $65,000, for those with a bachelor’s degree it was $54,700, for those with a high school diploma or equivalent it was $34,900, and for those who did not complete high school or the equivalency, the average income was $27,900.

Most of what we’ve covered so far sounds fairly reassuring if you’re thinking about returning to school, but we have to remember that the term employment as it is used here, does not solely refer to field-related employment. In other words, the jobs these recent college and university graduates hold may have nothing to do with the field of study they have a bachelor’s degree in and some of these jobs may not even require a degree at all.

When an employee with a bachelor’s degree works in a field or position that doesn’t require it, this is referred to as underemployment. Essentially meaning the employee could be working elsewhere with the expectation of earning higher income. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who keeps a running tab on the labor market for recent college grads with data collected from various sources including the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, underemployment for recent college graduates is quite common. As of March 2021, slightly more than 40% of 22- to 27-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees or higher were underemployed, meaning they held jobs that didn’t even require a four-year degree.

So, what exactly does this mean? It means that for recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees, it’s hard to get a job in their chosen field of study right out of college or university, or even five years later. While this may sound startling or concerning for anyone considering going back to college, this information is mostly relevant to the young. Most college or university freshmen are 18 years old and likely have no full-time employment experience. Even though some colleges and universities provide internship opportunities, most of the students will graduate after 4 to 6 years without any meaningful employment experience in their fields of study, making it challenging for them to actually be employed in a job that requires a four-year degree and is applicable to their field of study.

This brings me to my next point: employability. For those of us who have been in the workforce for a long time, we know that it takes more than just work experience to attain gainful employment, it also takes post-secondary or higher education. When flipping this around, the opposite is also true: in order to attain gainful employment one must also have work experience. For adult non-traditional students, we have the advantage because we already have years (sometimes many years) of work experience under our belts. And more often than not, when we return to college it is for a field of study we have already been employed in or is at least in some way applicable to our past work or volunteer experience. So, when we do finally graduate, we are far better off than our younger counterparts in achieving full-time employment in a field applicable to our degree.

Now that we’ve covered the essential data, you may have a more clear sense of what you should do, but more than likely you’re still undecided, just as I was after reviewing the information. You also may not be aware of all the things you’ll need to do to actually become a student. There are two primary components that must be considered before you take any serious action towards becoming a full-time adult non-traditional student: consider your finances and choose a field of study.

We’ve already discussed how costly returning to college or university can be, so you really need to look at your own finances to determine if it’s really an option for you. Remember that 43% of all first-time undergraduate students who are enrolled full-time, take out loans in addition to the scholarships and grants they receive. So unless you’re quite wealthy or only plan to attend part-time, you will likely need to take out loans to afford your four years of higher education. Not to mention that many scholarships out there are not intended for adult non-traditional students, the majority are geared towards high school seniors.

Luckily, there are scholarships and grants specifically intended for adult non-traditional students. Your best bet for learning about these is to visit the website for your state’s department of post-secondary or higher education. You also need to know that many scholarships and grants for adult non-traditional students still have requirements that limit the number of people who can apply and almost all of them have strict deadlines for the application process. Your potential eligibility may be determined by your age, educational background, location, race, ethnicity, gender, income level, employment status or history, and the list goes on and on. These types of scholarships and grants may pay for some or even all of your tuition costs, so they are absolutely worth looking into.

Returning to school is not a decision that should be taken lightly, it could have significant financial consequences for your life for the next 14 years. Yes, I said 14 years. Most student loans are required to be re-paid within 10 years following graduation, meaning after a six-month grace period that follows graduation, you may be making loan payments for the next 10 years. The amount of this monthly loan payment can be quite varied, usually between the $100 to $400 a month range, all depending on how much you borrow, what kind of loans they are (subsidized or unsubsidized), from whom they are issued (federal or private), and what the interest rate is and whether or not it’s fixed or varied.

But I feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves and haven’t addressed the elephant in the room. Why do you want to go back to school and what do you want to study? Don’t be wishy-washy about this decision, you need to think strategically. The time for creative exploration has long since passed, you are not 18 years old anymore, you have serious life responsibilities as an adult and if you choose to go back to college or university, you are going to face challenges that the younger version of you would have not faced while attending post-secondary education.

The labor market should absolutely impact your decision making. I suggest you review the Labor Market Outcomes of College Graduates by Major section of the report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. There you can review data in regards to the unemployment and underemployment rates for recent college grads based on their major (field of study), as well as early and mid-career median wages for each major. It is incredibly valuable data that reveals to us that just because a field of study is popular or fun, doesn’t necessarily equate long-term value in employability.

While it shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision making, you obviously still need to choose something that actually interests you. There’s nothing worse than working a full-time job that you hate so much your mental health is deteriorating. No amount of money is going to keep that from happening. Yes, financial stability makes life easier and is very important for that reason, but it doesn’t automatically make life better or even satisfying. Working a job that you hate is a surefire way to develop a mental health condition that will dilute any brief happiness that such financial stability might bring. You can spend that money for short-lived zaps of dopamine, but nothing can replace the satisfaction you will get from a job that is meaningful, fulfilling, or purpose-driven.

This is critical for your future success: will your field of study and eventual career choice bring you a sense of meaning, fulfillment, or purpose? If you can’t answer yes to at least one of those, don’t do it! This doesn’t mean you have to like all of your job responsibilities every day, but you should find some aspect of your job that you love and that makes it worth it in the end. The most potent and satisfying factors for any career are that they provide a sense of meaning, fulfillment, or purpose. If you can select a field of study that will lead to this type of career, then you will be miles ahead of every other student, most of whom are too young and lacking in enough life experience to have any understanding of what satisfies these requirements.

Be cautious though because some people attempt to turn a hobby into a career and overtime they realize that by turning something they casually enjoy into a job, it loses the sense of enjoyment it once gave them. It becomes just another stressful daily task they have to complete. That is no way to live life either. The reality is that we spend the majority of our lives at work and we need to get more out of it than just a paycheck or justifying our employment by saying it’s an easy job. Money and easy are not meaningful, fulfilling, or purposeful. Remember: you don’t have to like your job every day, but you have to love some aspect of it, one that gives you justification for going to work and satisfaction on your way home.

Whatever decision you make, just know that most degrees are versatile, so even if you get an engineering degree, it doesn’t mean that you can only become an engineer. The labor market data company, Emsi, identified in their 2019 report, Degrees at Work, that many students not only don’t get jobs in their field of study but that they also fluctuate in and out of different career fields throughout their lives.

Selected Field of Study vs Post-Graduation Career Field

Part II: Making A Choice and Initiating the Admission Process

The first thing you need to be aware of is what time of the year it is. Your window for filing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is from October 1st to June 30th. If you are not familiar, this is a federal program that helps you learn what types of federal, and eventually state, funding that you are eligible for. You also need to be aware of school admission deadlines as some colleges and universities have very narrow timeframes for when you can apply to their school. Most schools will open for admissions in the spring, so March to May, but understand that this is not a standard observed by all schools and is merely an average. This is why it’s important that you create a list of colleges and/or universities you would like to attend, it will help you identify potential deadlines. Some schools observe a “rolling admission” process wherein you have a much wider timeframe for applying to the school, but of course that doesn’t mean you can simply attend classes any time of the year, they do still have a cutoff point for when you are able to attend fall classes.

Even though the FAFSA application timeframe might be wide, it doesn’t mean you should slack. You should always submit your application as soon as possible to ensure the best chances of securing federal funding. Not only that but each state has its own deadline for when you should file your FAFSA because they utilize the form in determining your eligibility for some state funding programs like grants. The federal government provides grants too, but they also offer federal loans and I will talk about them more later. When it comes to grants, the money is limited – there is only so much to go around. So for the sake of state and federal funding, you will want to file your FAFSA as early as you can. To learn more about the FAFSA and how to apply, access the U.S. Department of Education’s website at: https://studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa

The federal application is free, but that doesn’t mean all school admission applications are also free. While it is becoming increasingly rare, some colleges and universities still charge a fee to receive applications. This fee is usually less than $50 and most institutions now utilize an online process, though if necessary you can still request a traditional paper application. As an adult non-traditional student applying to a four-year college or university as a freshman, you may find the process a little wonky and not adequately setup for you. I ran into this problem with a few schools that I applied to. For example there were times where I could not select my age because their online forms were programmed to only list years of birth that stretched back 20-odd years, or times where I couldn’t select my high school graduation date for a similar reason – it would only accept a date that occurred within the last few years!

Another situation I frequently encountered were parent or legal guardian requirements. At times I was required to fill out sections of applications or special forms that requested my parent or legal guardian information, with no option to bypass or ignore the “required” fields. When I contacted the schools about these issues, they would tell me to enter the oldest dates available on the online forms and enter my own information in place of the parent or legal guardian fields. If these institutions want adult or independent non-traditional students to feel welcome, they certainly should begin with adapting their admission software to allow people older than their teens and early twenties to fill them out. I regularly felt embarrassment by the fact that the software was, in effect, telling me I was too old to be applying to the school. There are other circumstances where your age may become an issue during admissions or even while just attending the school in general, but I’ll touch on those later.

It’s important to point out the difference between a college and a university because there are differences and these differences may influence what school you choose to attend. Some people think the word college refers to a public institution and university refers to a private institution, but this is not the case because both institutions can be public or private. A college is traditionally an institution that serves students seeking two- to four-year degree programs. Colleges may offer vocational training or job certification programs, usually lasting two years or less, and will offer associate’s degrees which are similar in nature and typically require a two-year commitment, as well as the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree. Universities also offer bachelor’s degrees to undergraduate students, but they also provide master’s and doctorate degree programs for graduate students.

Other factors in selecting schools that you might want to consider include distance and your living arrangements. Will you be living on campus in the dorms, in an apartment on or near campus, or will you be living off-campus? If off-campus, how far will you need to drive to get there, how long will it take you? If you have an 8:00 AM vs a 9:00 AM class, will that impact your family and their morning schedule? Most colleges and universities have restrictions on first-year students and whether or not they are allowed to live off-campus. For example, if you are older than 24 or live with your parents and live within a specific distance of the campus you may be allowed to live off-campus your first year. But if you are 20 to 23 years old and attending college or university for the first time, you may be required to live in the residential dorms along with the other incoming freshmen.

Some schools allow older students to live on campus in the dorms if that is of interest to you, so if you want to have that “immersive” college or university experience it might be possible. Other institutions do not allow older students to roommate with younger students, so you may be paired with another adult non-traditional student. Some schools even have special housing arrangements set aside for adult or independent non-traditional students. In some cases these buildings can even accommodate students who are married with children.

If you choose a strictly online program, distance shouldn’t be an issue for you, provided you are comfortable not having in-person contact with your professors and classmates. Be advised that the number of degree programs available online are limited, so your options will not be as varied in what field of study you will get to pursue.

There are many other things you will want to take into consideration and are just as important as the location of the school. If you intend to participate in school activities, such as athletics, make sure the school you’re looking at offers them. Also take note that there may be restrictions or limitations on what activities you can get involved in due to your age. For example, certain summer programs and extracurricular activities may not be available to you if you are older than 18 and a freshman, or in some cases if you are simply older than 24. Be sure to ask the admissions staff (preferably more than one of them) if your age will be an issue with your school involvement.

I ran into the issue where I was told I was eligible for two summer programs that would allow me to potentially graduate early. After I paid the costs out-of-pocket to participate in these programs, I was told that I was, in fact, too old to participate in the programs. When I requested a refund three separate times, I was finally advised that when I signed the forms I agreed to the terms which included a statement that the expenses were nonrefundable. The school stated that they would apply the funds to my student account and use the money for other potential costs. I later found out that they applied it to my fall tuition despite my intention to apply for a grant that pays all of my tuition.

Be aware that many school activities are geared towards the age range of 18 – 22 years old. You may find yourself feeling awkward and out-of-place if you’re in your thirties or above. You will have to decide for yourself if you’re okay with that because some colleges and universities mandate student involvement, and even if your school doesn’t – future employers may ask about your involvement during your time at college or university during an interview.

As someone who previously worked in human resources and occasionally sat on interview panels, I have heard supervisory and managerial staff ask employment candidates about their experiences at college or university and what types of things they got involved with, especially volunteer-related activities. A prime example that I hear frequently is the role of an RA, or resident advisor. Of course, as adult non-traditional students, we have a plethora of other employment background or at least enough that questions about our college or university life will likely be less concerning to future employers. It’s important to note though, I have seen an increasing trend in employers pushing their staff to be more involved in their community, so it may pay off for you in the future to get involved around campus while attending, if it is an option for you.

Since I’m on the topic of interviews, I want to mention something I hear people talk about but have never actually seen for myself and that’s the topic of “school value,” the idea that the perception of one’s institution of higher learning either hinders or helps their employability. Over the years I’ve heard people spread here-say about employers tossing resumes and job applications into the trash or fed into the shredder if the applicant attended unfavorable, unpopular, or low-cost colleges or universities. In my personal experience, I have never seen this happen, nor have I ever sat there and discussed with the other members of the interview panel any applicant’s college or university of attendance. Neither they nor I honestly cared where someone went to school, we concerned ourselves with whether or not they could apply the things they reportedly learned there. That’s the thing that matters to employers.

Now, if we’re talking about a high-profile employer, okay maybe they might be looking for graduates of ivy league or highly-reputable traditional colleges or universities, but for the average American looking to provide for themselves and their family, attending your local affordable community college is not going to flush your future career down the proverbial toilet. Generally, as employers we know that some of the most effective, efficient, and brilliant people in the world never even attended college or university or dropped out without a degree, so relax, your community college degree is valid and valuable – provided you can apply and share the knowledge you received.

Some colleges and universities go to great lengths to make sure their soon-to-graduate seniors or super-seniors have employment setup before they even leave campus. The job opportunity that the senior might be encouraged to apply for may not be directly related to their degree program, but most respectable institutions will do what they can to help students secure relevant employment rather than just waving them off and shouting “bon voyage” on the last day of classes. Most institutions have employment offices setup specifically for this purpose. Examining their track record of assisting students in finding meaningful employment may be something you might want to add to your checklist when evaluating your college or university options. When you speak with the school, ask them directly what policy or protocol they have in place to help support students in achieving employment after graduation.

Once you have chosen schools to apply to, you’ll receive a tuition and fee estimate, which is a breakdown of their annual cost of attendance (tuition) plus fees. These fees can be quite varied, fees for living or not living on campus (resident or commuter), medical fees, activity fees, parking fees, class fees, school supplies fees, textbook fees, meal plans, security fees, and the list goes on. Fees can cost you hundreds to thousands of dollars per year and not all schools provide these fees upfront, for example I didn’t find out how much my textbooks would cost until after being enrolled and registered for classes. Accepting these costs and moving forward with enrollment can feel overwhelming because at this point you may not have even begun applying for scholarships, so you have no idea how much money you really have to pay towards these costs, which is why so many students apply for loans. Thankfully, most loans can be rejected or returned by the time school starts, if it turns out that you don’t need them, but we’ll take a closer look at financial aid soon.

Aside from telling you how much potential debt you might be facing, the college or university will request several different types of documents as part of the admission process. Some of these are obvious, such as your high school transcript or college transcript if you did attend a different college or university in the past. Make sure that you have documentation to support your dual credits if you received them while in high school, most high school transcripts won’t include this documentation so you will need to reach out to the college or university the dual credit program was through and have them submit your transcript to the college or university of your choice. Be advised there may be a fee involved in this transfer of your dual or college credits and not every college or university will recognize or accept credit hours completed at all other institutions.

Another obvious document they will request is your immunization records. For young people this process is generally easy because they are coming directly from high school into college or university and their immunizations have been recent, but for those of us who’ve been out a while it can be more difficult to locate our immunization records from ten, twenty, or thirty years ago and some of those immunizations may need to be received for the first time or again due to the time that has passed (booster shot). Common immunization requirements for attendance are proof of two Mumps, Measles, Rubella (MMR) immunizations and one Meningococcal (MCV4 or MPSV4-Menactra, Menomune or Menveo) vaccine for all residential students. Due to the current times we are living in, most schools are also strongly encouraging students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. While they cannot legally mandate it like the other vaccines, they can and do implement restrictions if you do not provide proof of vaccination. This is true regardless of which of the immunizations we are talking about.

You can typically get copies of your immunization record from the doctor’s office that administered them, from your local city, county, or state health departments, from your high school, or from your previously attended college or university – if applicable. In accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), none of these entities can deny you access to your own medical records if you are 18 years old, or 17 years old and enrolled in a post-secondary institution, so if any of them deny your request for a copy because they don’t want to be bothered with the effort of retrieving it, don’t just assume you can’t access those records. If you have questions about this process, you can contact your state’s health department or department of higher education for further guidance.

Part III: Scholarships, Grants, Loans, and Other Financial Aid

The most overwhelming aspect of this entire process is the financial side. The majority of all dependent and independent students who quit school, do so because of financial reasons. As we covered in the previous section, it’s not just the cost of tuition that new students worry about, it’s all the fees and secondary costs not already calculated into the tuition. One of the most helpful things you can do is figure out your budget and finances. How much money do you have coming in and how much are you spending? Review your bank statements, not just your monthly expenses like your house payment or rent, but also look at what products and services you have subscriptions for.

I recently did and found that I was spending about $1,200 a month, or about $15,000 a year on cost of living expenses, service subscriptions, entertainment subscriptions, and other retail purchases. In order to figure out how much I was spending on each thing every month, I calculated the average by adding up each payment or purchase for each category that I made in a year and then divided it by twelve months. It had been a couple of years since the last time I had done this and I was surprised at how many new expenses I had acquired since then and how much I had been spending. I broke my expenses down like this:

Your budget and finances will not look exactly like this, everyone’s is different and is based on their living situation or arrangements, their lifestyle, how far from work they live, what they enjoy in life, etc., each person’s numbers will be different. The important thing here is that you breakdown all of your payments and purchases so that you know how much you’re spending each month. Evaluate whether or not you want or can continue these expenses if you become a full-time student and can no longer work a full-time job. More than likely, you’re going to have to start getting rid of a few things.

When it comes to the financial aid that is available, none of it is truly free, at the very least it will cost you time and energy – especially when over half of scholarships utilize an essay-style application process. Most of these essays are requested to be 500 to 2,000 words in length and require the basic tropes you’d expect: your background, why you need financial assistance, what your future goals are. I have seen some get a little more creative and require the applicant to create a video. While scholarships don’t require a financial investment or purchase in order for a student to apply, they almost always have eligibility requirements and as I previously mentioned, most scholarships are geared only towards graduating high school seniors. There are, however, scholarships that are open to people older than 18, you just need to make sure you read all of the eligibility requirements before you take the time to write your essay or fill out your application.

Some of the most common eligibility criteria evaluated by entities or individuals offering scholarships include:

  • Grade Point Average (GPA)
  • ACT/SAT Test Scores
  • Mentorship/Volunteer Hours
  • Degree Type Pursued (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, etc.)
  • Athletics
  • Financial Need
  • Hobbies, Activities, Interests
  • Race/Ethnicity/Sexual Orientation/Religious Affiliation
  • U.S. Citizenship Status
  • U.S. State of Residence
  • Goals/Future Plans

The below list are the most commonly used websites to search for and apply to scholarships. These websites were provided to me by federal and state agencies, and various colleges and universities. While none of these websites require you to pay anything to find and apply for scholarships, most of them require you to create an account on their site and in some cases sign-up for their newsletters, in order for you to use their website. I highly recommend that you read the U.S. Department of Education’s webpage about scholarships, before jumping into these other private websites and you should always use caution when giving out your personally identifiable information. While I have personally used some of these websites to find scholarships, I am not affiliated with any of them for any kind of marketing and receive no compensation for providing their links.

Federal and state grants also don’t require you to make any kind of purchase, but they have limited funding and frequently come with a catch. The federal and state funds are awarded under specific conditions and circumstances, and if for some reason the student no longer attends a college or university or fails to meet or sustain one of the other conditions during or after attending school, they may not only be declined any future funds but they may also be required to pay back the funds they’ve already received plus interest, thus a grant can sometimes convert to a loan.

You will learn what federal and state grants you are eligible for via the FAFSA, provided that you file it on time for both the federal deadline and the deadline for the state you reside in. Common eligibility and conditions for sustained use include: having and retaining a specific grade point average (GPA), being a certain age or within a certain age range, studying in a specific field, being a full-time or part-time student, being employed or agree to be employed by a certain industry and within a certain timeframe, live and/or work in a specific location, and the list goes on.

Loans, while very common for college students, are best to be avoided as much as possible. Every respectable financial aid officer will tell you to take out as little a loan as possible, applying for only what you need and nothing that you don’t. All loans must be paid back, and most also require the student to pay all of the interest as well, with the exception of subsidized loans – wherein, for example, the federal government will pay the interest while the student is in school, has recently graduated and is in a grace period, or if the loan has been deferred temporarily due to such circumstances as financial hardship.

What federal loans you are eligible for will be determined after you file your FAFSA, but generally speaking you will want to take out federal subsidized loans before any other kind. If you still need additional loan money, apply for federal or state government unsubsidized loans because their interest rates are usually lower than private loans from schools, banks, credit unions, and other such private lenders. Whether federal, state, or private, it’s a good idea to apply for loans with a fixed rate before applying for those with a variable rate. While you may initially get a lower rate with a loan that has variable interest, it puts you at risk of a very high interest rate in the future, especially if the markets are unstable. You can learn more about federal and private loans by visiting the U.S. Department of Education’s official site for information on accepting student aid at https://studentaid.gov/complete-aid-process/accept-aid.

When you file your FAFSA and apply to a school, you may also discover that you are eligible for the Federal Work-Study Program, a program wherein you will work part-time on campus or through another entity that participates in the federally funded program, earning an income. Its only similarity with the grant process is that the opportunity is offered to students based on their financial need. Organizations are paid federal funds to hire college students, but these funds are not limitless and whether or not you are provided the opportunity to participate is largely based on how soon you apply and are accepted. Once the job opportunities are filled by other students, you’re out of luck. Not all colleges and universities participate in this federal program, so if this is something you want to do while in school, be sure to ask the schools you are applying to if they participate before you accept their financial aid offer.

Generally the income is minimum wage and some of the most common jobs performed for the college or university are in the school cafeteria, activity centers, financial aid office, or for one of the professors as a research assistant. Some schools allow you to choose which jobs you want to apply for and you will undergo the normal interview process to make sure you are a good fit, other schools may simply assign you a job with some consideration for its applicability to your major or field of study. Some organizations off-campus have agreements with your school and participate in the program, typically these are non-profit and not-for-profit private organizations, local and state public agencies, and on rare occasion private businesses. In all cases these jobs are usually located on-campus or off-campus and nearby, meaning the commute is generally quite convenient if you are a residential student or at least live near the campus.

Another advantage of this program is that these organizations are receiving federal funds to participate in the program and are required to provide you with flexible working hours so that it doesn’t interfere with your studies. For students fresh out of high school, it also provides them with the benefit of gaining work experience, which they will be in need of when they graduate. For most adult non-traditional students who have already been in the workforce for some five or more years, this perk doesn’t really apply, unless perhaps you have no prior work experience that’s applicable to your field of study – then if you are able to get a part-time job with the school or another participating agency in a position relevant to your field you’ll have some work experience by the time you graduate, hopefully increasing your odds of getting hired. If nothing else, at least you’ll have some spending money while being a full-time student.

Aside from all of that stuff, there’s also regular employment. As we’ve previously covered, around 40% of full-time undergraduate students have some type of job while attending school. The job may be part-time or even full-time in some cases, and if you pursue employment on your own outside of the Federal Work-Study Program, you may be able to find a higher paying job than the one the school would otherwise offer you. The real question here is can you juggle being a full-time student and working a full-time or part-time job? This can only be answered by the individual, there is no wide-sweeping absolute answer. Some people can handle working multiple part-time jobs while attending school, others can even handle working a full-time job while being a full-time student and single parent.

Each individual person must decide for themselves what they can handle. Your specific course-load and student involvement requirements will also play a huge factor here. If you are taking 16 credit hours your first semester back in school after more than 5 years away, you might find yourself struggling to keep up with your studies while working 5 or more days a week. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it really is like being forced to juggle academic success with financial stability, it’s not right and it makes the whole process of returning back to school a hardship that the majority of Americans who quit college or university, never return to, and those who never attended in the first place, never choose to pursue it.

In Conclusion

To bring this juggernaut to a close, I want to come back to a question I asked in the beginning of this article, “Why do I want to go back to school?” Instead of answering that question, I want ask it in a different way, because in all honesty I actually don’t “want” to go back to school. I feel compelled or encouraged to go back, I feel pressured to go back, but I cannot say I want to go back. I want the outcome, but I don’t want the experience and the immense financial burden it carries. For that reason, I think a more appropriate question to ask myself would be “What would be required for me to consider going back to school?” I think this question is more effective and more useful, it demands objective information without relying so much on subjective emotions.

Aside from the obvious ability to financially afford to return, other requirements are that my chosen major must be a field of study…

  1. I already have experience in, such as employment or volunteering
  2. I can tolerate studying and doing homework in for at least 4 years, and have an understanding of without serious struggle
  3. I can actually find employment in so that I don’t end up working in a completely unrelated field due to the labor market
  4. I’m willing to be employed in for the foreseeable future

I call this objective information because I can look back across my life these past 17 years and identify reasonable evidence that the path I’ve chosen meets all four of those requirements.

I don’t need to go back to school to feel satisfied in life. I don’t need to NOT go back to school in order to feel satisfied in life. School is not a destination, it’s merely a pathway to something else. Some people walk the pathway of employment after high school, some continue to walk the pathway of institutional education after high school, and some of us meander around and end up walking both pathways. All pathways lead us to middle age, and some people on those pathways are miserable, and some people who have walked those pathways are satisfied. What I’m trying to say is that there is no right or wrong path, there is only a choice and an outcome, you have to decide what choice you’ll make, why you’ll make it, and if you’ll be okay with the outcome.

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