Life Changes

The Perks and Challenges of Going Back to School

An advanced degree may help your career, but you'll need to balance your finances and your other responsibilities.

by Heather Johnson - August 07, 2017

Stephen Blair, a physicist who lives in Oakland, California, got divorced, remarried, became a father of two, and held down a full-time job — all while going back to school to earn his Ph.D.

Does this sound like a lot to handle? Millions of adults are going back to school to pursue graduate degrees, MBAs, and certificate programs — often as an effort to get a promotion, land a new job, or change careers. An additional degree can make an employee more marketable, which pays off professionally and financially. According to a Financial Times survey, in 2016, business school alumni from 100 top MBA programs who had graduated in 2013 were paid an average of $142,000. That was an increase of more than 5% from the 2015 salaries of those who graduated from programs in 2012.

It took Blair eight years, but his efforts and degree helped him secure an advanced position at a national security laboratory.

While additional education may give working adults a career boost, it’s a challenging journey. Older adults usually have more responsibilities than the typical 22 year old. So how do you balance work, school, and family, as well as pay for rising tuition costs? Here are four tips.

1. Choose well

Zhan Li, Dean of the School of Economics and Business Administration at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, advises working adults to choose a program that not only suits their career goals, but also their time constraints and budget.

“Some programs are flexible — you don’t need to take four or even two courses per semester,” he says. “If you reduce workload, you also reduce the financial burden each year.”

Naturally, you’ll also want to select a program with classes that fit around your work schedule. Many colleges offer hybrid programs that combine online coursework with in-person classes. These programs allow students to have the convenience of online learning and self-scheduling while still benefiting from networking and collaborating in a classroom setting.

“I learned just as much from other students as I did from my professors,” says Judith Dodd, who earned her MBA around a busy job as territorial sales manager for Allstate Insurance.

2. Get financial support

According to a 2017 study by the Society for Human Resource Management, 50% of companies offer graduate-level educational assistance, although the amount they may provide can vary dramatically by firm. As with other perks, there’s room to negotiate. “If you’re a rising star in a corporation, you’re in a good position to ask for more support,” says Li.

When shopping for the right program, talk to prospective schools’ financial aid departments. You may qualify for a scholarship, a fellowship, or government assistance, such as the Yellow Ribbon Program for veterans. Sites such as finaid.org can also point you toward opportunities.

3. Reach out to your family

Going back to school impacts your life, but also affects the entire family. There are budgetary concerns — both financial and familial — such as cutting back on expenses like vacations, or having to make personal sacrifices, such as potentially missing an important event for a spouse or child.

“These are difficult trade-offs,” says Li. “Have a serious conversation with all family members to discuss household responsibilities and financial planning. Your degree is a commitment for everyone.”

4. Master time management

Even with a flexible schedule, Blair woke at 5 a.m. to focus on his Ph.D. before work. “You study after the kids go to bed or take a break during the day,” he says. “And your spouse has to be supportive.”

Dodd, no stranger to long hours, scheduled two extra long workdays to leave a few weeknights open to study. She also blocked out one weekend day for group projects or studying. “If you dabble, nothing gets done,” she says. “Go to the library and study all out.”

For each hour you spend in class you’ll likely spend two hours on schoolwork. Plan your time so you have enough for your education.

Returning to school mid-career takes commitment, a strong work ethic, and financial planning, but the rewards are worth it. Dodd says earning her MBA was the best thing she did for her career and her finances. “It’s a short-term commitment for long-term happiness.”

Heather Johnson writes about small business, finance, real estate, and other topics from Oakland, California.

Image by iStock

Additional Resources

Did you know that 529 plans aren’t just for kids? You can open a plan to fund your current or future educational expenses. Learn more about the basics of 529 college savings plans in our infographic.

Search for adult-specific scholarships on Tuition Funding Sources, sponsored by Wells Fargo.