Going back to college can open new doors and may help you access a better job. A 2018 Public Agenda survey found that the primary reason adults pursue higher education is in pursuit of a better or different career. To add more reason to return to school, employers are rapidly replacing retiring workers with more educated employees, with nine out of 10 jobs going to college graduates.
Despite the myriad benefits of higher education, starting or finishing a degree presents some risks. A majority of prospective returning learners are concerned about student loan debt and worry they won’t be able to afford school.
The following questions can help you weigh the pros and cons of going back to school so you can make a decision that complements your lifestyle and long-term goals.
Why do I want a career change?
There is perhaps no more important question to ask yourself than why you want to change careers. There’s no wrong answer here, but identifying your true motives—not the motives you think you should have—can help guide your decision. Some common reasons for changing careers include:
- A desire for more money. If this is the case, ensure that a degree will truly open doors to greater earnings.
- The drive for more prestige. Some jobs garner more respect than others. If you don’t feel valuable in your current role, consider which jobs you admire the most and what sort of feedback and job duties will make you feel like your work matters.
- Work-life balance. If you need more time with your family, hope to explore the world, or crave a job that does not encroach on your hobbies, then you’ll need to weigh several key factors. Jobs that require intense emotional labor and stress—such as careers in social work or certain areas of law—may make you feel like you’re always thinking about work. Likewise, careers that demand long hours can compromise time with family, while roles with few benefits can make vacationing a pipedream. For greater work-life balance, consider a job with a predictable schedule, great benefits, and stress you can leave at the office.
- Wanting to make a difference. If your current job is just for the sake of a paycheck, a voice in the back of your head may urge you to find a way to improve a small corner of the world. If you want your work to leave an impact, know that these careers can be high-stress. But this challenge often brings with it significant rewards and a chance to meaningfully change someone else’s life.
Consider the possibility that you might be headed back to college for reasons that are specific to your company or role. If catty office staff, an abusive boss, or a micromanaging supervisor motivate your decision, then a different employer—not a college degree—may offer the fastest route to a better life.
Have I explored other options for making my work more appealing?
Many people contemplate a return to school when they feel stymied at work. It’s important to assess why you’re not growing in your current job. Are you working for the wrong company, or is the entire industry a bad fit for you? Would a lateral move offer a better quality of life, without the stress of schoolwork? Before you enroll in classes, ensure you’ve tried other strategies to excel at work.
What would I enjoy doing?
What do you enjoy most? Be as specific as possible, because any job will have less enjoyable responsibilities. The goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize the boredom. Rather than honing in on a type of work—teaching, social work, or helping animals—you need to assess what daily life looks like in your ideal role. Some questions that can help guide you include:
- Do I like brief tasks or long-term projects?
- Do I prefer to work independently or with others?
- What tasks are most tedious for me? Most enjoyable?
- What specific topics do I like learning about?
- Do I prefer sitting in an office, driving around to meet customers or clients, being outdoors, or some combination of all three?
- What situations do I find most and least stressful?
Armed with this knowledge, start reaching out to people in jobs you think might be a good fit. Ask them what they spend their days doing, as well as what they like and dislike about their work. Equally important, ask them about their college experience. Even if you land the perfect position at the end, if the required coursework will be a miserable slog for you, it might be better to consider a different path.
What am I good at?
We’ve all heard the advice to do what you love. What if you love drawing but are terrible at it? Or you adore animals and hate their owners? Doing what you’re passionate about when you lack the necessary skills or talent is a recipe for frustration. It’s not enough to choose work you like. To succeed, you must also choose work you’re good at. Think back to your earlier educational experiences. Which classes were easiest for you? In your current job, what do your performance reviews say? Are there certain tasks you sail through and others that always end up behind schedule? Identifying your unique skills can help guide you to the right program.
Don’t just focus on job duties at which you excel. Consider also your challenges and talents in an academic setting. Do you love writing papers? Excel at long-term projects? Get clear details about the sort of work you’ll do in your chosen degree. This empowers you to choose a school and a setting where you can earn high grades.
Which roles offer the best growth and earning potential?
College is hard work. You’ll be up late studying. You may feel exhausted and occasionally even demoralized. Make sure your investment pays off in the form of a job that can grow with you. If the maximum salary you can earn is not much higher than your starting wage, you may find yourself frustrated and stagnating in just a few years. And when your chosen profession is shrinking, finding a job can prove nearly impossible, particularly when you compete with people who have years of experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a font of knowledge about job growth and earning potential.
Is there room for growth without returning to school?
A college degree is a versatile tool that can help you earn more, pursue new opportunities, and master new skills. That doesn’t mean everyone needs a degree. When you feel trapped in a dead-end job or annoyed by a bad employer, your stress might make it difficult for you to fairly assess all options. Ask yourself if there are opportunities to grow and evolve without returning to school. Some important queries include:
- Is there growth potential at my current company? If not, could that change if I switched employers?
- Do I want a new career, or just a new job? Could I get either without more education?
- Is my lack of a degree holding me back, or is it something else—such as a lack of experience, poor people skills, or working in a region where there are few jobs?
Are there stable jobs in my area?
Jobs in healthcare and tech top most lists of growing professions. In some regions, however, these jobs are stagnant or even in decline. If you live in a rural town with no major hospitals or healthcare facilities, positions in patient care may be few and far between. In certain regions, manufacturing jobs continue to reign supreme, even though nationwide statistics show that manufacturing jobs are dying. When selecting a degree, consider local and regional trends.
Do I have the right support?
You might be the one returning to school, but if you have a family, everyone will have to invest in your success. Your kids may need to learn how to make a few easy meals, and your spouse might have to take over the carpool. If you’re a single parent, you could need help from neighbors or family. Think carefully about what your support system can offer you, and then choose a program that complements your lifestyle.
If you feel like you’re doing it all alone, you may still be able to return to school. But you’ll have to pick a college that supports students like you. SNU offers a number of support services, including help finding financial aid, a chaplain who supports you with spiritual and lifestyle concerns, and advisors who can chart a course from your current position to the perfect job.
Does going back to college fit into the rest of my life?
SNU understands that adult learners may struggle to pursue their dreams. We work with you to find a program that’s a great fit for your lifestyle and future goals. Don’t let financial worries, fears about childcare, and other forms of uncertainty hold you back. The right school is the one that complements your needs. We’re here to help you compare options so you can turn the life you have into the life you want. Contact us today to learn more!