By Craig Donofrio
NEW YORK (MoneyTalksNews)—There are many compelling reasons to go back to school — a more interesting job, higher pay or a new profession.
But taking time to earn a degree — whether you go back to school full time or take a class here and there — does not guarantee the effort will be worth it.
In fact, that's a risk you'll want to carefully weigh.
In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has some advice about how to go back to school. Check it out, then read on for more detail.
1. Why go back?
You have to know what's in it for you before you take the plunge. Ask yourself these questions:
- What's the payoff? Are you sure that the courses you'll be taking will actually help you reach your goals — a promotion, higher pay, or expanded job opportunities? If you simply want to study for the pleasure of it, there are free ways to do that. (More on that below.) Some college majors are more lucrative than others.
- Do you have the time? The time involved will depend on whether you're going full time or part time, whether you have to start from scratch in a four-year undergraduate program, or whether a two-year course of study will be sufficient. Graduate programs take a year or more.
- Can you afford it? According to The College Board, full-time in-state students paid an average of $8,655 in tuition at public universities for the 2012-2013 school year and out-of-state students paid an average of $21,706. Students at private universities paid $29,056. That doesn't include textbooks, supplies and other costs.
- Does the benefit outweigh the cost? If you have to borrow money, how much will you need and how long will it take to pay it off? Will the extra pay offset the debt?
2. Choose a degree
By now you've figured out what your goals are and what your career path is likely to be. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook has information about the skills and education needed for hundreds of occupations, as well as information about pay. You can also talk to career counselors or university counselors. Or how about visiting the career counselor at your old high school? They're trained to help you match your education to your career goals.
3. Find a school
Here's how to find your perfect fit:
- Degree programs. Check university websites for a list of degree programs offered.
- Cost. Use CNNMoney's How Much Will That College Really Cost? calculator to get an idea of the expense.
- Ranking. Read up on a college before applying. U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and CollegeProwler all rank and rate universities. Contact those who have attended the schools you're interested in.
- Visit. Take an official tour to see classrooms, libraries and other buildings, and to get a feel for the campus.
- Online. Don't forget online options, which can be both more flexible and less expensive. See our story College for $1,000 a Year?
4. Pay for it
You may not have to pay for your entire education yourself. Here are a few of your options:
- Federal student aid. It's based on your income, not your age, and is available to both full-time and some part-time students. Start by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
- Grants and scholarships. Online databases can help you find them. Check out: FastWeb SALT's scholarship search The College Board's scholarship search Scholarships.com
- Employer grants. Many companies offer help to employees who want to go back to school. However, be sure to read the fine print. Most of these offers require you to keep working at the company through school and many tack on a few extra years after graduation.
- Tax credits. While benefits may change in future years, you might get a break on your taxes for going back to school. In 2012 many adult students were able to claim either the American Opportunity Credit (up to $2,500) or the Lifetime Learning Credit (up to $2,000).
Finally, if you need to finance your education, federal loans can be cheaper than private loans, and also provide more flexibility in repayment, including ways to reduce your debt. To read more about the loans and what you qualify for, check out the U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Loan site.
5. Free courses
If you're still on the fence about going back to school but would like to expand your education or learn a new skill, many free course options are available online. They won't earn you a degree, but they will enhance your education and your resume. Among the possibilities:
- Coursera. It offers massive open online courses or MOOCs from many top universities.
- EdX. This provider of MOOCs was founded by Harvard and MIT.
- OpenCulture. A list of 725 free courses around the Web.
- Open Education Database. More than 10,000 free online courses.
- Academic Earth. A searchable database of courses.
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