By | Charlie Fletcher
There’s no question that life has not been the same since the outbreak of COVID-19 more than a year ago. From community lockdowns to school closures to rampant unemployment, we’re all trying to find our way in this new normal.
And if you are one of the millions whose job has been affected by the pandemic, or if you’re simply reevaluating your choices in the wake of the pandemic, you may be wondering if it’s time to go (or go back) to college.
But it’s not a decision to be made lightly, especially for adult and nontraditional students who often have many other responsibilities and considerations — such as childcare and work obligations — to factor in. On the upside, returning to school when the time is right for you can be a perfect vehicle for breaking into your dream job or for advancing the career you already love.
So how do you determine if now is the right time to go to college?
Think About What You Want
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s not to take life for granted. We’ve learned how very precious every day truly is. And that means that life is too short to spend it struggling in a job you hate, or one that simply doesn’t offer the financial stability and security you and your family deserve.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 26% of prospective adult learners report that they feel increasingly concerned about their job security. Higher education can offer job candidates far more options in the job market. Even if you already have an undergraduate degree, you might find that pursuing a graduate degree or advanced licensure or certification will open up more career opportunities than you had ever imagined.
In fact, studies show that workers with bachelor’s degrees earn nearly $19,000 more each year than those without. And if you have a graduate degree, you may well be on the road to an annual salary of more than $100K!
The Burden of Debt
As tempting as the idea of increased job security and higher incomes might be, even if you earn the most prestigious degree there are still no guarantees. And, if you are like many college students facing today’s breathtaking tuition rates, the odds are you are going to need to finance some, if not all, of your education.
This makes higher education something of a gamble. Sure, it’s probably a safer bet than playing the lotto or betting on the horses, but you’re still taking on debt with no real guarantee of a recompense.
Unfortunately, student loan default is not uncommon. Federal student loans may receive forbearance or deferment in specific circumstances, such as economic hardship or borrower illness, but they still have to be repaid eventually — and very rarely can they be discharged through bankruptcy. Private loans can be another option to consider, but you’ll have to do your research to find the one that best suits your needs in terms of interest rates and repayment plans. You can also refinance student loans later as you’ll get an improved rate, term, and monthly payment.
So before you decide to return to school, it’s important to carefully consider your financial situation, both today and in the future. Researching the projected job market and income potential in your target field is imperative.
It’s also a good idea to consult with a financial advisor to explore your financing options and how you can minimize the amount of student debt you take on, such as through the use of grants, scholarships, and work-study. Depending on your program, you may even qualify for life learning credits that allow you to apply your life and work experience to certain relevant courses, thus speeding your path to your degree and reducing the number of courses you have to pay for.
Finding the Balance
While figuring out how to finance your education is an important first step in deciding to go to college, it’s far from the only one. As an adult learner, you’re also going to need to figure out how to integrate your studies into your life.
You’ll need a plan to figure out how to balance your education with your work and home life. In some cases, that means communicating with your team in order to develop a reasonable schedule that accommodates not only the necessities, such as work, study, and childcare time, but also time for self-care. After all, no matter how much you may want or need that degree, if you make yourself ill or burn yourself out in pursuing it, it won’t be worth it at all.
Another important consideration, of course, is who will take care of the little ones when you’re in class or simply trying to study? In the COVID era, this can be a thorny issue, particularly with so many daycares remaining closed and such pervasive fear of contracting or spreading the illness.
Thankfully, it is possible to find good childcare in the pandemic era, principally by researching the caregiver’s sanitation, disinfection, and social distancing practices. Recommendations provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) can be a particularly beneficial guide to finding safe childcare.
College may not be for everyone. But when the time is right, it can be the pathway to a better life for you and the people you love. The key, however, is not to make the decision lightly. Rather, consider your goals and your options. Make a plan and then, if and when you are ready, make it happen!