Whether you’re finishing your bachelor’s degree, getting your master’s degree or a professional certificate, or going to college for the first time, furthering your education is an expensive investment.
But, like any other investment, you can earn a lot more than you initially spent, if you do it right. According to 2012 data from the U.S. Department of Education (the most recent available), adults ages 25 to 34 who were employed full-time and had a college degree earned 57 percent more than adults who were employed full-time and only had a high school diploma.
But the cost of earning a degree has skyrocketed in recent years and jobs in certain fields are scarce, so you need to make sure you’re getting the best return on your investment (ROI) before you enroll in classes.
To ensure you get the most from your money, it’s important to take these steps first.
Identify the job you want and the salary it pays. Whether you’re motivated by a dream job or you’re hoping to further your current career, know what kind of skills, schooling and experience are necessary to get there. Then do a little research on the kind of money you could make.
Scroll through websites such as The Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Occupational Information Network to estimate how much you can potentially earn at various experience levels. You want to see your current salary grow, but it doesn’t have to be a massive increase for your education to pay off. Earning an extra $5,000 a year may not seem like much, but it will net you an additional $100,000 over 20 years.
Get a rough idea of all the costs associated with college. Salary is only half of the equation. The other half is the price of getting an education. Investigate the tuition at various universities and colleges to determine how much you’ll need to spend to get a degree, keeping in mind you’ll also spend money on books and other necessities. And don’t forget that going back to school may mean working less or finding a babysitter for the kids. Remember to add this into the equation.
If the costs start to scare you, don’t forget about the opportunity cost of not going back to school.
“The reality is, you’re giving up something either way,” says Felicia Gopaul, Certified Financial Planner and President of College Funding Resource. “Everybody has to make difficult choices, but in this case the short-term suffering is often offset by the long-term gain.”
Calculate the ROI. Assume you believe you can make an extra $5,000 annually after taxes and your education costs $50,000. If you make an extra $5,000 per year for the next 10 years, that pay increase will be eaten up in paying off your student loan debt. But you could still come out $50,000 ahead in 20 years, and that’s not even considering the possibility of pay increase, raises or future mobility.
If you want to further maximize your return, look for a less expensive school, apply for scholarships to cover some costs, or find a higher-paying career path. Fiddle with your options until you find the sweet spot that makes returning to school worthwhile to you.
Find a cost-effective and flexible program. This little exercise in ROI should lead you toward a school that offers programs that match your career goals and are affordable enough to offer a good educational investment.
Remember you don’t have to dive in all at once, Gopaul says. Find classes that suit your lifestyle and learning style, whether that’s in a classroom or online. Ask about auditing a class – taking a class without getting course credit or a grade – to find out if the school is right for you. Some schools, especially those with strong online learning components, may even offer free trials before you enroll.
“If it’s been a while since you’ve been back to school, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to go full-time,” she says. “You’ve got to manage your time and your commitments to make sure you’re able to do well.”
Get your support system in line. The hard truth here is that you will have to make sacrifices, so make sure your friends, family and even your employer are there for you.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Gopaul says. “With support, when things get crazy with school, there is a way that you can still maintain your other obligations and continue to go to school.”
Disclosure: This post was written as part of the University Of Phoenix Versus Program. I’m a compensated contributor, but the thoughts and ideas are my own.
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