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ForbesDreams vs. Debt: Older College Students' Big Dilemma
by Sheryl Nance-Nash
June 8, 2012

Sometimes good things are worth waiting for. What if they're expensive though?

For many reasons, including an economy in flux, people over 40 are flocking back to college campuses. In 2000 there were 857,000 undergraduates 40 and older, by 2010, they numbered 1.3 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With no guarantee of a reward of a great job and student loan debt that can be $40,000-$50,000 and more, is the payoff worth the investment?

Sweeter the Second Time?
The second time around the college bend was better for Sharron Walls. " I left college in my 20s with one year remaining. Went back in 2001 at age 45 (after five years as a stay-at-home mom), lost 60 credits due to a change of major, took three classes a semester and finished when I was 50. I loved it!" she says.

She initially financed her back-to-school effort with a $5,000 inheritance, then worked at campus positions that either paid for tuition and fees or gave a stipend.

"I graduated debt-free, unlike my previous experience, when it took me nine years to pay off college loans."

Walls, a communications coordinator for the Georgia Health Sciences University says she never would have started that position she would have never reached in my previous profession. "I'm currently up for another position that could potentially double my pay. Either way, I'm better off," says Wall.

Nancy Irwin went back to get her doctorate in psychology. The $50,000 in debt she took on was a challenge. "I paid it back slowly over a number of years. I actually spread it out over several credit cards." However, she made over $100,000 in her first year. She is a practicing therapist, clinical hypnotist, and in line to get her psychologist's license.

Theresa Thaxton owes $20,000 and the tab is still running. "I went back to school in my forties. Although I do not yet have a job, I think my decision was worth it because I was very successful in school. I will have to find a way to pay off my debt but for now I am just enjoying my new educational status in life. She obtained her degree in communication studies and now is graduate school studying education. "I plan on obtaining my PhD when I finish my master's degree," says Thaxton, who says that part of her motivation was going back to school to earn good money and also emotional, "I had flunked out of college earlier in life and I wanted to make amends for that."

Hilary McGrath, 55, just graduated from Long Island University with a masters degree in school counseling. She borrowed more than $40,000. "The loans were all part of my plan to go back to school, of course I would rather not owe that amount of money but I believe in education and I believe I will get a full time position as a school counselor. I have an assortment of jobs as a consultant for college counseling. In addition I work with a social worker co-leading groups for children and young adults on the autism spectrum. For me the added credential was definitely worth it, I love working in a school setting and I have finally found my true calling."

After moving to Memphis for a job in 2000, John Edward Hicks saw that the University of Memphis offered a master's degree in creative writing.

"I had wanted to get that degree immediately after finishing my undergrad in 1974, but did not have the money; at that time I was unaware of the loans available, and had had no guidance. By itself, the degree made no difference in my income. However, when I changed professions and went into secondary school teaching, the salary difference was appreciable," says Hicks.

That transition required him to take nearly as many graduate-level classes to obtain teaching certification, so it was as if the cost of the advanced degree doubled, he says.

"Had I chosen to teach only at the college level, however, the other 30 hours of classes would not have been required. Yet getting a full-time college teaching job with only the master's degree is a near impossibility; adjunct teaching is easier to get, but it generates less money and no benefits. Still, I will always make more money in this profession as a result of having the advanced degree. While I have not yet begun to pay down my loans, it will be a big financial strain when that process begins. But, I learned a tremendous amount from my graduate studies, and have no regrets at all. I would do it all again, even if a little differently."

Proceed with caution
But taking on major student loan debt late in life is not something that should be considered lightly. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007-2008, the most recent data available, nearly 40 percent of students over age 40 borrowed money to further their education.

"Though the economy has been improving, indicators like the surprisingly low employment numbers for May - only 69,000 jobs added - reminds us that it's still a tough job market and decisions like going back to school are more critical. Those ages 40 and above, need to take a lot into consideration from degree type to tuition in order to make an informed decision about both the degree and the debt they will potentially take on," says Kathy Kane, Senior Vice President of Talent Management for Adecco Group North America.

Success will likely need to be defined by something other than just increased income for the endeavor to be considered worth the time, effort and cost. The dollars spent and potentially foregone income are harder to recoup over a shorter career, and newly minted 40+ graduates often face greater difficulty in leveraging a new degree because their previous experience features prominently on any resume, says Daniel Wildermuth, author of Wise Money.

For sure, college is an expensive proposition. Young people today, just graduating from college, will likely be paying their student loans almost as many years as the mortgages on their homes. Additionally, student loans are not readily dischargeable in bankruptcy proceedings. Is this how you want to spend your golden years? If you are recently laid off, don't add that extra financial burden of student loans to your already diminished financial resources. Even if you are still employed, looking closely at the financial numbers is critical, says Stephen A. Laser, PhD, author of Out-of-Work and Over 40.

Older students are less likely to receive school financial aid or private scholarships and will need to extensively research the options available for funding a college degree, says Katherine Cohen, founder and CEO of IvyWise, an educational consulting company that works with students to help them get into schools. However, adult students are eligible for federal financial aid, including Perkins Loans and Stafford Loans, and should also explore venues such as special grants and employer assistance, she says.

Clearly, there's no black and white answer to the question - is it worth going back to school? Mostly, "It depends. Consider how long you will be in the workforce, what the expected compensation is over and above what you would be able to make without the college degree and what the outlook is for employment in the field you are planning to enter," says Debra Clark, a certified financial planner with Hornor, Townsend & Kent. Explore alternatives that may not require a college degree.

"As a CFP who returned to post-secondary education to obtain a degree in my early 30's, because I thought it would be instrumental to my future success in the financial planning field, I find it fascinating that almost 15 years later I have very rarely (could count the number of times on one hand) been asked by potential clients where, or even if, I attended college. Sometimes there is a perception that a college degree is necessary, when in fact the reality is different. A college degree is certainly ideal, but it's possible that other options might be available," she says.

Marc Cenedella, CEO of TheLadders, a job-matching service, is clear on the issue, "It's not worth it to go back to college full-time. That said, it is worth it to complete your undergraduate degree with University of Phoenix or an adult-education university. Your experience matters much more, but the signaling effect of not completing your BA or BS is negative enough that you should complete it."

Ask yourself tough questions
Since the move shouldn't be taken lightly, Laser offers a few tough questions to ask yourself. After 20-plus years in the workplace without one, will it make that big a difference if you finally finish school? It is very important to examine the underlying reasons for having a degree. Is it for a better job? Do you think that you have limited your options for promotion by not having a college diploma? If you believe that a better job is in the cards, it is a good idea to check with your employer to see if finally getting a degree is worth the time and money. Do, in fact, the college-educated employees at your place of work really get all of the promotions?

Furthermore, he points out, certain people want to finish college and use it as a springboard for changing careers in midlife. "But before you make that leap, it's a good idea to look long and hard at your prospects for obtaining a job in your new found field," says Laser. Are you entering an overcrowded field? While it might be glamorous to call yourself psychologist or a police officer by training, what are your chances of getting a job in these already overcrowded fields? Do your homework. If you are considering enrolling in a career-oriented college curriculum, check the placement stats at the school. If the outlook isn't very promising or the data is cloudy and inconclusive, you are taking a big risk.

Weigh your options
There are many ways in today's society to earn a college degree. Besides entering the traditional halls of ivy, there are non-traditional, on-line colleges and universities. Many schools are focused on preparing people for certain careers as noted above. Make sure your choice meets your criteria for convenience of classes and quality of education. For example, ask to sit in on a couple of classes to see what you will be paying for. Just because a school has a good reputation or looks inexpensive, regardless, this is a large investment of time and energy on your part.

Another question to consider is whether a two-year, associate's degree will suffice as opposed to a four-year baccalaureate degree. Attending a local community college with rates adjusted for residency in the school's district can save you a bundle of money. Compare the cost of a community college with an on-line college degree at an expensive pay-as-you-go school, which can put you thousands of dollars in debt. Meanwhile, the cost of a degree at a community college can be very reasonable. Finally, regardless of whether you go the two-year or four-year route, it is a good idea to check with the career placement offices at these schools to investigate their track record for getting jobs for their recent graduates.

Be creative
Not only did Deborah Owens take out student loans to go back to school to get her MBA, she smartly took a position with a company that offered tuition reimbursement. "I got my MBA at 50 and it was definitely worth it. I credit returning to school to get my MBA with providing me the content for my most recent book, A Purse of Your Own."

Sara Arnell, CEO of the Arnell Group, an advertising and design agency, just completed her first year on her quest to get her MFA from Sarah Lawrence. "It's more than just receiving a degree, though I've always wanted to get my MFA. Being on a college campus is an amazing way to connect with today's youth and see the future through their eyes. There's a lot of inspiring, creative energy that I can take and apply to my work once I'm back in the office. Being back in school gets me thinking in new, strategic ways and helps me figure out what makes the next generation tick. Being on a college campus is like being in a time machine, getting to peek into the future. One of the greatest, most unexpected things I've found is how it has made me even closer to my kids - we all talk about our professors, homework and things that happened at school. It's fun to connect with them on this level," says Arnell.

"This has always been on my bucket list, but I was busy for a long time growing my family and my business. Now, I have a little more flexibility. While I may be over 40, I still have quite a few good years to put this knowledge and degree to good use! Going back to school is about learning, exploring and getting to some things I never got to do in the past. It's never too late to try or learn something new, and I think a lot of people forget that once they graduate college," says Arnell.

There's something to said for fulfilling a dream. Van McKellar, who received scholarships and grants, at 72, just received a bachelor of arts in African American studies from Metropolitan State College of Denver. "I had this lifelong dream of going to college."

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