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Count the Costs When Returning to School

A degree may be just the right boost to your career, but it also may put a heavy strain on family, health and finances. Here’s what to ponder before hitting the books again.

Jacqueline Howard

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Jacqueline Howard of Farmington Hills always knew she wanted to go back to school to pursue a master’s degree. Education was something that had been ingrained in her since she was a child. In 2008, newly married and several years out of Michigan State University where she earned her bachelor’s degree, Howard applied to—and was accepted into—Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Howard was excited about this distance-learning program that would not require her to relocate and would enable her to keep working at her PR agency job while pursuing her studies. During her orientation, Howard recalls the program’s director saying that while she and her classmates were pursuing their degree, life would invariably continue to happen—sometimes neatly, sometimes not so much.

Howard could not have known then how true those words would be. She began classes in August 2008 and, shortly thereafter, lost her father in October and gave birth to her first child in January 2009. In the summer of 2010, near the end of her two years of classes, Howard switched jobs, a major life change in itself—and, soon after, learned she had breast cancer. Life just kept happening with no regard for the papers she had to write, exams for which she had to study and the job at which she had to perform each day.

Currently in remission and employed full-time at Ally Financial Inc. in Detroit as associate manager of community relations, Howard is thankful for the experience, contacts and professional development opportunities afforded by her master’s program, which also helped her land her current job. Now, she’s thankful to have it all behind her.

“I tend to want to be a superwoman,” Howard says. “But mentally, it was a lot. That’s the truth. It was a huge strain on my family and on me as a person. You certainly need to be passionate about what you’re doing and know that it will help your career.”

Eight million adults were enrolled in college in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet a study by the Apollo Research Institute indicates that less than half of adult students over the age 25 who are enrolled in a four-year bachelor’s program will earn a degree. The reasons are many, and often include the financial burden, lack of child care, balancing paid work and personal health.

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