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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

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.

 

POINTS TO PONDER

Nick Synko, a career coach at the Ann Arbor-based Synko Associates, works with adults in all stages of life and often encounters individuals considering returning to school to complete an associate’s, bachelor’s or advanced degree.

“When I work with individuals deciding whether to return to school, I first ask them to assess who they are and what they are about today,” he says. “Then I ask them what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Once we’ve done that, we can begin identifying a path that matches this.”

In many cases, that may be a return to school, he notes. And if that is the path elected, Synko stresses the importance for prospective students of taking a hard look at where the jobs are.

“Unlike many popular authors out there, I don’t believe that if you do what you want, the money will follow,” he says. “That’s balderdash.”

Instead, he encourages his clients to inquire of the schools they are considering applying to how many people graduated in the program of interest last year, how many of those graduates found a job in their field, and whether the prospective student can talk to a few of those graduates.

“If the school can’t prove jobs are available in that field, look at other alternatives,” Synko stresses.

Cocoa Berry of Detroit worked on the line in quality control at American Axle Manufacturing for 12 years, yet she knew that was not her life’s calling. In 2011, she applied to the accelerated program at Oakland University’s Riverview Institute nursing school in Detroit and earned her L.P.N. degree taking classes five days a week for a year. She did this while working contingent for Hospice of Michigan evenings and weekends.

 “I knew the demand was high for nurses,” she says. “And I had heard good things about this particular program.”

And Berry isn’t finished yet. In September, she will begin a full-time program to earn her R.N. degree through Oakland. After that, she has her eyes set on even more schooling to become a certified nurse anesthetist.

“Once I realized what was important to me, I made the decision to make a better for life for me and my family,” says Berry. “It requires a lot of patience to balance all of it. Any time you go back to school as an adult, you have that fear of failing. I had to be patient with myself and pace myself.”

Synko notes that he often works with individuals who are nervous about returning to school like Berry was.

“Separate yourself from the student you were at 15 and the student you will be now at 40,” he recommends. “You’ll surprise yourself at how smart you really are.”

 

POCKETBOOK CONSIDERATIONS

Perhaps one of the most important things to consider before returning to school is the finances behind it. Leshone Collins of Warren recently finished her bachelor’s degree in psychology through the University of Phoenix. Through financial aid and scholarships, Collins was able to complete her bachelor’s degree without much financial burden on her family. She’ll be on her own, though, to cover the cost of the master’s degree program she begins this month.

“The closer I get to starting the program, the more reluctant I become,” she admits.

Jamie Krueger, the assistant director of financial aid at Wayne State University in Detroit, also is a student in a doctoral program there—and has intimate knowledge of the struggles of paying for one’s education.

“I encourage anyone considering a return to school to step back and evaluate the resources they have coming in,” she says. “They need to set a budget being mindful that going to school may mean adding things to their budget like child care for when they are in class. Look at tuition, costs of books and other fees and how much financial aid will be available to assist you. And all of this should be done on the front end, before you are even enrolled.”

For those worried about the financial strain of education, Krueger encourages them to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to understand what they are eligible for. For those returning to school while working, she suggests checking with their employer to see if tuition reimbursement or loan forgiveness is an option.

Howard was able to take advantage of some tuition reimbursement through the agency she first worked with when she began her master’s program. Still, it was only a dent in the overall cost of her studies.

“I have student loans I’ll be paying down for a while,” she says. “I was so excited when I was accepted that I didn’t fully fathom the costs.”

Krueger notes that in addition to loans, there are things like graduate assistantships that can help offset the cost of schooling.

“Often, these have funding tied to them,” she says.

CONTINUOUS LEARNING

If pursuing a degree is not the path ultimately chosen, Synko still encourages all those looking to make a career transition to demonstrate an openness to lifelong learning.

“That’s absolutely critical,” he says. “Employers want to see your willingness to learn and to pick up new skills. You differentiate yourself by demonstrating where you have been. There’s a big difference between saying you’re interested in learning about electronics and having recent coursework in electronics on your resume.

“There are two factors to be mindful of when applying for jobs: qualifications and differentiators. Differentiators are what set you apart from all those with like qualifications. Relevant and recent coursework is one of those differentiators.”

- JACQUIE GOETZ BLUETHMANN, PRINCIPAL AT JGB COMMUNICATIONS, IS A FREELANCE WRITER FROM BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP.

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