How To Do Life

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Should You Go Back to School?

Is a back-to-school stint the best use of your time and money?

Especially with the continuing tough job market, many people consider going back to school for a degree or certificate.

It’s an easy decision if they’re doing it for pleasure, know they’ll enjoy the experience, and the cost is low, for example, a community college program, adult school course, or university extension workshop.

But many people consider returning for a degree or certificate primarily to enhance their career. And today more than ever, that decision isn’t so easy. That’s because the percentage of people with degrees, including graduate degrees, is increasing at the same time as employers are automating and offshoring more. That aside, many students have long felt that too much of what they were taught at a university was insufficiently applicable to their work or personal lives. In fact, they remember little of what they were taught. That was the subject of a famous Saturday Night Live bit (watched over a million times on YouTube,) in which Father Guido Sarducci taught, in five minutes, what the average college graduate remembers five years after graduation.

But the question is, for you, how likely is the time, effort, and money to be worth it? Here are some questions that may help you better assess that. 

Because the higher education marketing machine is so sophisticated, a Madison-Avenue operation, this article has a caveat-emptor orientation.

How ready for school are you?

Some people who haven't been students for a long time find learning harder and more time-consuming than when they were younger. That can make the experience less pleasant and the person less likely to complete the program. Is that an issue for you?

Are there transportation or child care issues that need to be considered?

How much of the program’s content will be helpful in your career?

The Net offers information on how likely a degree will be career-useful. For example, go to Quora.com and search on the term “MBA” and you’ll find  a wealth of opinions on if and for whom an MBA makes sense.

Also, you might ask the opinion of professionals in your field who know you and your job target, perhaps even showing them the program’s course descriptions. Of course, you too might review the syllabi or at least course descriptions. For example, here are the thumbnail course descriptions for a general master’s degree in psychology at NYU.

In addition to the career-specific content, do the syllabi suggest how likely the program will improve your general critical thinking and writing skills? Unfortunately, the most widely cited study on the subject found that almost half of students grow little or not at all from freshman to senior year. A study funded by the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) reports somewhat greater growth but the funding source need be considered: CAE serves fundraisers for colleges. What about growth in critical thinking in graduate school? Alas, data on that may be too limited to be useful for individuals trying to decide whether to go to graduate school.

Whether for graduate or undergraduate school, inspecting the syllabi and perhaps sitting in on a few classes may provide input that's more accurate and certainly more tailored to you.

How much will the diploma/certificate increase your employability? 

Let’s start with averages and then move to what might specifically apply to you.

A consortium of university and think-tank-based researchers in 2012 found that 53.6 percent of bachelor’s degree holders under age 25 were jobless or doing jobs they could have done without a college degree: retail, cab driver, hotel room cleaner, etc.

But what about graduate degrees?

The numbers look great for the MBA, with the Graduate Management Admission Council reporting a 90 percent employment rate.

According to the American Bar Association, in the class of 2013, a less impressive but not terrible 57 percent of graduates found long-term full-time jobs requiring bar passage.

But such statistics may be inflated as, for example, the New York Times warns about the data on law graduates.

Even if those statistics are valid, they’re valid only in the aggregate. What matters to you is how much a degree will enhance your employability. Most people ask colleges’ admissions representatives about that, but they might not be the most valid source. Not only are they not in the field, they have a conflict of interest--you’d be paying them. You may get more valid information by asking people who’d be paying you: your current or prospective boss. For example, if your goal is to become a psychologist for Kaiser Permanente, ask its human resources department about your likelihood of being hired there with a masters, a Ph.D., or a Psy.D. from an institution you’re likely to attend.

Sure, most employers would be more impressed with a Harvard degree than one from Ouachita Baptist, but you may not be able to attend Harvard. The good news is that’s far from fatal. Indeed, some employers prefer graduates of less prestigious institutions because such employees are less likely to quit for a better job and because those institutions are more likely to emphasize practice over theory.

How pleasurable will you likely find the experience?  How much would you enjoy acquiring the specific knowledge you’d be taught? Again, check the syllabi of the courses you’d be taking. Or do you simply love learning all sorts of new things, perhaps in the company of fellow students in person or online? Also, how much would you enjoy socializing at college and getting involved in extracurriculars, which, of course, is possible even as an adult returning to school?

How likely are you to graduate? Many people assume they’ll graduate and in the expected time, but the statistics say otherwise. Only 59 percent of college freshmen make it to graduation, even if given six years! In a pilot study surveying five mid-selectivity universities, only 66 percent of students complete STEM master’s degrees in four years, 86 percent of MBA students. Only 22.5 percent complete a Ph.D. in five years, 56.6 percent in ten years. And only seven percent(!) of people who merely take a single open-enrollment online course (MOOC) complete it.

As mentioned earlier, especially if it's been a while since you've been in school, consider too how quickly you'll learn. Many returning students find it harder and must take fewer courses per semester and, to pass courses, put in more time than when they were younger. Will that affect your likelihood of graduating?

And now the summative question:

Is going back to school the wisest use of your time and money? 

Consider your answers to the above questions. And weigh your answers against what you otherwise could do with the time and money. If you have little going on and lots of money, that argues for going back to school. If you’d otherwise, for example, be working on a good job and have little money, that argues against going back to school.

Of course, for many people, going back to school is absolutely the right thing. But as mentioned upfront, because of higher education’s prodigious marketing machine, I believe you are best served by this article presenting some counterbalance.

Over the past decades, as a career coach, I’ve had many clients believe their back-to-school stint was well worth it, even the best experience of their life. But many others feel that getting a degree was a big mistake.

Just yesterday, a client and I discussed a college he was considering attending. The result of the exploration, while atypical, offers a useful cautionary tale.

My client asked me about XXX College[i]. He said he was reluctant to sign its commitment form because its federally required disclosures warned of graduates’ poor employability.

Curious, I asked XXX College for a copy of its commitment form and when I indicated I might use it for this article, the admissions officer emailed me, “I am unable to share those documents with you per my management.”

So I dug a little deeper. I visited the college’s website. It’s filled with come-hither photos and text. For example, the first subhead on its homepage is “Turn Your Love into Your Worklife.” And the pitch concludes with that exact sentence. That implies that if you graduate from XXX College, there’s a good chance you’ll be employed in a field related to one of its eight programs, all in the arts.

But on XXX College’s federally required Performance Fact Sheet, a chart indicates that, in a two-year period, of the 202 students that graduated within six years, a group cherry-picked to exclude part-timers and transfer students, only 18 to 48 percent (varies by program) were employed within six months of graduation. The columns indicating the percentage working part- and full-time said “not available” and in the section on income, of the 97 graduates who reported being employed, only seven reported their income: an average of $44,511. Logic suggests that the average income of the 90 who didn’t report is lower. And nowhere does it say the income came from “Your Love.” One could drive a cab or wait tables and make $44,511. And of course, it’s reasonable to presume that the other 97, not to mention the rest of the 202 students that began the program, were even less likely to have “Turned Your Love into Your Worklife.”

And how much does XXX College cost? If you go to its tuition page, you see, in bright yellow, not the tuition but “Benefits of a XXX College Education.” Only if you scroll down do you see the yellow replaced by a beige background and the prices. At that point, one might think the total cost is $11,700 a year. No. That’s just the tuition, not room and board or expenses. And it’s not for a year; it’s only for one semester. To find the total one-year cost you must look further down and click on a link. There, you’ll find that it’s $35,589. And that includes 0 for living expenses—no pizza, no clothes, no car, nothing. Even if you got your bachelor’s degree in four years, that’s $142,356 and only 52 percent graduate even if given six years! Six years would thus cost $213,534. But even that probably understates what you’d end up paying. Off to the far right of the page there’s an asterisked comment:

All costs are subject to change. Students who don’t pay the program’s entire amount at the time of enrollment will be subject to regular price increases. That will raise the program’s total cost. If a student takes more than eight semesters to graduate, the additional costs will be charged at the published rates then applicable.” 

In other words, if you don’t pay four or more years’-worth up-front, you’ll pay even more.

You might ask, “But what about financial aid?” Except at well-funded brand-name institutions, most financial aid is not grant but loan, which must be paid back with interest and is among the very few loans that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy.

And colleges are serious about repayment. Very serious. For example, the XXX College website warns,

Defaulting has serious consequence, for example, negative credit report and litigation. In addition, penalties may be imposed for default or delinquency, for example, collection agency expenses and attorney fees.

Again, XXX College may not be typical but this information, taken directly from its own website, may help us realize that given the considerable time, money and possibly opportunity costs of going back to school, it is wise to follow that time-honored exhortation: caveat emptor.

Of Marty Nemko’s seven books, the one most relevant to this article is The All-in-One College Guide. Marty Nemko's education and career counseling bonafides are on Wikipedia.

[i] Some deservedly criticized institutions sue just to appear outraged to their board, alumni, etc. I’d win such a suit—truth is an absolute defense—but I don’t want to risk the cost and time of defending a lawsuit so I'm calling the institution “XXX College” and changed irrelevant details to preserve its anonymity. The name of the institution is available for fact-checking to the editors of Psychology Today and to any media outlet that wishes to republish this article.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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