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Should You Go Back to College at 30? Pros and Cons

WVU Online | Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Between working full-time, chauffeuring the kids between school and basketball practice, and keeping up with that never-ending laundry pile, you might think going back to college just doesn’t make sense.

However, nearly half a million undergraduate students in the U.S. are over 30 years old, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Many of those students are finding a way to successfully juggle their home and school lives.

In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of pursuing a degree in your 30s and provide actionable tips on what to do next if you decide going back to college is right for you.

Understand Your Reasons For Going Back To School

Adult learners are deciding to go back to college for many reasons. Some want to change careers or move up the company ladder. Others want to increase their economic mobility or pursue a passion.

No matter the reason, many adult learners — just like you — are pursuing a degree with a variety of learning options, like flexible online classes geared toward those working full-time.

Of course, deciding to enroll is a major decision with financial and time-consuming impacts. Understanding why you want to go and what your goals are can help determine if it’s the right choice.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I want to explore a new career path that requires further education? What degree program will help me achieve it?
  • Am I trying to level up my skills? What specific classes will I need to gain these skills?
  • Am I looking to get a promotion at my current job? Will earning a degree or certificate enhance my chances of getting it?
  • Do I want to pursue a career with better pay and growth opportunities? Will I like this new career? And will it help me better support myself or my family financially?
  • Do I want to finish that degree I started years ago?
  • Am I trying to pursue a life-long passion and feel now is the right time to do so? Is it important that this passion can also support me financially after graduation?

Take some time to consider why you feel like now is the time to go back to college. Make a pros and cons list of your own, and speak with family and friends during the decision-making process.

Evaluate Your Current Situation

From tuition costs to study-intensive exam weeks, it’s important to determine how you’ll balance the demands of college with your current situation. Honestly assess if now is a good time to go back.

Consider the following areas in your life:

Current Job Satisfaction

Are you feeling unsatisfied with your current job? Do you feel you could be doing more strategic work, but a lack of skills or a degree is holding you back? Or perhaps you want to move to a different industry. An answer of “yes” to any of these questions may indicate that going back to school is a good choice.

Career Prospects

If you’re deciding to go back to school to secure a specific job or break into a new field, make sure the career path is feasible. Do some research and see what the average salary of an entry-level position is. Will it be enough to support yourself or your family post-graduation? Ensure there’s opportunity for advancement within the field.

Personal Life and Responsibilities

How much time do you dedicate each week to your job or family? What other personal responsibilities do you have that limit your availability? Add those hours up and see if you can realistically handle the coursework required.

Think about whether full-time (about fifteen hours of homework and personal study time per week) or part-time (anywhere between two to eight hours of homework and personal study time per week) classes can fit into your life.

Do you have a support network that can help with childcare or other personal responsibilities while you pursue a degree?

You’ll also need to find or create a quiet study space so you can focus during online classes or when studying. Can you set up a desk in a bedroom or find a nook in your living room that limits distractions? Or does your current living situation make this difficult?

Financial Situation

Many people assume college is expensive, and in some cases, it certainly is — particularly for those pursuing a degree at a private institution. But there are several federal, state, and grant money programs, as well as scholarships, that you may qualify for to help pay for the majority of your education. Choosing an accredited public school is another way to drastically reduce costs.

However, it’s important to remember that grants and scholarships may not cover all tuition, and additional material costs, like books and lab fees, can add up. Think about whether you can afford to go back to school or if you’re in too tight of a financial situation. Perhaps you can pull back spending in certain areas to free up funds.

Professional Goals

Not having the right knowledge or skill set can prevent you from being promoted at your current company or growing professionally in a new field. Take some time to research what industry standard requirements you’ll need to reach your professional goals. Is there a program that can help you learn those skills in a flexible manner? Is there one that provides you enough time to take care of your professional and personal responsibilities?

"I chose to go back to school after the age of 30 because I had reached a plateau in my career. Despite my experience and dedication, I found that advancing further in my job required additional qualifications and skills I didn’t possess at the time. Of course, I was worried about going back. Balancing a full-time job, school responsibilities and my family commitments were significant challenges I had to consider. But the flexibility of WVU Online made it possible to obtain my degree. The program is well-structured and the professors provided detailed schedules for the entire semester. This advance notice allowed me to plan effectively, and once I established a routine, I managed to maintain a good work-life balance, spend quality time with family, and achieve a 4.0 GPA nearly every semester."

– Kelly Blake, Bachelor of Business Administration, currently working as a Director of Medical Staff Recruitment

Kelly Blake profile image.

5 Great Reasons to Go Back to School at 30

You might be debating if it’s worth the considerable time and money to earn your degree. Taking the plunge and going for it will more than likely pay off in the long run — and there’s data to back this up.

According to a 2020 Brookings study, those with a bachelor’s degree from 98 different majors have higher median earnings (nearly 50% more) than high school graduates. This holds true even for entry and mid-career-level jobs.

Not only will a degree help you earn more, but it also reduces your risk of unemployment. In 2021, those with a bachelor’s degree had an unemployment rate of 3.5%, and those with a master’s had a rate of just 2.6%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Financial stability is just one reason you may want to go back to school. Perhaps you want to earn a promotion or go after a new passion. Here, we’ll share some reasons why you should pursue a post-secondary degree in your 30s.

1. You Want to Change Careers, and a Degree is Required

Some younger students are unsure of what they want to study. They end up picking a degree, but once they start working after graduation, they realize it’s not the right fit.

When you start your college journey — or return to it — in your 30s you likely have years of on-the-job experience to give you a better understanding of what program and degree is right for you.

You know what you want out of a career and, more importantly, what you don’t want. With a clear end goal in mind, you are much more likely to be successful.

There are also programs that will give you credits towards your degree for prior work, life, or military experience, helping you complete your studies faster. These kinds of programs are designed for working adult learners looking to transition to a new career, pursue a graduate degree, or increase marketability within an established career.

2. You Want to Build a Professional Network and Enhance Your Career Prospects

Once you’ve decided you want to change careers, how can you make sure you actually secure a job in that field?

College networking can give you an advantage. University life exposes you to a rich community of professors, guest lecturers, industry experts, students, and alumni. Building and leveraging the relationships you make while pursuing your degree can open doors for you after graduation.

For example, a professor who knows about your intelligence and work ethic could share your name with an old colleague who is looking to fill a position. That recommendation could give you a significant advantage over other applicants.

In a 2021 Pew Research Center study, 70% of graduates said their college education was extremely useful in opening doors to job opportunities. Between alumni groups, mentor programs, and other events, college provides many ways to expand your career through personal connections.

3. You Want to Sharpen Your Skills or Get Promoted at Your Current Company

Learning new skills in your field can help you remain competitive in today’s job market, especially as new technology like artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the way many jobs are performed. Working professionals with deep technological and industry knowledge are sure to gain an edge over other candidates.

With years of experience, you have a clear roadmap of what skills you’ll need to grow your career. Micro-credentials might be a good choice.

These are professional certifications you can complete in a short period of time to fill in the gaps of knowledge in a specific area. They’re a great option for students working full-time because they’re flexible, affordable, and customizable to individual needs.

For those looking to grow within their current company, check to see if there’s an employee tuition assistance program. Many companies will pay to help their employees pursue a degree and earn the skills they need to advance their careers.

"I decided to go back to school because I was given an opportunity of a lifetime. I was offered to pursue my bachelor’s degree free of charge thanks to my company. Scholarships were much more scarce when I graduated from high school in 1992, and since my mother raised me alone, the funding wasn’t there. But here I am now, achieving my dreams."

– Anjanette McCormick, Multidisciplinary Studies with a focus on Business Administration, Marketing, and Professional Writing

Anjanette McCormick with her family in Paris.

4. You Want to Secure an In-demand Job with High Future Growth and Pay Potential

You might actually like your career, but you’ve reached your maximum earning potential and want to find a more lucrative option to better support yourself or your family.

Going back to school makes sense since a new degree almost always results in a salary increase. As studies show, those with bachelor’s degrees — no matter their major — earn more over the lifetime of their career.

You’ll further enhance your chances of a salary increase if you pursue a degree that aligns with a fast-growing industry or occupation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, some of the fastest-growing jobs with high earning potential are:

  • Data scientists
  • Information security analysts
  • Wind turbine service technicians
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Computer and information research scientists
  • Medical and health service managers

Pursuing a future-proof degree in your 30s is a chance to establish economic stability for you or your family.

5. You Want to Grow Personally or Pursue a Passion

For some people in their 30s, going back to school is a chance to pursue a passion or personal growth. In fact, 79% of graduates said their college education helped them grow personally and intellectually, according to a 2021 Pew Research study.

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to learn a second language or make documentary films. If you feel comfortable working in your established career for financial security, you may be able to pursue a passion-driven degree in your spare time.

Because you don’t need to worry about securing employment upon graduation, you can work on your degree at your own pace.

3 Terrible Reasons to Going Back to College at 30

Returning to college is a significant decision that can impact many areas of your life. Between the financial pressures and time constraints, you’ll want to think carefully if it’s the right time or even the right choice for your future. Here are a few reasons why it may not be a good idea to go back.

1. You’re Unhappy with Your Current Job and Just Want an Escape

It’s not uncommon to feel unsatisfied with your job, especially if it’s not fulfilling or doesn’t align with your passions. However, going back to school simply to escape your work-life frustrations can cause more problems in the end.

For instance, if you go back to college without a clear career goal in mind, you might find yourself with student debt and still unhappy with your employment situation.

You need to get to the root of the issue. It may just be that you don’t know what kind of career you want.

2. You Feel Pressured to Go Back

Pressure to return to college can come from many sources: family, friends, social expectations, or even your own internal beliefs about what it means to be successful.

These external pressures might push you toward a path that doesn’t align with your aspirations and strengths, leading to dissatisfaction with your decision and potential failure.

Feeling forced into such a significant life change can cause stress and anxiety, negatively affecting your mental health and, ultimately, your academic performance.

If you do decide to pursue a degree, consider the ways in which it might allow you to better yourself, improve your career prospects, or pursue a life-long passion.

3. You’re Not Sure What You Want to Do Next

Many college students fail to complete their degrees because they’re unsure of their career goals and can’t decide on a major. Rather than waste resources and time, they withdraw before completion.

But there are other ways to explore interests and find direction without the commitment and cost of college. Volunteering, taking short courses — called micro-credentials — or gaining work experience in different fields may provide greater clarity.

Once you have a better understanding of what you’d like to do next in life, you can confidently choose the right degree to achieve your goals. With a clear vision, you’re much more likely to succeed.

"I work at a public high school and have been closely involved with the sports program for 18 years. I wanted to become an athletic director but needed a master’s in sports management to make it happen. After some consideration, prayer, and soul searching, I applied to WVU’s Online Master’s Program. I didn’t know if I would have the time to work two jobs and be out of the house 16 hours a day. Somehow I found a balance, got into the groove, and was able to carve out time during the day, at night, and even while sitting at sporting events to do my schoolwork."

– Dave Benedict, Executive Sport Management M.S., currently working in Special Education and as an Athletic Director Assistant

Dave Benedict with his wife.

Planning Your Next Steps

College can be a great step forward as long as it’s taken with clarity and purpose. If you’re ready to invest in your future and go to back school, here are a few things you’ll want to consider:

  • Will you go to school in person or online? Online classes may be best suited for those with a full-time job or other family responsibilities, as they offer more flexibility and a self-paced learning style.
  • Will you be a full-time or part-time student? Full-time students require around 12 hours of class instruction a week, with an additional 15-18 hours of self-study time. Part-time students require anywhere between two to eight hours of class instruction with various self-study times.
  • Research programs that offer degrees in your preferred format. No matter if you decide in-person or online classes are best, make sure the program you choose offers the format you prefer.
  • Explore financial aid and scholarship options. There are many ways to make your degree affordable, low-cost, or even tuition-free. Start your financial aid and scholarship applications early so you don’t miss out on assistance.
  • Take advantage of tutoring help. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help with your assignments. Use all resources available to you, like free tutoring assistance with online support via Zoom that can fit into your busy schedule.
  • Build a support network. Going back to college is hard work. Ensure you have family and friends who can help restructure existing schedules so you don’t get overwhelmed and have time to study.

Above all, finding a school geared toward adult learners will provide the flexibility, resources, and structure you need to succeed.

Explore WVU Online

Returning to school in your 30s can be a smart move that enhances your career, personal development, and overall life satisfaction. It requires careful planning and consideration, but the potential rewards are worth it.

Are you ready to enroll? WVU Online offers accredited and affordable degrees and certificates that can jumpstart your career. Connect with one of our academic coaches to explore which program is right for you.

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