7/19/2012 4:13 PM ET|
At middle age, is college worth it?
The frustrating answer is, 'it depends.' But there are ways to find out whether a return to school is more likely to be a prudent move or a costly mistake.
Deidre Romeo was 40 years old when she started college. Pamela Monroe was 42. Believing that more education would lead inevitably to better-paying jobs and improved lives, both women received bachelor's degrees, and continued on to graduate school.
But their outcomes couldn't be more different. Just returned from a weeklong vacation in Mexico, Romeo is back at her job as communications director for a global engineering company.
And because her employer is paying most of her college expenses, Romeo's student debt is minimal.
"It was scary, but it was one of the best decisions of my life," says Romeo, who is now 45.
Monroe, meanwhile, has $45,000 in student loan debt but only $2 in her bank account. Unemployed for six months, her best hope now is to regain the job she had before school, working part time at a Victoria's Secret store.
"I'm completely indigent," says Monroe, now 54. "I think my education actually hurts me."
Many Americans believe that going back to school is a universally good idea. They believe that spending the time and money to improve one's education almost always leads to more pay, better opportunities and happier lives. College graduates earn 84% more money over their lifetimes on average than people with just high school diplomas, according to a study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
That belief in education as a universal good holds true for middle-aged people. More than 3.9 million people ages 35 and older were enrolled in degree-granting institutions in 2010, the last year for which data are available, up 20% from when the latest recession started in 2006, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The number of middle-aged people in college, graduate school or technical school is projected to continue rising to 4.1 million by 2015, the center predicts.
"Older people have always gone to school part time," says Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. "But there's definitely been an increase in full-time education among older students, as more people lose their jobs or go to working part time."
Returning to school often helps older students switch careers, get better-paying jobs, or climb the corporate ladder within their current company. But it also can carry significant risks, including burdensome loan debt, without much prospect for higher earnings.
And because older students have fewer years left in the workforce to pay off their school loans, experts say it's even more critical that they carefully weigh the potential risks and rewards.
"The advice I give really depends on the individual," says Cristina Briboneria, a financial planner for oXYGen Financial in Alpharetta, Ga. "You really have to consider your age, your expenses, how much money you can expect to make after you graduate."
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A cautionary tale
For Pamela Monroe, the decision to start college at age 42 seemed simple enough. She'd worked a series of low-wage jobs, mostly in retail. With a college degree, she figured she could land a job that paid better and was more secure.
Monroe quit her job and enrolled at the University of Arkansas in Fort Smith, her hometown. She graduated in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in rhetoric and writing, and hopes of becoming a writer of some kind. But the recession that struck the rest of the country in 2006 hit Fort Smith early in the form of layoffs and factory closings.
Monroe applied for the few professional jobs available in town, but was not hired. She continued working retail, including at Victoria's Secret, and in 2009 she decided to get a master's degree in speech pathology. This time around, she had a more concrete career plan -- she knows clinical speech pathologists who earn more than $80,000 a year.
But after just a few semesters, a family medical emergency forced Monroe to drop out. Now she finds herself in an even worse state than when she started college -- unemployed, and deep in debt. For the past few months, Monroe's mother has paid her rent.
In a manufacturing town where most of the factories are shrinking, Monroe finds her degree to be something of a liability. She no longer mentions it on job applications because she fears potential employers might think it means they have to pay her more.
"I think people don't want me now because I do have an education, and most jobs here don't require it," she says. "I owe $45,000 for something that is no use to me whatsoever."
For Monroe, becoming a middle-aged college student was a highly speculative gamble that did not pay off. With no employer to help pay her tuition, and no firm career plans for her bachelor's degree in a city where the labor market is dominated by blue-collar work, Monroe found that her plan for college didn't meet her expectations for higher income, nor did it match the hiring needs of local companies.
"To leave work and dedicate years to pay for this on your own?" says Mitchell D. Weiss, a co-founder of the Center for Personal Financial Responsibility at the University of Hartford. "That's a risk I wouldn't take."
Less risk, more reward
Like Pamela Monroe, Deidre Romeo was a single, middle-aged mother with a fairly low-paying job in a shrinking industrial city.
But Romeo also had advantages. Her employer, Abbott, pays up to $5,000 in tuition reimbursement for workers returning to school. Romeo also was aggressive about applying for scholarships. She was able to graduate from Granite State College at age 43 with a bachelor's in business management and "minimal" student loans, Romeo says.
The degree boosted Romeo's career immediately. She was promoted from an executive assistant to become global communications manager for Abbott. Now Romeo is three semesters away from obtaining her MBA, and she is considering an associate's degree in engineering. Both degrees could help her advance even further up Abbott's corporate ladder, possibly including a move to the company's office in Shanghai.
"It's paid off financially and in terms of personal satisfaction," says Romeo. "I don't worry about paying my bills now."
Many middle-aged people might feel they have disadvantages compared with traditional college students in terms of higher living expenses, children and greater time demands. But Romeo's example shows a key advantage that many middle-aged students enjoy: the ability to find an employer that will help pay for continuing education.
"For middle-age students, ideally you want to go to school on someone else's dime," says Weiss. "You don't want to do it speculatively, taking all this risk yourself and hoping it's going to turn out."
The changing face of college
As millions of middle-aged students decide that college is a risk they're willing to take, the face of college is gradually changing. Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, has seen the number of students age 50 and older jump by 28% to almost 1,500, the fastest-growing age group.
With so many older students enrolling, "Our median age has gone up the last couple years, for the first time that anyone can remember," says Will Kopp, a spokesman for the college.
Edie Charles, 46, plans to graduate from Columbus State in 2013 with an associate's degree in criminal justice before moving on to a bachelor's from Ohio University. Charles works for the Ohio Department of Transportation, which reimburses all of her tuition and textbook costs.
As a state employee for the past 23 years, Charles will be eligible to retire at age 53. After that, she's hoping the degree will help her establish a second career as a criminal investigator.
That transition will be made easier because she will graduate with no student loan debt. Without support from her employer, Charles probably never would have returned to college.
"As a single parent, I'm fortunate to have a stable job and make a decent living," Charles says. "But I don't know if I'd do it if I had to incur loan debt at this point in my life."
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In order to get applicants who can read, write and do basic math a business almost always has to insist on a Bachelors degree. When I retired from the military I was denied jobs because of my lack of a degree. I got the degree but was astounded that many of my seniors were dumber than a box of rocks.
Too much shame goes with a Blue Collar job, so people who would shine and be happy in these jobs end up doing something they don't understand or like. I have worked with my hands and my brain (Hopefully always with both). The frustration and politics that went with a White Collar job seemed harder than the physically demanding job, until I reached 50. Now I pay everyday for many hours on a tractor. Maybe we should teach out children to respect the efforts of the people who work with their hands.
I struggled with the lack of a degree for 25 years in an occupation (Information Technology) that favored college graduates, and did pretty well despite the lack of a degree.
I finally became frustrated with fighting the system, got out of corporate IT, started my own software company, had good employees, made a very good living, had a lot of fun, ultimately sold the company, and retired young.
One could say that not going to college was an advantage in my career.
That said, not going to college is one of my deepest regrets.
Forget the management degree...they are a dime a dozen. Get into the medical field....nurse,Xray tech etc.....
Makes you mobile and there is always a shortage which makes it easier to land a job.
I don't think a college degree automatically equates to a "good job" anymore. That's BS. You have to be extremely careful now as there are worthless degrees and it doesn't matter if you are 18 or 88.
As an older person, you don't have as much time to pay off all that debt either, so do your research.
OK. Let me think about this... You quit your job and went to school and obtained a BA in rhetoric and writing... ???
I am sorry, it may be a really desirable degree, but I don't understand the career path aspirations of a person who majors in rhetoric and writing. It may be a passion and there are jobs out there for writers, but it just doesn't sound like a sensible plan to me.
I knew a person who majored in English and didn't want to teach. -Became an officer and did well, but that is hardly an option for somebody with a few miles on them. In the end, there is surely more to the story than this. Otherwise it is a cautionary tale of the obvious. Choices have consequences.
I really feel for Pamela, but it sounds an awful lot like a lot of kids that I deal with. -They go to school with no plan in mind and no direction to their ambition. Is it a complete surprise that somebody who courts failure achieves their goal?
Possessing a degree does not guarantee greater literacy skills or greater salaries. I've worked with college educated people all my life and have been as productive if not more than most. If returning to school is the desire than pursue it for sound reasons recognizing that there are no quarantees in life. Not having a degree may affect you when looking for a job; very few employers even consider looking outside the box and allow work experience/skillset to substitute for a degree. But having a degree doesn't entitle one to the job of their chosing either; it's not a magic pill for employment.
it's unstated what these people majored in. although i assume Romeo got an engineering degree and masters at an engineering company. WHAT would a part time clerk at Victoria's Secret major in?
choices people - along with PLANNING. thinking can be hard but it is required to survive.
Using a 529 plan is about the 2nd worst thing you can do next to putting your money under the bed. These plans are advertised only because they benefit someone else more than they benefit you. Get a good financial planner please!
I went back to school in my mid-forties, already having had two masters degrees and no job prospects. I graduated with honors from Case Western Reserve University in nursing which was reputed to be a much in demand field. After about a decade of work as an oncology nurse, I have been unable to find even a volunteer job in nursing for the last three years. No one wants to hire older nurses, or male nurses. One is powerless to fight age discrimination. The cost of education is just as high as one gets older but the likely financial return is much smaller. High risk, low reward.
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