No matter your age, September can often bring that “back-to-school” feeling. Even if you think the days of backpacks and timetables are fully in the past, further education might be in your future. Whether in preparation for a change of industry or simply to brush up your existing skills, looking at certification and degree options can revitalize your career and present entirely new opportunities.
Depending on the type of education you’re exploring, this can be a big decision that may change the course of your life, or one that simply allows your existing career to progress. There are pros and cons to every path, so think carefully about what’s right for you and your circumstances.
Here’s when going back to school makes sense:
When Your Career Can’t Progress Without It
Think about where you want to be in five years. Does the job you crave require an advanced degree, additional certification, or more robust skills? If so, the choice might not be whether to go back to school, but when to get started (and how to pay for it).
When There’s a Clear Path
Heading back to school can be expensive, so you’ll need to: a) make sure it’s a worthy investment and b) figure out how you’re going to foot the bill when the time comes.
If you’re thinking about picking up a certificate that requires limited study (a few months or a year, as opposed to up to four years for a new degree), you might be able to pay for it with careful budgeting. If you’re investing in a longer and more expensive course of study, you’re probably looking at taking out loans.
Before you lock yourself into private loans with potentially higher interest rates, don’t count out lower-cost federal financing. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no age limit for federal loans and grants, and some moneys can even be used for continuing career education, not just a bachelor’s degree. Learn more at the U.S. Department of Education’s resource for adult students.
Finally, your employer might offer some unexpected help. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement programs for employees, especially if the degree/certificate relates to their job. Check with Human Resources to see if yours if one of them.
When You Can Study on the Job
Many companies encourage employees to keep updating their skills and knowledge by offering access to online learning programs like Lynda.com. Even if your company doesn’t offer a benefit like this, you can learn for free at other resources like Khan Academy or Codeacademy.
The key is to loop in your boss, so that you’re focusing your studies on areas that will boost your career (and so you won’t get in trouble for learning on company time).
When You Want to Learn for the Love of Learning
With all that said, education doesn’t always have to be about making more money or impressing your manager. Learning is a deeply fulfilling goal for its own sake, expanding your horizons and opening doors that you might never have previously considered.
If you know you’ll have the time available, look into classes at your local community college, or even online. If time is simply too short, or you don’t have the funds, try to make the effort to learn independently. A local library can be the best resource — and it’s completely free to enjoy. Learning doesn’t have to be a habit you leave behind after formal education ends.
What can more education do for you? Find out by taking PayScale’s free Salary Survey.
Tell Us What You Think
If you went back to school, what would you study? Let us know by leaving a comment below, or join the discussion on Twitter.