Do the Math: Does it Pay to Go Back to School?

During this winter, the weather outside is frightful, but returning to college doesn’t have to be. It’s time to face your fears of returning to school as an adult.

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Life is full of big decisions. Should I get married? Should I make a career change? Do I want fries or onion rings with my burger? Okay, that last one is a joke, sort of, but the other two just happen to be major life decisions most of us can expect to run across at some point.

And the second one (“Should I make a career change?”) is even more complicated than it first appears. You may want, or even need, a change of career, job, or vocation for a variety of reasons (satisfaction, earnings, security), but you also ought to consider how feasible such a change might be. And principal among those questions is without a doubt whether it’s worth it to return to college, or to go at all if you haven’t yet been, in order to accomplish your goals.

So let’s do some math (just a little) and sort out whether returning to college is worth it and how you can begin to factor the complex costs (like textbooks, fees, transportation, housing etc.) into your decision. Going back to school is definitely a big decision, but hopefully this information will make it easier to handle.

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First off, Assess Why You’re Considering a Return to School?

This may seem straightforward, but with just a few words above I outlined a variety of different reasons why someone might be returning to college:

  • Satisfaction
  • Earnings
  • Security

Obviously the ideal is to achieve all three as you return to college, or consider a return. But it’s important to ask yourself what your primary motivation is. Are you simply looking to expand your knowledge on a topic you already have an interest in? Are you looking to get a leg up on your peers with an advanced degree in a field? Are you thinking of making a pivot, from one aspect of a career to another? Or, are you planning a full on career change?

Ask yourself these questions as you consider returning to school, and remember that, depending on what your answer is, it may make returning to school possibly more or less valuable, a subject I’ll touch on further below.

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So, Is It Worth It to Return to School?

We’ve all seen the headlines: ‘College is More Expensive Than Ever,’ Educators Bemoan Rising Costs of Attending, ‘Students Up a Creek Without a Paddle in Student Loan Debt,’ and on and on. The answer to whether it’s worth it to return to college, or try it out for the first time is, by necessity, actually itself quite complicated. But, to make a long story short (as they say), the answer is yes, returning to college is still worth it.

According to a 2019 CNN article, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York calculated that “as an investment, a college degree has an average rate of return of 14%,” which is higher than “the long-term return benchmarks for traditional investments like stocks at 7% or bonds at 3%.

The article points out a common factor in folks’ hesitance to pursue higher education: “Since the cost of college is up front and the benefits are doled out over many years, the economic value of a college degree is often hard to see.”

A similar Business Insider article from July 2019 points out that in all fifty states, plus Washington D.C., college graduates earn more than non college graduates. Even in 2020, and as we head into 2021, these trends continue to remain true, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data published in May of 2020.

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What About Specific Degrees?

To quote the underrated gem-of-a-movie I, Robot, “That, detective, is the right question.” A lot of the basic articles you see out there, even the two I referenced above from respected newsrooms like CNN and Business Insider, simply ask whether college overall is worth it, not even whether returning to college as an adult is worth it.

Even more specifically, the articles don’t bring up what is probably the most important question: are all degrees worth going back to school for? Are some better than others? If so, which?

The short answer is that when it comes to the degree itself, i.e. associate, bachelors, masters, doctorate, there are still differences in weekly earnings, as this article and chart put together on illustrates. Put simply: someone with a Master’s degree will earn, on average, more per week than someone with a Bachelor’s who will earn more on average per week than someone with an associate degree, and so on.

All of this makes sense; a Master’s or PhD represents the probable pinnacle of educational attainment and embodies an individual’s dedication to a field or practice. But degrees like that, or professional degrees, are also incredibly expensive and not always needed in a chosen field.

The broader point is more so that graduating from college, or returning to graduate as an adult, yields higher earnings than if you hadn’t gone at all, regardless of which degree you end up pursuing.

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As well, the fields you’re returning to college for have an impact on the value of returning. Some fields in certain degrees are just more valuable, because of job growth, salary, etc., than others. I’ve written before about specific careers that are definitely worth a return to college, which is helpful, and these articles in Investopedia,, and Business Insider also provide a good starting list.

To make a long story short once more: careers in computing, healthcare, and engineering are on the up and up and offer generally high salaries and a lot of job growth; I highly recommend checking out my previous blogs on these subjects for more concrete information: found here, here, and here. Consider what field you’re either hoping to enter or the field you already work in when you decide to revisit the college stomping grounds.

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Wrappin’ It Up

We all know college is expensive, but I’d like to bring up another way of potentially circumventing some of the costs that a typical college can rack up; for example, housing. Taking classes online (as we’ve learned to do throughout the pandemic) can offer a great way to stay where you are and still achieve your educational goals.

Ultimately, only you can decide whether returning to school is worth it for your goals and situation. The numbers do bear out the long-term benefits and there’s never been a better time to make a change if you want one.


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