Should I Go Back to School to Earn My Bachelor’s Degree?

Mom celebrating graduation with daughter

Today, going back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree is more common than ever. It’s so common that one article cites that the people adults seeking bachelor’s degrees will soon become the majority. Adult students refer to individuals who don’t fall within the typical 18-22-year-old range. Students from their mid-20s to early 60s (and older) are returning to college to earn their degree.

There are several reasons for this, which include a desire to start a new career, get promoted, and acquire a higher salary. In some cases, people are going back to enjoy expanding their knowledge in the company of other curious peers or to set an example for their kids. The surge in adult students has resulted in universities and colleges all over the country launching adult degree programs. These programs offer bachelor’s degrees at discounted tuition costs with flexible class schedules and in an accelerated time frame. Such programs are allowing adults who are juggling full-time work and family obligations to earn a degree in a format that works for them.

If you find yourself in that group of Americans without a college degree, then the saying it’s never too late to go back to school is more true now than ever. If you’re thinking about earning your degree it’s important to consider it carefully. It’s a major decision — one that can greatly influence your life and future. As a result, we’ve provided you with a few things to think about along with some questions to consider as you decide if going back to school is the right next move for you.

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Earning a college degree can be a rewarding experience. And it can be worth the investment. Earning a bachelor’s degree has many benefits — which we’ll highlight throughout this article — but the truth is that some of them might not apply to you depending on your goals. Of course, time spent in a learning environment is always worthwhile, but because the experience can require a heavy financial, emotional, and personal investment, it may not always be the right move.

Is Going Back to College Worth It as an Adult?

Questions to Consider:

  • Where do you see yourself in five years? How about in 10 years?
  • How will a degree help you reach the goals that you have identified for yourself in 5 to 10 years?
  • Are you looking to move up in your current organization? Are you looking to change careers?
  • What is your major reason to go back and earn your degree? Is that reason important enough for you to sacrifice a substantial amount of money, effort, and time?

The Value of a Bachelor's Degree for a Working Adult

More and more jobs require a bachelor’s degree, which is a trend that will only continue. Having one can certainly help you get promoted and acquire more professional responsibility, but there are some instances when it might not be necessary. For example, if you want to get into a trade, such as carpentry or plumbing, then attending a trade school would be a better option. That’s not to say having a bachelor’s degree might not be worth it down the road. It might just not be the right next move for you at this time.

The majority of people seeking bachelor’s degrees are now adult students.

That’s why it’s important to be clear about your goals and to determine if a bachelor’s degree can help you reach them. Will a degree enable you to apply for a higher-salaried position within your current organization? Will you be able to make the leap from your current line of work to a new one, such as nursing or teaching, with a degree? Or perhaps your reasons are personal. Do you want to set an example for your children by earning a degree to help inspire them with their own dreams? These and many others are worthwhile reasons to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

For Enrique Pimentel, going back to school was a way to pursue the career he wanted.

“I initially returned to school in 2017 after my law enforcement career ended due to an injury I sustained in the line of duty,” he said. He originally planned to pursue an associate’s degree in paralegal studies but once in the program, Pimentel became interested in pursuing a career as an attorney. “I found out I needed a bachelor’s degree along with needing to take the LSAT,” he said. “Then I found out Point Loma Nazarene University offered a degree completion program for students like myself and I spoke to a representative from PLNU at Cuyamaca [a community college], who helped me apply for the program.”

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Going back to school is going to require effort, time, discipline, and a steady commitment. Many adult degree programs offer fantastic resources to help students through their schooling. Some of these resources include flexible evening or online classes, student support counselors, and reasonably priced programs. But there is still no way around the fact that you have to be both willing and able to make a substantial commitment. Unless you have a clear vision of what it is you want to do with your bachelor’s degree, it’s going to be hard to find the motivation to complete your program. By keeping top-of-mind your reasons for going back to school, you’ll more easily be able to wake up two hours earlier on a Saturday or forgo dinner with friends to finish that term paper.

Is Now the Right Time to Go Back To College?

Questions to Consider:

  • Are you eligible for financial aid or scholarships that could lessen the cost of going back to school? How might you research this to find out?
  • How much money would you have to take out in loans? Can you justify taking that amount out and paying it back even if you don’t start making more money for a few years?
  • Can you figure out what your salary might look like 5 or 10 years after earning your degree? For example, if you’re planning to move into nursing or tech could you find out what the average salary is for those professions?
  • How likely is it that your job will be replaced by automation? How easy would it be based on your current skills and experience to find a new job if it was?

Short and Long-term Costs and Benefits of a College Degree

Attending college is not a small investment. That’s why it’s critical to spend time thinking about the costs and benefits of earning your degree. While many adult degree programs are less expensive than traditional undergraduate programs, earning your degree can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Thus, it’s important to research what type of financial aid is available to you. For example, if you are in the military or are a veteran, then you might be eligible for certain financial benefits that could lower or eliminate your tuition costs. There also might be certain scholarships offered at your work or based on your background that could be worth looking into. It’s worth doing some research online and even speaking with a financial aid counselor at the schools you’re considering to learn more.

It’s worth noting that many people do take out loans, and so having to do so isn’t an immediate red flag. If you already have a lot of debt, then taking on even more debt might not be the best move. However, it can be helpful to view taking out a loan to earn a degree as a wise investment because of the eventual return.

Ben Cater, Ph.D., the associate dean of general education and director of the Humanities Honors program at PLNU, explained that the investment of earning a bachelor’s degree can pay off majorly. Yet, usually, the payoff doesn’t come immediately.

“When I speak with prospective students considering earning a degree, I explain to them that there is certainly a high cost to going back to school, and it’s a substantial time commitment. Further, for people just starting off in their careers, when they do earn their college degree they aren’t going to land a high-paying job right off the bat,” Cater said. “But this is how it is with most things in life, right? You start at the bottom, whether that be in the workforce or in a relationship. In a new relationship, for example, you have to work at forming it into a deeper one; it doesn’t just happen from the start.”

Therefore, it’s important to be aware that if you plan to earn a degree to switch careers that the payoff might not occur for a few years. However, in the case of earning a degree in order to get a promotion, the payoff might come sooner. Regardless, as time goes on the payoff will start to take effect.

For Pimentel, completing his bachelor’s has prepared him to move closer to his goal of becoming an attorney.

“I took the LSAT back in January and applied to several law schools,” he said. “After being admitted to a few different schools, I am now in the process of deciding where I will be attending law school this coming fall.”

“You might not be pulling down a huge salary right at after earning your degree, but if you look at average earning power over the span of 20 years from after earning a degree, college graduates generally realize between a 9 and 16 percent return on their investment. If you compare that to any financial investment, which might yield a roughly 5 percent annual increase in the stock market, you can see how earning a college degree is a smart financial investment over time.”

Other Stats to Consider

  • The likelihood an individual will be employed within the civilian workforce increases with educational attainment by 5%. 
  • In 2021, the unemployment rate for 25- to 34-year-olds with at least a bachelor’s degree was 3.3%, compared with 8.3% for high school graduates in the same age group. 
  • In 2021, the median earnings of female four-year college graduates age 25 and older working full-time year-round were $62,200.
  • In 2021, the median earnings of male four-year college graduates age 25 and older working full-time year-round were $85,300.

From the data above, we can surmise that individuals who have a higher educational attainment will be more likely to find and keep quality employment.

“Pursuing higher education is always going to require a financial investment, and you might not realize the return right away. But instead of thinking only two to three years out, think instead five to seven, or 10 to 15 years out, and you’ll see how a degree is going to pay off. By and large, if you look at those with college degrees, regardless of what field they have a degree in, they do better financially than those without one,” Cater explained.

While the financial benefits over a lifetime from having a college degree are substantial, you still need to be honest about whether you are in a place today to invest in one.

“You have to make it work with time and financial commitment, and so you have to be aware of your obligations. It can be hard to go back to school if you have young kids, for example, and you have to prayerfully consider that and make sure you are still able to commit to your relationships if you decide to go to school,” Cater said. “Maybe right now is not the right time, but in two or three years it might be. We tell prospective students that we are not saying that you have to do it now. We want you to make the best life choices for you depending on your situation.”

Pursuing higher education is always going to require a financial investment, and you might not realize the return right away. But instead of thinking only two to three years out, think instead five to seven, or 10 to 15 years out, and you’ll see how a degree is going to pay off.

If doesn’t work out right now, instead of telling yourself you can’t afford to go back to college, it’s better to tell yourself that you can’t go back to college today but maybe soon. You’ll need to be honest with yourself and make sure you’re not using that as an excuse put it off, of course. If you can really make it work today, and it will serve your goals, then don’t let the opportunity pass. You may think it will be easier in the future to go back to school but in reality today might be the best time to do it.

It’s also important to consider how earning a degree might affect you and your life in the long-term beyond just with respect to salary. Cater brought up that increased technological innovation is going to continue to change the landscape of the labor market.

“Something like 25 percent of entry-level jobs will be automated in the next 25 years, and so it’s likely many jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s will be eclipsed by AI or technological automation,” Cater cautioned. “A college degree, frankly, gives you a broad set of experiences and skills, and if or when you are replaced by a robot, or your position is diminished by new technology, with a degree you will be more nimble and better able to find another position compared to someone who hasn’t developed those skills and earned a bachelor’s degree.”

This is in line with another aggressive projection in an article published by Stanford’s school of business. The article stated that by 2030 half of today’s jobs will be replaced by automation. While it’s important to consider the long-term financial investment of earning a degree compared to not earning one, it’s also important to consider how earning one may keep you more competitive in the next few decades.

How Does Going Back to College Benefit Me?

Questions to Consider:

  • What are your must-have features for a bachelor's degree program (100 percent online, evening courses, accelerated program format, etc.)?
  • Have you made sure that all of the schools you’re considering offer quality programs? Can you ask an admissions counselor to provide you with evidence of the program’s quality if you haven’t already come across some?
  • Are there local info events that you can attend to learn more about a program? Can you reach out to a current student or alum to ask them questions about their experience?
  • Are you considering not going back to school because you fear you might not be successful or because you’ve been out of school for many years? While understandable, are there things you can do to alleviate this fear? How might you focus on the exciting aspects of going back to school rather than the fear-inducing ones?

Researching College Degrees as an Adult Student

Once you have decided that earning a bachelor’s degree is the right next move for you, then it’s time to start seriously considering different programs.

It’s important to first determine what offerings are most important to you. Do you need a flexible program that offers online or evening courses because of your job? Would you prefer to do a program that is 100 percent online because you travel often for work? Would you rather meet for classes in-person to better stay accountable? Does the school offer academic and career support to help you grow professionally? How long will the program take and how many hours a week should you expect to devote to studying? Being able to answer questions like these will help you quickly evaluate whether a school would be a good fit for you or not.

Pimentel was glad he chose the organizational leadership program at PLNU because of the support and quality of education he received.

“My experiences with PLNU have been nothing but positive,” he said. “The professors were all extremely supportive during my time and getting my degree has brought me one step closer to achieving my dream of becoming an attorney.”

Further, it’s critical to consider only quality programs. This doesn’t mean you have to only consider the top-ranked schools, but there are certain programs out there that offer a bachelor’s degree worth very little.

“There are some degree-granting schools that have been in the news for bad reasons lately,” Cater shared. “Some of the for-profits have been accused and found guilty in a court of law for doing a bait and switch, in which they have oversold the quality and benefits of their degrees and have caused many to end up with huge debt and a degree that is worth very little.”

Cater emphasized that if you are going to make a significant investment in a school that it’s important to make sure you’re attending a quality program. It doesn’t make sense to spend the money, time, and effort to go back to school only to come out on the other end with a degree worth little in the eyes of employers.

It isn’t true that a bachelor’s degree from anywhere is equal — some are worth more than others. That’s why when researching schools make sure you consider the reputation of the program.

Does the school have third-party endorsements or rankings on their website? What about testimonials from current students or alumni? You can always ask an admissions counselor for evidence that earning a bachelor’s degree at that particular institution would be worth it. Of course, like any investment in life, it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that by having a degree you’ll land that dream job or acquire that promotion. But you can certainly increase your chances by making sure you’re attending a quality program.

If you are going to make a significant investment in a school that it’s important to make sure you’re attending a quality program. It doesn’t make sense to spend the money, time, and effort to go back to school only to come out on the other end with a degree worth little in the eyes of employers.

The key is to do a thorough job of selecting the school that is the best fit for you. If you don’t find what you’re looking for on the website or in a marketing brochure, don’t hesitate to call or email the school to learn more about tuition costs, available financial aid, the length of the program, and so on. When possible, try to attend info events in person that schools are hosting. These events will often give you the chance to meet professors, current students, and admissions counselors. This will often give you a better idea of what attending that school might entail. Speaking with someone from the school can also alleviate any fears you might have about going back. Cater acknowledged that going back to school after you have been away for many years can seem daunting.

“Being afraid to return to the classroom later in life is understandable, yet to me that doesn’t seem like a compelling reason to stay out of higher education. Life can be uncertain, and doing important and good things can be scary and tough even though they are necessary,” explained Cater. He then brought up the fact that you won’t be alone if you do decide to go back. “It’s becoming more and more common for people to go back to school later in life, so rather than think you’re going to be the only one there who has been away from school for a while, realize there will be plenty of people in your classes in the same situation.”

The Lifetime Value of a College Experience

We already discussed how going back to school can lead to great benefits with respect to increased pay and career advancement. And there is no doubt that those are important reasons to consider going back to school to earn your bachelor’s degree. Yet, it’s important to consider the other non-monetary benefits that going back to school can afford.

“One of the greatest benefits from getting a degree is that I am setting a good example for my three sons,” said Pimentel. “They saw me working many late evenings on assignments and the hard work I put in, but they also got to celebrate with me when I graduated.” 

Additional benefits include the opportunity to befriend other curious students, receive mentoring from professors, and widen your understanding of the world and yourself. These experiences can be both invaluable and wonderful. Going back to school isn’t merely a “hoop” to jump through, but rather an opportunity to focus on your intellectual growth in a way you can’t always do. There is nothing like being in an academic environment, collaborating with like-minded students and professors, and growing intellectually and professionally.

When Cater explains the intangible benefits of earning your college degree to others, he highlights that the skills acquired extend beyond just a single career. What he means is that by learning to analyze a sonnet or solve for “x” you’re not merely completing a required assignment, but sharpening your ability to think critically and creatively. And this sharpened ability can be applied to more than your professional life. It can influence how you form relationships, raise your children, enjoy leisurely activities, and participate in your community.

Going back to school isn’t merely a “hoop” to jump through, but rather an opportunity to focus on your intellectual growth in a way you can’t always do.  

“Wisdom is more practical than knowledge, and so when you take a class in math or poetics, essentially what you are doing is learning different types of literacy that will help you become a more judicious person. You are learning how to better read people, events, and contexts with greater meaning and, frankly, greater pleasure as well. Life just becomes richer,” Cater shared. “We don’t simply upload information into our students’ brains; we prioritize relationships and foster conversations both inside and outside the classroom, which helps students make sense of their life.”

And not only that but earning a college degree can make you a healthier and more engaged citizen.

“By and large people who have college degrees tend to have higher levels of happiness, tend to exercise more, and participate more fully with respect to civic engagement,” Cater said. “A college degree simply gives you an opportunity to reach your highest and fullest potential.”

The possibility embedded within a college degree is what fuels what Cater does at PLNU. For him, and PLNU overall, a college degree doesn’t just offer the chance to make more money and achieve greater professional success, as important as those are. It also prepares students to reach their potential and live out their God-given vocation in all areas of their life.

“I am very happy with my decision to go back to school,” Pimentel said. “School has challenged me in many different ways and made me grow as a person. As the son of immigrant parents, in 2019 I became the first person in my family to graduate from college, and that was a very proud moment for me.”

He added: “I would say to someone thinking of going back to school, to not be afraid to jump in. It can seem daunting at first, but with some hard work it is doable.” 

If a college degree can help you fully become who you are called to be, then why not consider going back to school?

Final Questions to Consider as You Consider a College Degree:

  • Does the idea of being a student, forming new relationships, and learning about the world excite you? Why?
  • Aside from your professional life, how might learning more about the world and yourself make life richer? How might this affect your relationships and community involvement?
  • Do you view earning your bachelor’s degree as a “hoop” to jump through? If so, how might the experience of going back to school be enjoyable in and of itself?
  • Can you see how earning your bachelor’s degree may fit in with your larger vocation or greater vision for your life? How might going back to school add a greater sense of meaning to all areas of your life?