Return on Investment for Your College Degree


by Laura Janis Thompson

So you are thinking about going back to college. That’s great news! I love school! In fact, given my propensity to enroll in almost any kind of class just to learn something new, I’m probably not the ideal person to be handing out advice but before you jump too quickly or fill out any applications, proceed with caution!

I am a major proponent of learning and self-improvement so it is not my intention here to dissuade you nor is this article yet another story about the student loan debt crisis. However, given my years of experience both as a student and as an education professional allow me to ask you a question . . . or several.

Let’s talk about what type of program you have in mind. Is it a degree, a certificate or an adult education class at the local community college? Adult education is typically held on evenings or weekends. Class offerings cover a number of subjects ranging from T’ai Chi to French and usually last about six weeks. If any of these classes are what you have in mind, you are good to go. Go forth; pay your seventy-five dollars, learn well and have a blast. In terms of value, the exchange of a very small sum of money for what is generally a wealth of information can’t be beat so let’s move on to degree or certificate programs.

Several years ago, I happened to be watching a finance show on television in the wee hours of the morning. You know the kind. Viewers call in asking for financial advice, a financial analyst tells them what to do; blah, blah, blah. At some point, I began to drift in and out of sleep until I was jolted awake by a caller inquiring about returning to college. The caller, a woman, explained that she was in her mid-forties, working as an executive assistant and making decent money but thought a bachelor’s degree in business administration might make her more marketable either in her current situation or elsewhere. Obviously, she was looking for advice from the financial expert regarding this very important investment.

I sat up, already anticipating the counsel I was sure would be provided. Imagine my shock when I heard instead and very emphatically, I might add, “Don’t do it.” What followed was a lengthy discourse on the “dark side” of this decision including a breakdown of why taking on student loans might not be a wise decision at that point in the caller’s life, whether the length of time required to achieve a bachelor’s degree as a part-time student was even feasible and how it might be possible, in her particular case, to achieve greater remuneration through self-help resources such as adult education classes, updating computer skills or even learning a new language.

Well, I was outraged! How dare this show host person discourage a potential student! After all, was there anything more worthwhile than the pursuit of higher education? If truth be told, I was probably a bit too passionate back in those days. I myself had been a returning student; I believe the “PC” term for students my age was “non-traditional”. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree at the age of forty-six, started working at a university and jumped immediately into a graduate degree which I completed when I was forty-nine. I was also working in the field of education and was devoted to helping students enroll in college. Nothing could be more beneficial, as far as I was concerned, both in terms of career goals and self-esteem than the pursuit of higher education.

I was still a believer back then. In fact, I still am . . . To a degree. . . . And with some disclaimers. Let’s take a close look at my own personal experience in order to gain a better understanding of why I offer the following advice.

I currently hold a student loan with a balance of $50,000.00. It’s a heck of a lot of money and I am not a young woman. That amount could easily have been higher had I not had employer tuition reimbursement that covered the cost of my graduate degree. A mere few weeks after graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I was fortunate enough to find work at a university and I was thrilled! I had dreams of working my way up; I loved the students and the work, I couldn’t have been happier sitting on top of my own little world. I hoped to teach one day and in my most vivid day dreams, saw myself as an academic dean with a PhD.

Then reality set in. Although I thought my salary was fair for a recent college graduate, I was still unable to afford to make payments on my student loan. After a certain number of years, the recession hit and layoffs began. The unthinkable happened and I lost my job at the age of fifty-two. Taking the advice of fellow academics, I had pursued a fairly generic graduate degree and because I had not really specialized in anything, remain, to this day, unemployed, over educated and without any real skill set. I had joined the ranks of thousands who are qualified for nothing, have steep student loan bala!nces and possess a skeletal resume.

Do I regret what I learned or the experience? Absolutely not! Do I wish that someone had taken me aside and offered the same advice I am about to offer to you? You betcha! If you are smart about it and heed what I am about to share, my story need not be your story. Despite everything, I still wave a flag for higher education and will get on my soapbox for any education issue. Here’s my piece of advice and it’s just three little words. Do your research.

Here it comes again so get ready, “DO YOUR RESEARCH!” Don’t rely on someone else to choose the right degree or certificate program for you and don’t listen for one minute to anyone who presumes to tell you what degree and career are right for you. (For a list of tools, see Career Counseling.) What are the job outcomes for program grads according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics? What, potentially, would your starting salary be? How long will it take you to find a job post-graduation? Will you achieve a license, medical or otherwise? Are you planning on graduate school and how will a master’s degree benefit your career? All of these are questions you should have the answers to prior to choosing a degree. Find someone who works in your career field of choice, buy them a cup of coffee, talk to them about the work and even job shadow if you can.

I’m not saying that that this process should purely be a business decision. God forbid that you choose a profession that you hate so much you can’t stand to get out of bed in the morning! So choose wisely and partially from the heart but, here’s the cold hard truth, choosing the right program IS a business decision and may well be one of the most important decisions of your life. Think about it. Regardless of whether you are paying for private or public education, base the majority of your decision on one thing, return on your investment. It’s a simple accounting philosophy. Does it really make sense to pay even $15,000.00 for a program that offers few job prospects, forecasts even fewer for the future and pays minimum wage? As they say, you do the math.

Finally, but by no means any less important, when your research is complete and you’ve made that all important final decision, how do you intend to pay for it? Will you utilize the federal student loan system, do you qualify for grants or scholarships or have you saved enough to pay out of pocket? Because in the end, when it comes to student loans, if you’ve achieved no skill set from your degree, have no hopes for a job and the projected outcomes for your field are dismal, it doesn’t matter if your student debt is $15,000.00 or $50,000.00, you simply will not be able to afford to pay for it. Now before you all get too down in the mouth remember, it’s not only about the money. Sometimes it’s just about the joy of learning.

What? You say you have twenty grand burning a hole in your back pocket and you don’t have to worry about earning a living? Go ahead and major in whatever you would like. Be a professional student; I both applaud and envy you because if I were in your shoes, I would do exactly the same thing. Don’t be scared. Go for it but be smart and have a plan. Make the right choice and make your money work for you. Nothing in the world compares with an education high. After all, you don’t think they say “knowledge is power” for nothing, do you?

Laura Janis Thompson has five years of experience in education as a college admissions representative. She holds a master’s degree in management, is a writer, an education professional and a lifelong student.