Let's face it - the economy can be a real downer. Most likely, you're facing some financial challenges and life changes you had not expected, and this can take a mental and emotional toll. It can help to have something positive to focus on - and a goal to work towards, one that might help better your situation. Going back to school may be just what you need, and here's why this could be the perfect time to do it.

IN PICTURES: 8 Ways To Survive A Market Downturn

  1. It's Convenient
    Responding to educational trends and public demand, schools are focusing more of their efforts in meeting the needs of "non-traditional" students.
    "There are more degree options today than ever for adults returning to school - including the flexibility of online courses," says Steve Isaac, CEO of EducationDynamics.

    Thanks to technology, it is now fairly easy to continue your education from the comfort of your own home computer. An increasing number of college and universities are offering courses - or even entire degree programs - that can be completed without the student stepping foot in a classroom.

  2. Good Credentials are a Must
    It's pretty much common knowledge that the job market is tough right now, to put it mildly. Competition is fierce, and you need every possible advantage you can get.
    "Though the economic situation may seem dire for job-seekers, those with stronger educational credentials and relevant experience are having more relative success in the job market than those without such qualifications," says William C. Schulz, Ph.D., associate dean at Walden University School of Management.

    "The marketplace for skilled workers is a 'buyers market,' and those with a mix of relevant and up-to-date knowledge and experience have a greater chance of being noticed. This is a perfect time for individuals to add to or enhance the skills that they have in order to bolster their resume."

  3. Wait Out the Recession
    If you're unemployed (or underemployed) and aren't having much luck in the job market right now anyway, you may as well make good use of this time. With any luck, you may wrap up your education just as the economy starts picking up.
    "Since the job market will likely remain in a slow recovery for the next 12-18 months, by going to school now you'll be reducing your opportunity costs significantly," says Shawn O'Connor, founder and president of Stratus Prep, firm that provides test preparation and admissions counseling services for law and business school applicants.

    "I advise many clients to head to graduate school now so that they'll finish school when the business cycle is on the upswing - and thereby maximize the value of their new degree. Plus, interest rates are still relatively low, which makes financing your degree much more feasible than it may be in the years to come should inflation expectations pan out." (For more, see Should You Head Back To Business School?)

  4. Keep Your Unemployment Benefits
    In the past, people who were collecting unemployment benefits risked their benefits eligibility if they went back to school, since they were no longer considered "available for work." However, that's not necessarily the case today. Under pressure from President Obama, states have relaxed their rules on this issue, and in many cases claimants can now still receive benefits while going to school.

  5. Special Consideration for Financial Aid
    Traditionally, financial aid is based on your income from the previous calendar year. Meaning, if you had a decent job last year, you would probably be out of luck for financial aid now, even if you've been unemployed for the past six months. However, with so many families suffering job loss and financial hardships during the recession, this policy has been adjusted.
    In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education sent a memo to college financial aid officers nationwide, reminding them of their ability to do a "special circumstances review" in cases of job loss or financial hardship due to a medical crisis or other emergencies. The financial aid office can, at its discretion, make some adjustments that may in turn lower your EFC (Expected Family Contribution), which could make you eligible for more financial aid. (To learn more, check out 7 Last Minute Ways To Pay For College.)

  6. You May Not Have to Pay for It
    If you're lucky enough to have a job, you might think returning to school right now would jeopardize your job security. In fact, just the opposite could be true. Surprisingly, some employers are encouraging workers to further their education - and even offering to foot some of the bill.
    "Companies are looking to gain an edge by encouraging their employees to seek more education," says Isaac. "In fact, in a recent study we conducted, we discovered that even in the midst of the Great Recession, over 80% of New York-based corporations are still paying for employees to get advanced degrees, emphasizing how important it is for corporations to have the brightest and smartest workforce in the country."

  7. It Will Pay for Itself in the Long Run
    Even if you do need to pay the tuition bills yourself, it's an investment that will likely pay off in the long-term. On average, workers with a bachelor's degree earn 77% more than those who only have a high school diploma, according to Department of Labor stats. (For more, see Invest In Yourself With A College Education.)

The Bottom Line

If you've been thinking about going back to school, this may be the perfect time to take that step. Plus, the satisfaction of learning new skills and challenging yourself intellectually may be just the pick-me-up (or distraction) you need to help balance out all the bad economic news the recession brings.

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