Many people who have recently found themselves unemployed may be thinking about going back to school. It isn't (or shouldn't be) and easy decision: School isn't cheap and the payback isn't certain. So, it's only reasonable to ask, "Is it worth it to go back to school?" (Learn how to go to college without going broke in 5 Ways To Fund A College Education.)

In order to decide if going back to school is right for you, make a list of what you would be giving up and another list consisting of what you would be getting in return. Here's how it might look:

What You're Giving Up

  • Money - College costs can range, depending on the institution involved. Local community college will obviously cost significantly less than private schools, so the key is determining how much this will cost, and if you can afford it. You may be able to find grants or scholarships, or even a parent or relative who may be willing help with part with tuition money. Do the work to see what a realistic budget will look like.
  • Time – If you are unemployed, you may have plenty of time right now. But if returning to work in the near future is a possibility, beginning a new education may be a waste of time.
  • Energy – Even those full of vim and vigor can get worn down by a full time course load, especially in higher level programs or when they haven't been in a classroom in a while. This means you won't have the energy to be doing other things. Also, consider the career you are pursuing when complete and what that may take out of you.
  • Opportunity Cost – Related to using energy for school instead of other things is the concept of opportunity cost. Because you can't do everything, you will have to give up certain things when you go back to school. Besides money, time and energy, make a list of what else you could do if you didn't go to school.

What You're Getting Back

  • Higher Earnings – This is the big one. U.S. Census Bureau data shows on average that bachelor degreed individuals earn almost twice as much ($2.1 million vs. $1.2 million) over a lifetime as non-college graduates. In 2000, the last Census data available, the average salary was $30,400 for non-graduates vs. $52,200 for bachelor degrees and $62,300 for graduate degrees. Of course, more professional degrees, such as an MD or JD, provide even more earnings as they averaged $109,600.
  • More Opportunities – For many companies, the college degree is what separates the pile of resumes. Even traditional jobs that typically didn't require a degree, such as a salesperson, are now requiring four-year degrees. Include the increased opportunities you will have when you complete you degree and what they mean to your life. For example, graduate degrees may mean the corner office of the executive suite or a profession degree, such as accounting, may mean your own CPA practice.
  • A More Interesting Life – If you have more money and more opportunities, it only stands to reason that your life will be more interesting. Be sure your lists includes all the things that could improve. More money could mean a nicer place to live, college for your own kids and extensive travel.

While this will cover most things, there are others that you should add to your list. For example, your love or hate of school itself, your level of motivation and your ability to finish what you start. Everything else that comes to mind should be noted for consideration. (How does your level of education relate to the bigger picture? Find out in How Education And Training Affect The Economy.)

Then compare lists, talk to those close to you, and think it through. Once you think you have made up your mind, sleep on it at least one night and make the final decision. Using this process will help you, but no one really knows if it's worth it except you.

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