The Career-Changing Guide to
Going Back to College in Your 30s, 40s and Beyond

See also: Lifelong Learning

Life isn't set in stone, not even when you've been working in the same job for years on end. The idea that everyone needs to know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their life when they're 18 is outdated and, frankly, absurd. You won't be the same person at 22 that you were at 18, so why is it reasonable to expect yourself to want the same career at 40 that you found appealing at 25?

It's normal to have reservations and even downright anxiety about the idea of going back to school for a career change.

  • What about financial security?

  • Can you afford to pay student loan debt through retirement and, depending on your age, the rest of your life?

  • Are you throwing away all that you've worked towards for something that may not even turn out in your favor?

These questions can stop you from ever pursuing your dreams, so facing them head-on is the first step toward freedom.

This guide will cover all the main points you need to consider if you're considering going back to school for a new career. This means you've either:

  • Never been to college and are ready for higher education
  • Completed some college but didn't graduate and want to return, either for your old major or something new
  • Graduated college years ago but want to earn a degree to become qualified in a new field

As you consider whether returning to college is right for you, ask yourself these questions and use this guide to help you take the best next steps for you.

Why Do I Want to Study This Subject?

Despite the convenience of an online university, earning a degree is stressful and exhausting. You are committing anywhere from four to eight years of your life entirely dedicated to one field. Unless you have a genuine passion for it, the likelihood that you'll maintain the drive and motivation necessary to benefit from the degree is slim.

Beyond passing classes, you need to consider whether this is a subject you want to become an expert in. You have to want to totally immerse yourself in the coursework so you can graduate feeling like all the money and effort poured into the degree was genuinely worth it. When returning to college, the biggest question to consider is, "Why?" Financial opportunity aside, what about this particular discipline has called to you, and how do you intend to carry that into a career?

How Will I Finance My Education?

This is the biggest source of stress and hesitation for prospective adult students for good reason. The average cost of a bachelor's degree at a four-year university leaves American students with approximately $36,000 in debt upon leaving school. Combined with interest, they're looking at 10 to 25 years of loan payments. If you have your heart set on a prestigious university, then the cost will be far more, and your loan balance could easily reach six figures. The good news is that today's students, especially adults with incomes, have access to more financial education and options for paying for school than ever before.

Federal loans are considered the default route for most students, but you can borrow more and possibly get a much better bargain if you explore private lenders. Private student loans do not have the same limits as federal ones, and they are typically able to be refinanced and modified more liberally than a government-held loan. You should take all the time you need to thoroughly explore your financing options. On that same note, don't choose a school based solely on its reputation. Ask yourself if the program is really worth the money and how attending this particular institution will really benefit you more in the long run.

What Can College Offer Me?

In many cases, people choose an expensive school expecting to gain more career opportunities after they graduate, only to find themselves with the same prospects as people who earned the same education from a much more affordable college. There are also instances in which people who want to return to college choose the school that's closest to them or easiest to get into. This can drastically narrow your options and deprive you of opportunities to learn, grow and develop both as an academic and professional.

Consider the environment you'll be afforded in each school as well. If you're going to earn your degree online while working, then think about what type of services you'll need to help you succeed. Are there tutors, networking groups and career counselors available to help students find work after graduating? Distance education shouldn't feel like you're entirely on your own. Write down all your needs, questions and concerns to discuss with an admissions counselor at each school. Only when you feel like a college genuinely has something valuable to offer should you go through the admissions process.

Is My Desired Career Growing?

Some fields are expected to rapidly evolve over the next decade while others will shrink and stagnate. Make sure that the field you wish to enter has opportunity, otherwise you could wind up earning an expensive degree that doesn't help you advance professionally. Check the Bureau of Labor Statistics to investigate job growth in your target field, and consider finding professionals on LinkedIn or through networking groups that can give you an insider's knowledge about the reality of working in the industry.

One of the best ways to avoid losing job opportunities after graduating with a niche degree is to choose a major with transferable skills. This will enable you to apply to multiple positions across two or three industries that align with your goals, interests and abilities. Prior work experience can also be used to bolster your resume and up your chances of getting hired.

How Will This Affect My Finances?

You already have a mortgage or rent, car payment, insurance and other expenses to budget every month. Will you be able to afford student loan payments, textbooks, supplies and other costs? The school's financial aid office is the best resource to start discussing the logistics of paying for your education without going broke or winding up in crippling financial hardship.

If you are planning to enter a rigorous program and need to cut back on work hours, how will you supplement your income? This is another area where private student loans may come in handy. Scholarships and grants can also award you debt-free tuition coverage while leaving more money in the bank and allowing you to keep your current job.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

The Skills You Need Guide for Students

Skills You Need

Develop the skills you need to make the most of your time as a student.

Our eBooks are ideal for students at all stages of education, school, college and university. They are full of easy-to-follow practical information that will help you to learn more effectively and get better grades.

About the Author

Justin is a married father of 3, with over 15 years of corporate finance experience in various industries. He is an avid personal finance enthusiast, blogger, and chaser of passive income streams.