When you drop out of college with student loans, debt without a degree can put a strain on finances, especially if you were already living paycheck to paycheck.
If earning a degree is still a dream of yours, it makes sense to consider going back to college. But if you’re not careful, you could end up back where you are now – with even more student debt.
Does getting your degree make sense for you? Here are some questions to ask yourself before deciding if going back to college is the right financial choice for you.
6 questions to ask before going back to college
1. What are the other options for dealing with student loans?
When you re-enroll in college, you federal student loan payments are deferred. That means you will not be required to make payments until six months after you graduate.
But you shouldn’t go back to college just for a temporary reprieve from student loans. Plus, your existing student debts will grow in deferment, thanks to accruing interest. And you’ll likely have to borrow even more to cover new college expenses.
If you’re struggling with these debts, first consider other student loan repayment options. Perhaps an income-driven repayment plan that will lower your student loan payments. Refinancing student loans could also make them cheaper and more affordable.
2. Will your college credits count toward a degree?
Going back to college might be more worthwhile if you have already made significant progress. The more credits you earned before you dropped out, the closer you might be to an actual degree.
But college dropouts can’t always just pick up where they left off.
Alexis Chateau, founder of Alexis Chateau PR, explains how a friend of hers decided to take a semester off but then let two years pass before he tried to re-enroll.
“By the time he returned, the curricula had changed, and his credits were no longer valid,” Chateau says. “He had to start over from scratch.”
Curriculum changes or differences between colleges can make transferring credits tricky. Credits can also be unusable for other reasons. For instance, if they’re too old, they’re a poor match for you target college, or come with poor grades altogether.
If you’re not sure how many credits you earned or if they’ll still count, contact the admissions offices at the colleges you hope to attend. The college counselors can compare the credits you earned to the degrees they offer. They will advise you on how many of your credits will transfer, and how long it might take to complete your schooling.
3. Can you keep working while you attend school?
With the advances in education, students have more options and flexibility. If you can attend college courses without disrupting your life too much, that’s a big plus.
“If you are almost finished, find a way to work part time and finish classes while you are working,” says Deborah Sweeney, CEO of business documentation filing service MyCorporation.com. “There is so much flexibility in education nowadays. You can transfer units, you can go to school online and you can go back to many colleges on a part-time basis.”
If you can keep your day job and attend night or weekend classes, you won’t have to sacrifice a steady income for college. And that will make it easier to cover some of the costs out-of-pocket rather than borrowing more.
4. Can you get financial aid, grants, or scholarships?
If your existing student debts are a burden, or you’re not sure how you plan to pay for college, cost will be a key factor. Choose colleges that are cost-effective, such as community college or public four-year schools, over private or for-profit options.
When returning to school, you should file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see if you qualify for federal aid. Look for scholarships, grants, and institutional aid from your college that can help cover your costs. There are even scholarships and grants specifically for dropouts completing their degrees.
Keeping your college degree affordable is key to making sure going back to college is a smart investment. The more help you can get to cover college costs, the fewer student loans you’ll need to take out.
5. Are you choosing a high-paying career path?
No one should head to college without a clear plan for their education – and how to use it to launch a well-paying career. That starts with choosing a college and major that will be your stepping stone to a better career and higher earnings.
Carefully choose a college that produces highly-paid graduates. Get an idea of how much the college degree you’re interested in is likely to improve your career prospects.
Most universities report outcomes and employment of their graduates. You can also check outcomes for graduates with your degree and major. Plus, check out the typical wages the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports for the positions you plan to pursue.
You should also make the most of the resources available to you in college to make yourself a marketable graduate. Work on job-seeking skills and network within your industry. Don’t hesitate to ask your professors what you can do to improve your chances of being hired – then follow through.
6. Is it the right time to go back to college?
Successfully going back to college requires dedication, planning, and hard work. Therefore, be honest about your situation, and whether returning to college is a smart move right now.
The timing could be right to finally earn your degree, or you might need another year to save and prepare. It is a big commitment, and not one to make lightly.
But if you’re ready to make this investment in yourself, give it all you’ve got while avoiding debt.
“Education can be of high value – exposure to great learnings, excellent contacts, and to put you ahead of others ‘in the pack’,” says Sweeney.
At the end of the day, you have the power to make smart choices and work hard to ensure that college is worth it.
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