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  How to Decide If You Should Go Back to School

Once a year, moms and dads celebrate the new school year by shopping for new clothes, shoes, and backpacks filled with fresh school supplies for their kids. But as they see their kids off to school, many also think about going back to school themselves.

A benefit of online education is that the "Back to School" mentality holds true all year round in many cases. It's never too late to think about finishing what you started. Or beginning what you never got a chance to start.

You might be ready to go back to school if:

  1. You know exactly what you want to accomplish. You know how earning a degree will help you achieve that goal. If you know that you can't qualify for a pay raise or move into a management role without a bachelor's degree, going back to school is a smart decision.

    However, if you are looking to strengthen certain technical talents (like project management skills or learning to program in JavaScript) or fill the gaps in your knowledge of the fundamentals (like basic algebraic principles), you may not need a credential like a degree. One course or a certificate program—or even a  non-credit option, like a book from Amazon.com—will meet your needs. Stay focused as to how this degree helps you accomplish your goals.

    Remember, if there is any doubt as to why you need this degree, chances are you won't be able to see the big picture later. Then you risk the chance of losing motivation along the way.

  2. Your employer offers tuition reimbursement as an employee benefit. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 50 percent of companies with 100 or more employees offer some kind of tuition assistance as part of their benefits package. However, some companies seem to keep quiet about their tuition assistance program. It's up to you to find out if it's available to you and if so, what you need to consider:

    • How much they will pay. IRS regulations stipulate that employers may provide an employee with up to $5,250 per year, tax-free. Additional compensation will be taxed.
    • What they will cover. Does tuition assistance apply to your application fee or other costs? In addition to tuition and fees, your company might even pay for textbooks and other related course materials.
    • Type of education. Perhaps company policy stipulates that they will pay 100% of the costs towards a degree or certification, but only 50% for personal interest courses. Make sure to ask!
    • Type of institution. Employers will verify that the institution you attend is accredited by an agency recognized by the United States Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA); these are the only two organizations authorized to recognize accrediting agencies.
    • Grades. Find out how grades may affect your level of coverage. Your employer may foot the entire bill if you get an A and comparatively less for any lesser grades. To be eligible for tuition reimbursement, you must be earning a C or better.
    • When they will pay. Determine whether your employer will pay up front at the start of the semester or if you have to come up with money for tuition first and then wait to be reimbursed after you have received your grades.
    • Field of study. If you work in public relations, it's unlikely they will pay for a degree in biology. See what limits there are in your choice of a major. Chances are that you will have to consider a a major that is relevant to your current line of work or a future role.
    • Length of employment. Thinking about earning your degree and then immediately quitting? Think again! Your employer will generally require you to be employed for some time following the completion of the degree. If you leave before that time, you may have to pay back any tuition or fees that were otherwise covered by your employer.

  3. You have thought about the short- and long-term financial impact of going back to school to earn your degree. A college degree doesn't come cheap. But don't let the price tag of a college education stand in your way.

    Study your personal budget. Examine how paying for school affects you over the next few years. Does it also affect your family as well? Another way to look at it: Consider an increase in earnings potential and a wider pool of potential jobs that becomes accessible to you after you complete your degree. By going back to school, you’re literally investing in yourself.

  4. You have the support of your loved ones. Is your family willing—and able—to support your efforts to be a student? To do your best academically, you need to have the backing of those closest to you.

    Discuss the consequences of going back to school with your family. Discuss how things will be different for everyone: Increased chores for kids; tighter budgets; guaranteed quiet time to study in the evenings. Discuss that it’s an investment that will pay off in the future.

  5. Your employer’s on board, too. Don't assume that because you’re making a commitment to excellence that you are free to use your work computer to respond to a discussion question for your class. If you’re upfront with your employer, they might be more understanding when you have to submit a last-minute quiz.

  6. You’re OK with the time commitment and have a plan in place. The general rule of thumb is that even a three credit college course will require up to twelve hours per week on average. Don’t believe the myth of "Online education 24/7 - on your time, at your schedule!" It might be exciting in reality, you will be squeezing school-related duties into your life. This means giving up brunch outings, coffee with friends, and maybe even lazy Sunday mornings for an extended time.

  7. You’re confident in your ability to take control of your destiny. Are you the type who can understand that hard work and dedication can translate into high grades or the type who will make excuses when your grades start dipping? If you identify with the former, then congratulations! You’re committing to your future and making that next big leap to finishing school.
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