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6 Questions to Ask Before You Go Back to School

Greg Wang, 51, (with daughter Claire) went back to school to become a nurse

John Loomis

Greg Wang, 51 (with daughter Claire), is now a Nursing student.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of students who are age 50 and older go back to school. They get degrees to change careers, to go further in the ones they started years ago or to explore long-held passions.

Caryl Gobel was in her 50s, taking bets at a Las Vegas casino, when she decided to return to school for a master's degree in social work. Now 69, she works with homeless disabled veterans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Phoenix. "I have a job that pays more and that I really enjoy," she says.

Sheelah Brown was 64 when she earned her Ph.D. in education. She increased her salary and had the satisfaction of contributing important research to the field of remedial reading instruction. Now 83, she recently announced her retirement from her position as an assistant principal.

Sometimes the payoff is more personal than financial. Gail Markland, 52, a hairdresser in Chapel Hill, N.C., earned her bachelor's degree in 2015. She has the option to go into teaching, but for now the degree hangs on her salon wall, providing a source of confidence and pride.

Of course, a return to school usually carries financial risk. There's no guarantee that a degree will increase earning power enough to justify the expense. If you're considering such a move, ask yourself these six questions.

1. Does the field you want to go into have a vibrant job market with plenty of well-paid openings?

You don't want to be surprised by a dearth of jobs or lower-than-expected pay, warns Barbara Vacarr, director of the higher education initiative at Encore.org, a nonprofit dedicated to engaging older adults in meaningful work.

That's what happened to Mary Donahue, 54, a Washington-based social worker. After being laid off as an administrative assistant in the early 2000s, she went back to school to earn a bachelor's degree in early childhood education and then a master's in social work. Her private psychotherapy practice currently nets about $60,000 a year—less than she would likely be earning had she continued as an administrative assistant, she says. She also has $120,000 in student debt.

2. Do you plan to keep working for many years (at least 10) after earning your degree?

Lydia Frank, a vice president at PayScale, a Seattle-based compensation data firm, says older returning students need to consider whether there is time to pay off a degree in the number of years they plan to continue working—and also see some meaningful monetary return. If your education debt exceeds $50,000, she says, it's likely that "you're just not going to have enough years left in your working career to pay back what you spent on the degree."

3. Do you have enough savings to pay for the bulk of the expense of going back to school?

If not, grants and scholarships can help offset the expense and minimize loans. The website Fastweb makes it easy to search for scholarships that apply to older students. Some state schools, such as the University of Delaware, offer free or discounted tuition for older students. If you must borrow, look first at federal student loans, which offer lower interest rates than private student loans.

To protect yourself from worst-case scenarios, "look for a lender who will waive remaining payments if you die or become disabled," suggests Ellen Roberts, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, a student loan company. Some employers also offer educational subsidies or loan repayment plans.

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Assistant Principal Sheelah Brown, 83 (with students at Miller-Driscoll School in Wilton, CT) got her Ph.D. in education at 64

Robyn Twomey

Assistant Principal Sheelah Brown, 83 (with students at Miller-Driscoll School in Wilton, CT) got her Ph.D. in edcuation at 64.

4. Is there a low-cost certificate program available in your area?

Claire Keyles, 61, used the Pace University Encore Transition Program in New York to switch from a successful career as a corporate lawyer into a part-time position as a deputy compliance officer at a nonprofit that helps those who were previously incarcerated.

The Pace program costs about $800 and consists of three evening workshops designed to help older adults transition into working for nonprofits. "Not only can people not afford to retire, but a good many don't want to retire, so people are looking for ways to stay active and engaged," says Joan Tucker, director of the program.

There are many similar programs around the country. The Encore Hartford Program at the University of Connecticut, for one, prepares seasoned corporate professionals and managers to transition to the nonprofit sector, offering coursework and an eight-week fellowship at a host nonprofit for about $3,000. According to program statistics, 9 in 10 graduates from the classes of 2010 to 2014 are employed, and 70 percent hold full-time positions. (AARP is among the program's sponsors.)

5. Do you really love the subject matter?

Greg Wang, 51, a former lobbyist whose work history includes a stint at AARP, fell in love with caregiving when he served as the primary caregiver for a family member. "I really liked being that person," says Wang, of Bethesda, Md. He volunteered for the local EMT squad and applied for and was accepted into a nursing program. He plans to keep working as a nurse until he's 75.

6. Is your family ready to support you?

Returning to school can have a tremendous impact on the other people in your family, both financially and in terms of managing daily life. Wang was concerned with how he would juggle his studies with his family responsibilities, including caring for two daughters at home, who are 12 and 13. But when he talked to the girls about it, they couldn't have been more supportive. "They joke about me being their school nurse," Wang says. That helped him seal his decision to return to the classroom.

Did you answer yes to most of the questions above? If so, you're probably ready to hit the books again.

Kimberly Palmer is an AARP writer for work and jobs. She is also the author of the personal finance books “Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family” and “The Economy of You: Discover Your Inner Entrepreneur and Recession-Proof Your Life.”

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