Is a college degree a wise investment for adults? What’s the ROI?

Most parents tell their children that a college education is a smart investment: that the time and money spent now will come back in the form of a better-paying job or a more fulfilling life.

April McHugh UW-Madison career counselor

Many adults confront the same issue and wonder about the return on investment (ROI) of a college degree. You may be in a job that doesn’t feel right, were passed by for a promotion, or have a lingering feeling that a different career is just out of reach.

How do you decide if you should complete a college degree or get a second degree? How do you measure the dividends that will accrue from that investment?

Here are a few tips to help:

Ask yourself some tough questions. This first step is the hardest and the most critical. Why is a degree important to you? Is it something you’ve always dreamed of? Did your employer suggest that you need a degree to get promoted? Do you want to move into a new field—one that requires a specific credential? Do you feel that you “should” get a degree, but aren’t sure why? How you answer these questions can help you assess whether you really need to return to school and how much of an investment is reasonable.

Start with research. You need reliable labor market data regarding the career that interests you. Learn about job titles and salaries in your chosen field, as well as employment statistics in Wisconsin or other states. A good place to start is the online Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Then do even more research. If you’ve found a market for people with the degree you want, it’s time to look for real-world insights. Start with LinkedIn or talk with friends, with a goal of arranging informational interviews with people who have the kind of job that interests you. Ask about the position, their role, their education, and their career path. Then evaluate whether the field still sounds like a good fit and if a degree is the best way to get there.

Talk to your support network. Returning to school, whether part-time or full-time, will impact your loved ones. It might mean less time to be with them or less money to spend. How do they feel about this investment?

Reach out to anyone involved in your finances. No matter how you will pay for your education, you need to clearly understand the expenses. Read up on the ROI of a degree and check out university and college admission webpages to determine the cost.

Contact schools and ask their advice. If you’ve made it this far, you’re ready to talk to specific schools that interest you. Start with their admissions office or adult student center. You want to speak with someone who understands the challenges that returning adult students face. Ask about the admission process, what scholarships or grants are available, and how they support adult students.

Some people take years on this decision and there’s certainly no age limit on returning to school, so don’t feel that you need to rush through the process.

A college degree can open many doors, but it’s not the only way to succeed. Very few career paths are tied directly to the degree that someone has—our career counselors see proof of this every day. Perhaps a certificate, a few classes, a mentor, a more targeted job search, or volunteering could get you to your goal.

Whatever decision you make, adding lifelong learning and expertise is always worth the ROI!

April McHugh is a senior career counselor in UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. She can be reached at april.mchugh@wisc.edu. For more information, see continuingstudies.wisc.edu/advising or call 608-263-6960.

This story originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.