5 Easy Questions: Should You Go Back to School?

(Photo: stock image.)
(Photo: stock image.)

“Going back to school was the scariest thing I’ve done,” said Marina, a Navy wife stationed in San Diego. “Leaving school wasn’t as scary as going back was.”

For many spouses, that’s true. After sacrificing careers and educations to make room for the demands of military life, the idea of going back to school can be enough to make your head spin.

It was years before Marina was ready to give school another shot. After several PCS moves and kids, she had finally given up on school. “I was theoretically a third year, even though I was on my sixth year of school,” Marina said.

By the time she was 28, Marina had taken college courses in four different states and five different schools. She was constantly trying to make time for classes so she could finish her degree, but real life would get in the way.

“We had three kids, a deployment, and a move ahead of us, I remember thinking there was no time,” said Marina.

Marina did head back to school, but not before asking herself a few tough questions to make sure she was really ready and it was really worth it. Given that more than half of adult students drop out of school before completing their degrees, that’s a smart place to start.

Before you commit to going back to school, take the time to ask yourself these five easy questions so you can know that going back to school is really worth it for you, too.

1. What do I want to do?

If you see heading back to school as a necessary step on the road to career advancement, you’re not alone. Before you head back, you need to know what you want to go to school for: What’s your goal?

Marina went back to school after she was laid off from work. “When I looked at who got laid off and who didn’t, I saw school was the important difference. I had the job experience, but I needed the degree.”

Having that goal in her sights made it a lot easier to complete her program, even when it was difficult to balance with her personal life. “We PCSed right in the middle of school,” she said. “But this time I was ready. I knew what I needed, and nothing was going to get in the way. Another year, I would have quit.”

If you know you need the degree but aren’t sure what to study, don’t commit to school yet. Spend time talking to a college counselor or an admissions officer and do research on your own. Maybe you’ll want to focus your education on great jobs you can get with an Associate’s or degrees that will help you land a portable career perfect for a military spouse.

2. Do I have time to go back to school?

Just because you know you are ready to go back to school doesn’t mean it’s the right time. And before you start school this time, you’ll want to make sure you can see it out. School will require a lot more of you than class time: homework, office hours, group projects, and long-term assignments will weigh down your weeknights and weekends.

Talk to your spouse about how many classes you’ll balance a term and what that will mean for your work and family schedules. Your whole family needs to be on board with the new time commitment, especially since, come the holidays, you’ll be cramming for finals while they’re icing gingerbread men.

3. Will it pay to go back to school?

Someone will certainly pay for you to go back to school, so it’s a good idea to make sure that if you are footing the bill for a degree, it will pay for itself before long.

Make sure you take advantage of all the military benefits that can help you pay for school and research any scholarships or tuition assistance programs that might help you defray the cost.

But most important, think about all the hidden costs of school and how they’ll affect your family budget: Will you need daycare for your children? Any additional help around the house? What about lost wages from the hours you aren’t working because you are in school?

You might want to think about saving money to allow for buffer time after you finish school to look for a job, too. Your new job is not going to appear immediately. You will want to make sure you’ve factored in that downtime before you’re late on a utility bill.

It goes without saying that a degree can advance your earning potential -- just take the time to make sure you can afford that advancement when the bill comes due.

4. Can I do this without a degree?

It might seem counterintuitive, but unless your degree or certification itself is necessary for the job you want to have, there might be a better way for you to get the knowledge you need for your desired career path than heading back to school.

Think about taking specialized classes (versus a whole degree), pursuing an internship or fellowship program, or enrolling in seminars or professional workshops that could give you on the ground training.

If you’re interested in being a pharmacy tech, for example, enrollment in a competitive internship program (like those offered at Walgreens and CVS) can be as informative as academic training while also providing on-the-ground experience that will help you pass your certification exam.

5. Is this the right school for me?

This might seem like a silly question, especially when you’re making a decision to go back to school while balancing military life.

Military installations aren’t always located near stellar educational institutions. Just because you might not live down the street from your dream school doesn’t mean you should settle for any less.

Where you choose to go to school will have a huge impact on the opportunities that it provides inside the classroom and out. School is a critical place to network and make contacts that will carry over to your professional career, so make sure you’re going to school with fellow students and teachers you’d be happy to work with (or for) one day.

Look for schools that open you up to new networks and opportunities and have strong alumni job placement support. Be sure to look just as hard at the benefits your school will offer you as an alum as those it offers while you’re a student.

A number of really wonderful schools now offer distance learning degrees and programs specifically geared toward active-duty military, spouses and veterans.

From the University of Florida to USC, Pace and Auburn, some of the country’s most reputable institutions are now opening their doors to students who commute online. While they may not be the best fit for everyone, students who already have some college under their belt or are extremely motivated may be able to use their accelerated pacing to their advantage and earn their degree faster. Tuition assistance and the other military-friendly elements of online schools, like no physical campus and fully online support, can make this type of online learning a great option.

Read through US News & World Report’s distance learning rankings before signing on the dotted line for a school that advertises on your local television station during Ellen.

This is your education -- you deserve to make it as good as it possibly can be. “It was the best decision I made since starting school the first time,” said Marina of her decision to hit the books again.

But she knows the only reason school was such a good choice for her is because she was absolutely ready.

If you’ve read through these questions and are confident in your answers, it might just be time for you to hit the books, too. But if you’re going back to school simply because you don’t know what else to do, take time to research your options before you walk into the classroom. Once you’re there, those research skills will really pay off.

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