Sunday, January 29, 2012

College: The Cost of Boomer Re-Education

When Baby Boomers send their son or daughter off to college this year they might keep this in mind: the person sitting next to them in that lecture hall is more likely now than ever before to be your age, or close to it. If the rates of college borrowing are any indication, forty year olds and older are finding themselves back in school. While attending college has been touted most recently as a way to add ten-years to your life, or at least your mental health, these students are more interested on improving their chances at getting a job. Not a better one; any job.

The stress facing an older worker or recently unemployed person turned student can be monumental. There may be numerous reasons why you didn't complete college in the first place or find yourself with a worthless piece of paper from your previous go-around. None of those matter. You have decided, and the experts suggest that this is correct, that getting more training is better than not.

But college at forty or older comes with its own unique problems. Not the least of which is the worth of the education. College tuitions are increasing as parents of children in the typical age group know all too well. When you make the decision to return to school as an older worker, the cost may be offset by some prior attendance experience or work-life experience.

One of the easiest ways to offset the tuition cost is to challenge the course, suggesting to over 2,900 accredited colleges that you know what that course offers and don't need to take it for the credit. This challenge not only save money but time that could be better spent getting the education sooner to allow you to get back in the hunt for employment.  CLEP, the College Level Exam Program, is the most widely accepted "life experience" challenge exam program and the one every older student should use. The CLEP program features 32 single-subject college exams and five general exams. (For more information about CLEP exams, contact: The College Board, 800-257-9558.)

There are other ways to help in getting your degree quicker and for less cost. Your employer might have in-house programs designed to finance higher and continuing education. If you are not employed, research and study what you know as much as possible before taking these tests.

You have three things that are to your advantage and three things working against your success.

The three things in your favor. First: you probably have the focus to do well. College isn't your first experience with independence. Of course I'm not suggesting that all-students entering or in college aren't focused; they just have a higher degree of potential available distractions to take them off course. Two: you know how much this is really costing. You have a better concept of what these dollars cost against what they can return. Three: Your work ethic comes from actually working and should be transferrable, at least in your head, to a better framework of organization. In other words, you can place the most important tasks first and that ability to prioritize is probably something you didn't even realize you possessed.

The three things working against you. One: Your focus to do well may actually overload your ability to do as well as you would have hoped. Taking on too much will find you in conflict with the rigors of what your daily life has become. This is certainly not insurmountable. Experts agree that you should get as much sleep as possible and find a scheduled time to study and prepare. That advice is given to twenty year olds as well. But it is doubly important for the older student.

Two: You have a much firmer grasp of time and the time you have left to not only pay back the loan but to do so with enough of an income to make it worthwhile. And like younger students, you need to balance the loan to potential income. According to the STudent Loan Network: "By keeping your borrowing to one year's salary, you're effectively dedicating 10% of your future income to repayment, which is a manageable amount of debt. Statistically speaking, graduates who have 10% or less of their income dedicated to debt repayment are able to manage their debts; those who exceed 15% of their income tend to default." And for the older worker, this calculation is incredibly difficult to make. There is no guarantee that you will get adequate compensation when you do get a job upon graduation.

Three: Your work ethic will actually work against you. You may have previously sleep-walked in your previous job, focused on  the daily grind with the least amount of energy. Re-prioritizing your life will come without the usual support groups afforded the younger student, you will need to build a self-centered support and wedge it into your regular routine. College for the older student requires an enormous amount of focus. There are some things that can help you keep the objective in reach and not lose your forward momentum. They include: staying organized, getting more sleep than you afforded yourself when you were working, and studying. The last may take a little re-learning so be sure to give yourself time to learn how to learn again.

If you are still working, don't become complacent. Continue to improve your chances and opportunities even if life has become somewhat complicated. Spending a little at a time is far wiser than borrowing a huge sum to attend college full-time. If you aren't working, keep in mind that even the best degrees don't always end up in the best paying jobs. Get as much counseling as you can before picking a course of study. Some job choices are fleeting or don't return in salary what you expect them to pay.

The popular notion is that we will work longer than our parents, postponing retirement beyond the age of 65. If that's the case, choose a career that gives you longevity in the workforce and not just something that provides a paycheck. And even if all it does is add ten-years to your mental health, it might be worth considering.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer.

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