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50 and back to school

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DULLES, Va. (8/17/11)--As a dismal job market sends workers age 50-plus back to college this fall, many wonder if it’s worth the investment of time and money. It can be, but it’s not such a clear shot as it is for younger, first-time college students (AOL Aug. 4). Today’s economic turbulence disproportionately affects older workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than half of unemployed workers ages 55 and older have been unemployed for six months or more, compared with 40% of workers younger than 55. And among the still employed, more older adults are preparing to stay in the workforce longer than they’d anticipated. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, in 2011, roughly 36% of workers say they expect to keep working past age 65--up from 20% in 2001. Whether unemployed, still employed, or returning to the workforce after retirement, older adults are going back to school to be able to compete for fewer jobs. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of students ages 50 to 64 increased 17% between fall 2007 and fall 2009. To meet the demand, the tide of college programs that target older adults is rising. Before you wade in, determine if getting another degree is worth it. Run a cost-benefit analysis by calculating how much you’ll have to borrow to pay for college, including books, living, and travel expenses; the starting salary range for workers in the field you want to move into; and how many years you plan to work. Compare your anticipated annual salary with the anticipated annual debt payment. If you think you’ll be working for 10 to 15 years, it's easier to amortize the costs than if you plan to work only a few years. The conventional advice to young people is not to borrow more than your anticipated starting salary with your new certificate or degree (SmartMoney July 28). That guideline makes less sense, of course, for much older students and workers. Whether you’re looking at returning to school for a career change or to give yourself an edge in a competitive job market, explore:
* Community college and local university programs for older students. The “Plus 50 Initiative” program for older adults is available in many community colleges. Also, check traditional four-year colleges for degree programs, courses, and continuing education opportunities geared for returning students. * Certificate programs. Adding a certificate to your résumé will make you stand out. Certificates cost less, are more efficient, and are more professionally oriented than traditional bachelor’s or master’s degree programs. * Extra classes to boost your current job or prepare for a new one. Make sure you choose classes that both fulfill you and will be perceived as valuable by employers. * Sitting in on classes for free. Call local colleges to see if they allow it. If space is available, they usually do. * Tuition assistance from your employer. If you’re still working, find out if your employer offers tuition assistance. Don’t be bashful--the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) gives a tax break to companies that help employees pay for university-level courses. * Scholarships, tax credits, and deductions for tuition and related expenses. The IRS and websites provide guidance. * Unused money in a child's 529 plan. You can use it for your own education. Some states even will let you create your own 529 plan.
For more information, read “New Rules for College Loans: Matching a Career to Debt Repayment” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.