I’ll just put this out there: I’m not someone who’s all that fond of taking risks or switching up my routine. So when I decided to go back to school to earn my MBA at the age of — well, we don’t need to get specific, but let’s just say it’d been a little while since I’d last attended college — I knew I was in for a major challenge. But I’m proud to say that I now hold an MBA, and I lived to write about it. Here is some advice from someone who’s been there and done that for those of you who are also thinking about returning to school or starting a degree program a little later in life. Why Are You Going Back To School? When I started looking at MBA programs, I’d already completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees and was working as a vice president at a financial institution. Although I’ve always done well in school, I wouldn’t say I really loved the whole process and was hesitant to start up the studying and homework routine again on top of my 60+ hour workweeks. My primary reason for pursuing an MBA was to advance professionally. I knew, to get to the level at work that I really wanted to be at, I was going to have to get an advanced degree related to business. If I hadn’t needed the MBA for that reason, believe me when I say I would’ve been more than content with my other degrees. I’m not a big enough glutton for punishment to take accounting classes just for kicks, seriously. If you’re thinking about returning to school, figure out your exact reason for wanting a degree and determine which type of degree will best benefit you. In my case, it wasn’t the degree that was most interesting but the one that would best benefit my career. For you, it might be a degree that will help you advance your career, or it might be a dream of yours to just complete a degree — the type of degree might not even really matter. Just be sure you have a concrete reason in mind for returning to school that will keep you motivated to finish that degree when the going gets tough. Returning to school is time-consuming and can be expensive, so be sure you’re sufficiently psyched up to take on this challenge. What Program Will Work for You? Once you figure out why you’re going back to school, figure out the best way to reach your college goals. What’s your priority with the program you choose? Do you want a specialized degree that’s only offered at a certain school? Would you prefer to take classes online or at night? Check out schools that you might not have considered right off the bat. Because I’d finished my other degrees at Michigan State University, my initial thought was to go there for my MBA program as well. The more I looked at other schools though, I realized that Western Michigan University offered classes during dates and times that worked much better for me. Because my schedule was already nuts before I went back to school, having classes that accommodated the craziness was key for me, even if that meant a slightly longer commute. When you’re looking at schools, be sure you’re checking out accredited, reputable schools which offer degrees that’ll help you reach your goals. Get information on the school’s job placement rate after graduation and see if you can get in touch with any alums of the programs you’re considering. How Will You Pay for It? One major challenge for most people (myself included) is figuring out how to pay for college. A degree’s not cheap, let me tell you, and finding the money to pay for tuition, textbooks and a slew of other supplies (like a graphing calculator — I seriously didn’t think I’d ever have to look at one of those again after high school) is even harder when you’re already juggling a mortgage and other “grown-up” debt. What it comes down to is, when you weigh the cost of the degree with its benefit to you — be it financial, emotional or something else entirely — if the degree’s benefit is worth its cost to you, you can figure out a way to make it happen. Money You Don’t Have to Pay Back Ideally, you’d be able to pay a good portion of your school expenses using money you don’t have to pay back. I know, I know — this isn’t always possible, but put the effort into seeking out things like scholarships, grants, employer assistance or savings you’ve set aside, before you take on loans. There are actually a lot of scholarships and grants out there designed specifically for returning students. Need-based aid may be harder to come by if you’re already working or have even a somewhat decent income, but you should always complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), available at www.fafsa.ed.gov regardless. Federal Loans If you can’t pay for school using any of the options above, your next best bet is probably government-issued student loans. These loans typically offer a deferment period, capped rates and pretty straightforward terms. If you think you’ll need to take on some loans to pay for school, complete a FAFSA online ASAP and meet with someone in your college’s office of financial aid. Other Loans When you can’t pay for all of your school expenses via “free” money or federal loans, you may want to consider other loan options. If you go this route, look for low-interest loans, preferably something with a fixed rate, no prepayment penalty and no application fee. Don’t take out more money than you need, and go with an institution you trust — most banks and credit unions offer personal loans you can use for school or educational materials. If I Can Do It, So Can You Was going back to school to earn my MBA easy? No, definitely not. Was it worth it? Yes, absolutely. Even if you’ve been out of school for awhile or are hesitant to attend classes with students half your age, know that you can do this! One of my employees finished an MBA program this year while working full-time and raising three young daughters. Another one of my employees finished her first bachelor’s degree at the age of 30 while working full-time. And if I could finish my MBA, I know you can reach your educational goals, too. Best of luck!
April Clobes is Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer for MSU Federal Credit Union in East Lansing. She can be contacted by e-mail or by calling (517) 333-2254.