Should You Earn Your Degree?

Experts weigh in on whether 55-plus workers should go for a higher level of education

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

You’ve made it this far in your working life without achieving a higher level of education. Is it worth it to gain more? That depends upon many factors.

Some people gain personal fulfillment from continuing their education. If that’s all you want, and you have the money to pay for it without compromising your retirement, go for it.

If you’re thinking of further studies to increase your earning potential, you have many more considerations.

Jennifer B. Bernstein, Ph.D., president of Get Yourself Into College based in Syracuse, said she isn’t sure additional education will financially pay off with so few years left in the workforce, unless that education would segue into an additional revenue stream upon retirement.

“For instance, if you are a guidance counselor and get certified in the Strong Interest Inventory or MBTI, when you retire you could possibly capitalize on all those years as a counselor to get some clients for those assessments,” Bernstein said. “Such additional credentials might not amount to a lot of additional money, but it could be a nice form of supplemental income.”

For some people who hit a career plateau, more education can help them continue on their earning trajectory or shift to a different, better-earning career.

Bernstein encourages mid-career and older workers to consider both the cost of the education and the number of years they’ll still be able to work. Their hiring potential also matters.

The time and money needed to obtain the education also matters. For example, becoming licensed to work as a massage therapist is much less of an investment than deciding to become a medical doctor.

If the jump is too big, workers should consider a small shift instead.

Would-be scholars should weigh the disruption caused by obtaining more schooling. Earning a degree will take lots of time that could be spent elsewhere, such as with the spouse, children, grandchildren or friends.

Look into the demand for the type of position you hope to get after completing your additional education, especially as it relates to where you live. Would you want to move to a different state to pursue your dream job?

For some career changes, a bachelor’s or associate degree may not be necessary. Certificate programs cost less and combined with experience, may provide a better return on investment.

Leslie Rose McDonald, founder and president of Pathfinders, CTS, Inc. in Liverpool, pointed out that many more people remain healthier into their older years. If you plan to keep working past retirement age, then additional education may be worthwhile.

“If you feel you might be at risk for downsizing or right sizing, more education can help you keep up with colleagues,” she said. “It could help sharpen skills to stay relevant.”

She added that to keep experienced employees onboard, some employers will reimburse educational expenses. For out-of-pocket education, McDonald recommends community college, certificate programs or online leaning, all which tends to cost less than traditional college classes. The non-traditional route may also fit your life better now, especially if you still have children at home or help care for your elderly parents.

“Some schools, depending if you’ve been in school before, may accept previously earned credit or work experience and accomplishments,” McDonald said.

She likes as a one stop shop to look at the different types of educational institutions available.

“You or I could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” McDonald said. “I believe in going for what you want to. Don’t get into debt to endanger your retirement; do it to bring value to yourself or your career.”