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.

Susan Larson, a Rochester-based transition coach, said that 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.

“It can take you in new directions and open new possibilities,” Larson said.

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.

Larson 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.

“There’s age bias in some fields,” Larson said. “If they already have a foundation in the field, age bias wouldn’t be as big of an obstacle. If someone has a good track record at making a good living, this person could go on and make more money.”

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.

Larson said that if the jump is too big, workers should consider a small shift instead.

Audrey Berger, Ph.D, is also a transition coach in Rochester. She said that would-be scholars should weigh the disruption caused by obtaining more schooling.

“Ask yourself, ‘Do I have the ability, time, money and interest in going back to school?’” she said. “If all of that checks out, you also have to think about research — a lot of research. Before you go back to school, you really want to understand that getting a degree does not guarantee anything.”

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?

“To increase your chances if you’re looking at changing fields, look at the employment rates for new graduates,” Berger said. “If you choose a field that has very low employment rates, you’re obviously adding more obstacles.”

For some career changes, a bachelor’s or associate’s degree may not be necessary. Certificate programs cost less and combined with experience, may provide a better return on investment, according to Berger. She wants people to look into more creative ways to solve employment and life issues. She said that those unfulfilled in their position could remake it by picking up different responsibilities and delegating others, if their boss is onboard with the idea.

Perhaps telecommuting a couple days a week or working four, 10-hour days to provide three-day weekends would help those who do enjoy their careers but feel burned out.

Leslie Rose McDonald, founder and president of Pathfinders, CTS, Inc. near Syracuse, 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 www.Petersons.com 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.”