Costs to Weigh Before Going Back to College as an Adult

The Great Recession of 2008 sent adult learners flooding back to college, aiming to finish degrees or gain specific skills to boost their employability, make a career change or get a promotion. The same trend might return now as millions of Americans are unemployed or furloughed because of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, some experts offer words of caution and doubt. When times are tough, the return to higher education can offer hope of a better future. But like a house of cards, ill-laid plans to go back to college can collapse fast, leaving families in more debt than when they began and with no degree or job to show for it.

With the coronavirus still coursing its way through U.S. communities, these nontraditional learners have a complicated set of risks to weigh before going back to college — and a psychological hurdle to overcome, some say.

“It’s about finding some semblance of normalcy. So many people really don’t know what the future will hold,” says R. Lee Viar IV, president of the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education and a business professor at Strayer University in Washington, D.C.

“They have to be able to say, ‘I’m going to get my education because things are going to get better, get back to normal, and I can plan my future and my family’s future.’ They have to grasp at hope that things will get better and decide to bite the bullet,” he says.

[Read: Finish a 2-Year Degree at a 4-Year College With a Reverse Transfer.]

It may take time to see a surge in adult learners going back to college. Just about five months after the economic shutdown in the U.S., a survey of 2,500 prospective adult learners found that the rate of individuals interested in pursuing higher education held steady compared with the rate of 76% in 2019 — but the rate of those committed to actually doing so has dropped while skepticism has increased.

When asked to describe COVID-19’s influence on their plans, responders cited a reluctance to “return to public gatherings” and financial concerns such as job or income loss.

“Whereas in other cases, in past events, there’s usually this countercyclical bump when an economy is in a downturn, when people get laid off, they turned to going back to school,” says Howard Lurie, principal analyst for online and continuing education at Eduventures, a research and advisory service that conducted the survey.

“What we’re seeing so far is that demand is still there, they still aspire to go back and get a new credential, degree, certificate, but the level of uncertainty caused by the pandemic has tamped down that demand,” Lurie says.

[Read: Advantages of Community Colleges During the Coronavirus Pandemic.]

If those health concerns subside, adult learners will be left with a difficult financial landscape to navigate. Many employers have laid off employees or pulled back on tuition assistance benefits, and federal and state unemployment benefits may come to an end, leaving families on their own to pay for college costs.

Meanwhile, the cost of tuition has long been on the rise, up more than 150% in the last 20 years among National Universities ranked by U.S. News. Taking just one class online can cost more than $1,000 depending on the number of credits, with graduate-level courses costing even more.

And for adult learners, the costs of going back to college go well beyond tuition. These other costs are typical for adults returning to college:


— Textbooks

— Lost wages

— Transportation

— Technology

— Health care

— Housing

— Child care

— Interest on student loans

Child care and lost wages resulting from temporarily leaving or cutting back time in the workforce can be some of the greatest costs to adult learners going back to college. Juggling family and work responsibilities can be a constant challenge for adults in college as well.

Throw in the unique circumstances of a global pandemic and it is hard to imagine families taking on the time and financial commitment of traditional college programs, says Michelle Weise, an expert on the future of work and author of “Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet.”

“I have doubts that we’ll see that surge in higher education that we typically do in a recession just because this job loss was so dramatic and sudden and widespread. Families struggling are not in the position to consider a long-term, costly program,” Weise says. “They are also costly in terms of time, that most precious resource for adults who have lots of other responsibilities in their lives.”

[See: 11 College Costs Other Than Tuition and Housing.]

At a time when families over the last decade have been questioning whether college is worth the cost and why individuals must take on the associated financial risks themselves, Weise says, the economic fallout resulting from the coronavirus may be the nail in the coffin for adults considering a return to college.

For those who do take the plunge, gaining more skills and education can open doors, but experts say the key to success is planning and budgeting well in advance. Adult learners may be able to benefit from education tax benefits and state tax deductions, and can receive financial aid in many cases by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, called the FAFSA.

To cut costs and make education more accessible, Weise also notes that prospective adult learners could consider lesser-known “on-ramps to better economic opportunities” such as “alternative learning providers, startups, really interesting human and technical skills-building opportunities — more like boot camps.”

A reverse transfer — in which a student can receive an associate degree or credit toward one through a process where a four-year college sends that student’s course and grade information to a community college to which that student transfers — is another option for cost-conscious adults. Also, nontraditional students who left college before earning a bachelor’s degree may find that they earned enough credits, or nearly enough, to receive an associate degree.

Getting the support of friends and family members can also be critical when going back to college, Viar says, so it’s important for adult learners to set expectations and get the entire family involved in their efforts.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

More from U.S. News

Stand Out as a Nontraditional College Applicant

Determine College Fit as Nontraditional Student

How to Overcome Challenges of Online Classes Due to Coronavirus

Costs to Weigh Before Going Back to College as an Adult originally appeared on

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