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Will Going Back to School Pay Off for You?

What adult learners can—and can’t—glean from the government’s new scorecard.

DNY59/Getty Images
DNY59/Getty Images,

by Sarah Mahoney

Well-Being
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With much fanfare, the federal government recently unwrapped its College Scorecard, a data-rich website years in the making. The idea is to give prospective students more information about a school’s true costs and effectiveness, by revealing how much students pay to attend, the school’s graduation rate and the average earnings of its graduates, contrasting these stats with national averages.

The site is easy to navigate, and experts call the new scorecard a big improvement over previous efforts, and a welcome addition to the often conflicting “best college” rankings that are flooding the market. “This is more user-friendly, and works well on mobile devices,” says Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D., vice president and director of research for Public Agenda, which has closely studied the needs of adult learners. “But it is still hard for one person to look at all these statistics and averages, and say `Yes, but how does that apply to my situation?’”

She breaks down the smartest ways to run the numbers on going to college at midlife:

Use the scorecard to make comparisons among several schools. Rather than checking out schools one at a time, she says, look at several schools at once, to get you asking the right questions. “Why would one school in your city have a graduation rate of 10%, and another 70%? What might that mean for you? Or why would one school with a much higher tuition have a lower graduation rate?”

Dig deeper into “salary after attending” numbers.

While the scorecard provides an average salary for a school’s graduates, that number can be misleading. “If it is for a liberal arts school, for example, it might combine engineering salaries with much lower fields. Or, if it’s an art school, it might seem very low because many of those students go on to grad school.” And for midlife graduates, who may earn salaries based on their prior career experience as well as their new academic credential, it’s even harder to determine if that figure is meaningful. To get a better sense of what you can realistically expect to earn, tap into sources like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net OnLine, and professional associations. Life Reimagined’s Learning Advisor site can help too.

Get objective advice. Finally, Hagelskamp thinks older students should “never make a decision without talking to an independent college financial advisor,” such as American Student Assistance, National College Access Network, or College Abacus.“These are good organizations that also offer lots of tools for comparisons and decision-making. They can really help,” she says. “And that’s important, because adult learners often get overlooked in the national conversation about college costs.”

And, before you make the leap, Jean Chatzky’s program for Life Reimagined, Afford Your Dreams, can help you crunch the numbers.