I earned my college degrees while working full-time and being the father of two very young children. The credit for making that work goes to my wife. She made sure we all had clean underwear and were properly fed while I wrote papers on tax theory, and learned what terms like “just-in-time manufacturing” and “net present value” meant.

While I didn’t retain a grasp of what net present value really means, my degrees opened doors for my family and I that greatly increased our opportunities and standard of living.

The value of a degree is the topic of roughly 1,000,000 articles right now, but because of my personal experience no one will ever convince me that you are not better off with a college degree. In my career, getting my degrees was the best decision I ever made.

In fact, without my education there would be no “career” to speak of.

But, if you are considering getting a degree as a working adult, there are some things that might be helpful to know.

Make sure you have realistic expectations regarding how a degree will impact your career.

There is very, very little chance that you will get an MBA from schools that offer an evening or online program and receive the type of salary and signing bonuses you read about in magazines. And, unless you get a degree that has a defined profession (like teaching or accounting) the chances that you will completely shift careers after graduating as a working adult aren’t high.

Even with a new degree you still have a work history that demonstrates specific skill sets and experiences. It’s not impossible to completely reinvent your career, but it is difficult.

A degree you earn as a working adult will have the highest return on investment when you can use that degree to help accelerate the career that you already have.

Of course, there are a lot of other completely valid reasons to get a degree as an adult, but…

You need to understand the reason why you want a degree.

I dropped out of a PhD program when the following realizations dawned on me:

  • I hated the classes;

  • I didn’t want to be in academia full-time;

  • my main motivation was just so I could put PhD after my name;

  • even if I did have a PhD, my brother was never going to call me “Dr. McKissen”.

When I looked into my heart, I saw that I didn’t have enough motivation to sit through an advanced research class when I had a career and a family at home. My lack of self-awareness cost me a few thousand dollars that would have been better spent almost anywhere else.

That said, people go back to school for reasons other than what a degree will potentially do for their income.

And that is completely okay.

I got the degrees I do have not just to create career opportunities, but also to prove to myself and others that I was more than the kid from a poor family who barely graduated high school.

Your specific reason for getting a degree doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is reason enough for you to make it through your program and graduate. It is not fun to pay back student loans on a degree that you don’t complete. My lack of self-awareness when it came to a PhD resulted in taking out $3,000 in student loans, and it hurt every time we made that payment.

Be a smart consumer.

Working adults have a lot more choices when it comes to where and how they get there degree than they had even a few years ago. And the idea that a degree requires you to assume crippling debt is not true. It can mean that, but it doesn’t have to. Do your research, and look at ways to lower the cost. If it’s an undergraduate degree you want or need take your general education credits at a community college. If you have knowledge in a specific area you can take CLEP tests to earn college credit.

Also, know that if a graduate degree costs $40,000 at XYZ University, and $30,000 at ABC University, in 90% of cases it is better to choose the degree that will result in less debt.

And, please, do not use student loans for anything other than your educational expenses. My wife and I have friends that did that, and it can be a path to financial ruin.

If you choose an online program, know that online does not mean “easy”.

I have gotten degrees online and in brick-and-mortar schools. They are two very different experiences. There is no substitute for face-to-face learning. However, online degrees have created opportunities for students to get degrees and still be able to meet the responsibilities they have at home and at work. Online programs also open doors to learning for students who do not have geographic access to a college.

And, in my experience, online programs can require a higher level of engagement from the student. The requirement to participate in structured discussions means that you can’t just hang out in the back of the class and slip through unnoticed.

There is no easy route to a degree. It’s hard. Of course there are degrees that are more difficult to get than others, but I have never heard anyone—particularly someone who got a degree while juggling the responsibilities of adulthood—complete a degree and say “that was easy”.

You can defy data, if you want it bad enough. 

Look at available data regarding the employment prospects of a specific degree, if you are getting your education for career related reasons (which the vast majority of people are), and make good decisions.

But also, look inside your heart and know that if you really want something bad enough, you can defy data.

No one in my family before me has ever had a bachelor’s degree. I have eaten government cheese and lived off of food stamps. I got married when I was 22 and had three kids by the time I was 26, including an 8 year old. No data would have ever lead me to believe I would have some of the successes I’ve had. Getting my degrees has been a big factor in building my career, but believing that I could get those degrees was even more important.

If you decide to go back to school start by believing in yourself, proceed by being a smart educational consumer, and finish by working hard to leverage your degree once you have it.

Let us know what you think!