For Middle-Age Students, Is College Worth the Risk?

PHOTO: Pamela Monroe was 42 when she started college.
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Deidre Romeo was 40 years old when she started college. Pamela Monroe was 42. Believing that more education would lead inevitably to better-paying jobs and improved lives, both women received bachelor's degrees, and continued on to graduate school. But their outcomes couldn't be more different. Just returned from a weeklong vacation in Mexico, Romeo is back at her job as communications director for a global engineering company.

And since her employer is paying most of her college expenses, Romeo's student debt is minimal.

"It was scary, but it was one of the best decisions of my life," says Romeo, who is now 45.

Monroe, meanwhile, has $45,000 in student loan debt but only $2 in her bank account. Unemployed for six months, her best hope now is to regain the job she had before school, working part-time at a Victoria's Secret store.

"I'm completely indigent," says Monroe, now 54. "I think my education actually hurts me."

[Related article: 7 Serious Tuition Savings Tips]

Many Americans believe that going back to school is a universally good idea. They feel that spending the time and money to improve one's education almost always leads to more pay, better opportunities and happier lives. College graduates earn 84 percent more money over their lifetimes on average than people with just high school diplomas, according to a study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

That belief in education as a universal good holds true for middle-aged people. Over 3.9 million people ages 35 and over were enrolled in degree-granting institutions in 2010, the last year for which data is available, up 20 percent from when the latest recession started in 2006, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The number of middle-aged people in college, graduate school or technical school is projected to continue rising to 4.1 million by 2015, the center predicts.

"Older people have always gone to school part-time," says Jane Glickman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. "But there's definitely been an increase in full-time education among older students, as more people lose their jobs or go to working part-time."

[Related article: How Student Loan Debt Can (Gasp!) Help Your Credit]

Returning to school often helps older students switch careers, get better-paying jobs, or climb the corporate ladder within their current company. But it also can carry significant risks, including burdensome loan debt, without much prospect for higher earnings.

And since older students have fewer years left in the workforce to pay off their school loans, experts say it's even more critical that they carefully weigh the potential risks and rewards.

"The advice I give really depends on the individual," says Cristina Briboneria, a financial planner oXYGen Financial in Alpharetta, Georgia. "You really have to consider your age, your expenses, how much money you can expect to make after you graduate."

[Related Article: How I'm Repaying $120,000 in Student Loans]

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