Is Going Back to School Worth the Price? 

Traditionally, getting that degree makes sense for unemployed adults during a recession. But with the costs of education skyrocketing, is it still smart?

When Melanie Crawford decided to head back to school in 2007, she was trying to be prudent and practical. After she had earned an associate's degree in English from Chabot Community College seven years earlier, she took a long hiatus to raise her family. Crawford had always wanted to get her bachelor's, but time and financial constraints prevented her from doing so. The stars aligned three years ago, when she got a divorce settlement for $90,000. "I looked at it as an investment in myself," Crawford said. She enrolled in a two-year English program at California State University East Bay, hoping to better her job prospects.

Easier said than done. By the time Crawford graduated in 2009, she'd spent $70,000 on tuition, books, and living expenses. Unable to find a writing job, she was relegated to office temp work. She found that a lot of companies wouldn't hire an older employee, for fear she'd retire after a few years. (Crawford didn't want to reveal her age in this article.) In hindsight, the rewards of her education were mostly intangible. "I think my outlook has been enlarged as far as looking at the world," Crawford said, adding that her favorite class at Cal State East Bay was one on critical thinking. "I question things more," she continued. "I don't just take things as gospel truth when I hear them."

It's become a point of contention whether so-called "seasoned students" like Crawford are getting a return on their educational investment. The old axiom is that it usually pays to get more schooling. The more education you get, the more competitive you are in the job market. You become more valuable as an employee, you get better connections, and you have more access to resources. Thus, it makes sense that a lot of people would seek refuge in academia during an economic downturn. And if you're unemployed, then you don't have a lot to lose, noted Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at UC Berkeley. "The opportunity costs of going to school become lower when you don't have a job," she explained.

Nonetheless, the rising cost of a university education can outweigh the short-term benefits. Crawford endured several tuition hikes during her time at CSU. "The last couple semesters were the worst," she recalled. "It was up around two to three hundred dollars per semester." To make matters worse, university parking fees nearly doubled between 2007 and 2009. That was a huge hardship for commuter students like Crawford.

UC Berkeley also saw a spate of huge tuition hikes between 2007 and 2010. Currently, the price of an undergraduate education runs from $21,960 to $31,046 annually, while a graduate education comes to $34,286 for California residents, and $49,526 for non-residents. For a lot of people that's cost-prohibitive. Add in the fact that graduates are entering a formidably tough market, in which jobs are scarce and fewer people are retiring. "The labor force participation of those 55 and older has increased, because they need to keep health care and benefits, and because their retirements were hammered during the recession," Allegretto said. "If you're in California, it's not looking good for anyone."

To some extent, prospective students appear to be taking the uncertainty of job placement and the disproportionately high cost of education into account. At UC Berkeley, the number of graduate students who are thirty years old or older hasn't changed significantly in the past few years, even though huge numbers of adult Californians are out of work. Janet Gilmore, the university's strategic communications director, said the thirty-and-over graduate enrollment went from 525 in the fall of 2007 to 496 in the fall of 2010. Gilmore hasn't seen a shift in the median age of applicants, either. Nor did Peralta Community Colleges get a notable increase in older students. At Berkeley City College, students in the 35 to 54 age group accounted for 25 percent of the enrollment population in 2002, and 16 percent in 2010. At Laney, they were 23 percent in 2002, and 20 percent in 2010. At Merritt, they were 33 percent in 2002, and 25 percent in 2010.

Former Cal State East Bay professor Melissa Hillman attributed the static enrollment rate to rising costs and budget cuts that result in fewer spots available for students. "It's not as easy to get into these programs," she wrote in an e-mail. "There's more competition than there once was, and it's hard to compete for a spot at Cal [against] a kid with a 4.3 [GPA], when there was nothing above a 4.0 when you went to school."

It also doesn't necessarily mean that fewer people are applying. Cal State got a significant increase in applications after lowering enrollment requirements a few years back, Hillman said. More than 12,000 California residents applied to UC Berkeley as transfer students in the fall of 2010, though only 3,301 were admitted. According to Eva Rivas, UC Berkeley's executive director of the Transfer, Reentry, and Student Parent Center, the number of transfer student applications is steadily increasing. But that's not always traceable to economic erosion, she said. "From my anecdotal experience with new students, it's not a lot about the economy." Rivas explained. "We don't hear that a lot. Usually, returning students come because they want to go in a new direction."

"A new direction" could mean better job prospects, or it could mean the solution to an existential crisis. Perhaps it just means that older students are thinking strategically. It's already a well-known truism that the rewards reaped from a university education depend largely on your field, and that might be truer than ever before. It's certainly true at the Peralta colleges, where nursing and business administrations, two fields of study that tend to lead directly to jobs, have the most declared majors, followed by general curriculum and child development.

Crawford's daughter Brianne said she took the job market into consideration before entering CSU alongside her mother. A single mom with a long résumé of retail jobs, she chose to matriculate in sociology with a social services option. After graduating in 2009, she got a job working with autistic children. "I chose social sciences because I wanted to work with people, and I needed a degree to do that," she said. "When you're looking for a job you have more seniority with a bachelor's than you would with just an AA degree."

That said, even a BA sometimes isn't enough. Brianne still owes $19,000 in student loans, but she's thinking of going back to pursue a master's in the next couple years. She ascribes that choice to the recession. "With the way the economy is going, and the things I want to do," she said, "it's gonna take another degree."

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