How common of a question is this? How often have we all used this same type of question in our lives? Perhaps the question should be reversed – can you afford to NOT go back to school? This seems to be a more appropriate question to pose to those of us who have felt the bite of the recession.
My particular field of undergraduate study was accounting, and I (unfortunately) was due to graduate in 2002. For those unfamiliar with the significance of this timing, it was the close of 2001 that marked the revelation of the Enron scandal when one of the "big five" accounting firms closed its doors and left thousands of employees unemployed. I say the next statements with feelings of sympathy for those who suffered far greater than my perceived struggle: Because of this, many of the accountants-to-be were in direct competition with thousands of more qualified, seasoned accountants that saturated the market due to the collapse. Arthur Andersen was forced to surrender their CPA license, and thousands of professionals lost their jobs. Although only a handful of Arthur Andersen employees were involved in the Enron scandal, all personnel were jobless after the downfall. So now, there were now thousands of innocent, highly qualified accountants looking for jobs. What chance did a newbie have against those with the need for a job and the experience to bolster their resume? What a tough time to enter the field! Nevertheless, I applied for many positions, and received no offers after dozens of interviews.
I was unnerved to say the least. I had already amassed tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, so I didn't know what to do. Then I received some advice from my professors at the time. They informed me that eventually I would have had to return to school for a graduate degree if I wanted to qualify for the CPA licensure that I had my eyes set on. I agreed and bit the bullet to absorb an additional $20k in student loan debt to further my education. This decision did many things. First, it set me apart from those with an undergraduate degree. Second, it delayed the time that I would enter the workforce, and therefore allowed time to heal certain perceptions of the profession. Third, it positioned me to qualify as a CPA candidate. I now had experience with interviewing and additional knowledge – and I had renewed confidence that transferred to my interviews. I received offers from every single company with which I interviewed. I was in the position to choose the company that I wanted, and I did not have to settle! I chose to pursue a career with one of the final "big 4" accounting firms and the rest is history!
To what do I owe this? Most have heard the adage "everything happens for a reason", but this is not something to which I entirely prescribe. Hard work, perseverance and the advice of my professors positioned me to have an introduction to a career where my path was yet unpaved.
I mention all of this as a prelude to the next economic downturn that stretched far beyond the accounting profession. The year was 2008. I fell prey to the housing bubble, but found a way to squirrel away enough money to keep my house, even though the interest rates climbed to a ridiculous level. I was foolish enough to enter into a variable interest-only loan, and soon became a victim of the upside down value of the housing market. I was fortunate, but many were not so lucky. The foreclosures were vast and the layoffs widespread. Those that stood apart were the people who had pursued advanced degrees and relevant experience. Losing jobs and being forced to return to school to complete a Bachelor's degree or advanced degree to increase marketability was a reality for many people. They would have told you they could not afford it, but those who took the punch on the cheek and went back to school were those who set themselves apart in the long run.
The moral of the story is: Both of these instances are marked with outside pressures forcing us to go back to school – with no other choice. However, this external pressure is a reality, and whether it be an accounting scandal or an economic bubble bursting, the path to future success was further education. There will be pressures that will cause walls and obtacles to be erected in your path. It is within your power to set yourself apart to the others that stand beside you, and to use the stepping stones that can aid in your ascension over these walls. "Can I afford to go back to school?" A better question may be, "Can I afford to NOT go back to school?"