Monday, July 8, 2019

College for Senior Citizens?

Does it make sense to go back to college when you're over age 50?

I suppose one advantage of Bernie Sanders' plan for free college is that if you save nothing for retirement, you could always just go back to school and get one degree after another and ask the government to pay for it. Presumably they would pay for your dorm fees and meal plan as well as trips to the campus medical center.   It would be a nice place to retire, and if you're lucky, you might meet a young coed who has "daddy issues."

But is going back to college for seniors, under other circumstances is it really worthwhile once you reach a certain age? Not a day goes by when the media doesn't gleefully report about some granny who went back to school and finished her degree at age 78 or even at 101. We're all supposed to smile and chuckle at these heartwarming stories showing someone's Grandma marching down the aisle wearing her mortarboard and gown.

I suppose if you're older and wealthy and can afford to do so, it might be fun to go back and finish your degree or even start on a degree as it will give you something to do and keep your mind active. For the rest of us, who have to pay for these things and have limited resources, does going back to college make any sense?

Recently, I've been bombarded by "sponsored content" imploring me to click on a link to read about the 10 best online universities for seniors. They show a picture of a smiling granny  holding her diploma.   Does this make any sense at all?

Pundits like to argue that if you have a college degree that, over your lifetime, you earn more money than someone without a college degree. The key words here are "over your lifetime".    If you have a 30- or 40-year working life ahead of you, college might be a cost-effective proposition if you make $5,000 or $10,000 more a year than you would have without college.    This of course, presumes, that you aren't spending an inordinate amount of money on college in the first place and then financing it over 30 years so that the cost is nearly doubled by interest.

As we are finding out today, not all college educations are worthwhile, even for 18-year-olds. Kids are signing up today for toxic degrees and paying enormous sums of money and ending up not only not making more money but not even being able to get a job at all. College can be a very toxic decision even for a youngster.

As you get older it becomes less and less of a value proposition. I started law school at age 28 and some of my friends told me, "by the time you graduate you'll be 32 years old!"  I replied, "that's true, but in four years I'll be 32 years old anyway, this way I'll be 32 with a law degree."

In my situation that made economic sense. As was the case with my entire career, I got the job first and then got the education to qualify for the job second, while asking my employer to pay the tuition. It's a much better plan than this student loan nonsense, but few people are listening to my advice in that regard.

I chose a profession where there was a high demand and the pay was pretty good. So it made sense even at that late date in my life to get a law degree, as it qualified me for another 30 years of employment at wages far higher than I would have made had I not gone to law school.

But the longer I waited, the less of a value proposition it would be.  At age 50 I would be within spitting distance of retiring from the patent office and it would have made absolutely no sense to go to law school at that point. Not only that, but few law firms will be looking to hire a 50-year-old law clerk or first-year associate. In fact, it would almost be impossible to get hired. Having a law degree at the patent office might have qualified me for some more senior position, but the raise in pay probably wouldn't have exceeded the cost of going to law school, even with the patent office subsidizing much of the tuition.

I've met a number of people who decide to go back to school after age 50 in order to improve their job prospects. I'm not sure this is such a great idea when you're so close to retirement.  As I noted in an earlier article, there was a lady who in her 50s who decided to go back to school to get a master's degree when she was working in the home healthcare field. 20 years later she is still paying back student loans and working as a home health care worker, her degree not really qualifying her for any sort of raise or promotion. In retrospect, she would have better off taking that money she paid for tuition at either not borrowing it or putting it in the bank.

I know of others who go back to school in their fifties to get advanced degrees hoping this will qualify them for a boost in pay or a job promotion. Often these are online schools sometimes for-profit schools, which can be rather expensive. And unfortunately lending for advanced degrees is not constrained by the same rules as for undergraduate degrees. Thus, it is a lot easier to rack up staggering amounts of debt for a master's degree as compared to a bachelor's degree.

Then again, there is the stigma of online universities. Many employers would be skeptical of an online University degree, as one would wonder whether a person actually learned the material when taking tests over the internet. Whether this is a fair assumption or not doesn't matter - it is a matter of perception.

At age 50 or so, spending $20,000 or $50,000 on a master's degree might not be a cost-effective proposition. In fact, it may be a better idea to put that money into your 401k or IRA instead, or use it to pay down debt. Because the harsh reality is that it's possible you may be laid off in your mid-50s and not find another job in your field again, with or without an advanced degree from online university.

As for the sponsored content exhorting me to click to learn about advanced degrees for seniors, I can say without reservation this is probably a scam. Most everything that is labeled "sponsored content" usually ends up being a raw deal. At best, you're just funneled off to some clickbait site which requires you to click through 45 pages of advertisements in order to see the content.  At worst, you'll end up signed up for a for-profit university and spend the rest of your life paying off student loans.

The cost-benefit analysis of a college education is diminishing even for young people today. For every year you get older, college degree is worth less and less in terms of additional income over your career life. By age 50, a college degree is likely to be worthless, or even worse, an entire waste of money.

If you want to be the granny featured on USA Today wearing your cap and gown and grinning with your diploma, that's great if you can afford it and want something to do with your time. But I doubt that at age 86, it is going to lead to a new career.