If you are an adult considering going back to school through an online college, will the degree be worth the cost and the effort required earning it? While it might be comforting to read a resounding positive answer, the truth is that it depends upon your reasons for earning the degree, and your age. Of course, you are never too old to get your degree; several 95-year-old graduates have taken that step. The question is whether the degree is worth the cost and effort, and the answer depends upon many variables.

Why Do You Want the Degree?

The pay gap between those who have college degrees and those who don’t is widening. College graduates currently earn nearly double what people with only high school diplomas earn, up from 64 percent in the early 1980s. If you want to increase your earning potential, getting a degree might be worthwhile. Statisticians consider an older student as one who is entering a degree program at an age older than 25, but nearly four million people who are 35 or older are enrolled in degree-seeking programs in the United States. Two-thirds of those people are women. Are you thinking about starting a new career or just learning new skills to get ahead in your current position? If you only want advancement, you might think about auditing classes or taking a few courses. For some people, earning a degree has nothing to do with increasing earning power and everything to do with personal satisfaction. Whether the degree is worthwhile for them depends on other factors.

Can You Afford to Go Back to School?

If the career you want will pay back the student debt you would have, you probably can afford the degree program. Online degree programs often, but not always, are less expensive. Earning an online degree, you would not have to pay for on-campus lodging or meal plans and other fees. Sometimes the tuition is lower than traditional programs, but it could be the same or even higher. Online schools charge by the credit hour and often require more credits for graduation. If you need financial aid, as most students do, you probably must be enrolled at least half-time. Most experts consider a degree program affordable if you will graduate with a total debt that is less than your starting annual salary. There are many scholarship opportunities for non-traditional students as well as student loans. The actual cost of earning a degree, according to some experts, is a negative $500,000 for those in early or mid-career. You could lose nearly a half-million dollars of increased income over your lifetime without a degree.

Can You Balance the Load of Work and Study?

Adult students who pursue an online degree often do so to “learn as they earn.” They want keep on working full-time as they get their degree. The flexibility of online schools is an advantage. The difficulty you may encounter, though, is balancing your work, family, leisure and study times. The stress of rushing home from eight or more hours on the job to a hastily-eaten meal and then hours of study can take a toll on relationships and on your health.

Are You Ever Too Old to Get Value from an Online Degree Program?

Most adults returning to school online or traditionally are still in mid-career. Adults older than that are in the minority. The average student debt can be retired in ten years if it is less than your annual income. If you are five years or less from retirement, you should consider carefully whether borrowing that amount will create a financial burden for you, especially if you will be on a fixed income. Older adults who want a degree for reasons other than increased earnings should note that federal student loans are forgiven upon the death of the borrower. If you are 80, for instance, you can get a loan with an earnings-based repayment schedule and possibly have no monthly cost. The debt does not become part of your estate.

If you consider all the variables and still want to pursue earning a degree, you deserve kudos. It isn’t an easy path, but it can be rewarding. Almost all of the time, earning an online degree is worth the cost and the effort you will put in to the pursuit.

Related Resource: Top 10 Online Colleges for Adults