Published on 2013/08/14

Which Degrees are Best for Adult Students?

Which Degrees are Best for Adult Students?
Increasing numbers of adults are returning to higher education to seek out a new career. But which educational pathway will lead to the best return?

Millions of workers are returning to college or graduate school to further their education and seek additional training, due in part to recession trends in the American economy. The number of adults aged 30 and over enrolled in some form of higher education is currently 5.5 million, a 322-percent increase from 1970.[1] Experts predict more than 6.1 million adults over the age of 30 will be enrolled by 2019. Persons aged 55 and over account for 350,000 students in colleges and universities.[2]

Although the number of people seeking advanced degrees is expected to see the largest increase among all educational pursuits by 2020, some degrees will be more economically valuable than others in the long run. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, the estimated percentage of increase in employment by educational category between 2010 and 2020 is the highest for students who have completed a master’s degree (22 percent) and lowest for students who have completed a high school diploma or equivalent (12 percent). The overall number of new jobs forecasted to be created between 2010 and 2020 for specific educational categories suggests most new jobs will require a high school diploma or equivalent (7,576,000), and the least required category will be for persons with “Some college, no degree” (142,000).[3]

While the most jobs may require at least a high school diploma, students who pursue higher education degrees retain greater potential to see return on their investments. Whether seeking additional education will pay off directly in increased earnings depends largely on the jobs and education workers pursue, but the bottom line is: it probably can’t hurt. On average, adults who have a job while enrolled in college see a 22-percent return on tuition dollars.[4] An average of 12 percent return is reported for traditional students.[5] Degree programs in some subject areas report impressive returns on investment for non-traditional students. The highest returns have been reported for the following degrees:

  • Engineering (53 percent)
  • Information technology (49 percent)
  • Business (49 percent)
  • Nursing (36 percent)

With the cost of college soaring seemingly out of control, non-traditional students are in the same boat as younger students when it comes to paying for their education. But educational organizations and employers are viable options for workers who want to return to school but find they can’t afford it. Nearly 85 percent of employers offer some form of tuition reimbursement.[6] Some employers, such as Deloitte and Raytheon, reimburse an employee up to $10,000 yearly for educational costs. Non-traditional students can also cut costs by opting to enroll in community colleges instead of attending larger universities.

When trying to decide if pursuing a further educational credential is currently a financially advantageous or feasible decision, it may be helpful to keep in mind that 10 percent of gross income is the maximum recommended ratio a person should devote to making student loan payments.

To see an infographic discussing the information in this article, please click here.

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[1] Digest of Education Statistics, 2010 Tables and Figures. “Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by sex, age, and attendance status: Selected years, 1970 through 2019.” From the Institute of Educational Sciences website at

[2] Aaron Dalton, “What’s Your Major?,” National Education Association, March 2009. Accessed at

[3] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Outlook Handbook,” United States Department of Labor, March 29, 2012. Accessed at

[4] Anthonia Akitunde, “Back To School: What You Must Think about Before Furthering Your Education After 50,” The Huffington Post, August 17, 2012.

[5] Apollo Research Institute, “Is a Bachelor’s Degree Worth the Investment?” Accessed at

[6] FinAid, “Employer Tuition Assistance.” Accessed at on August 8, 2013

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Readers Comments

Tyrese Banner 2013/08/14 at 10:23 am

No love for arts students? While engineering, IT, business and nursing credentials might seem to produce the greatest returns for graduates, there is still value in pursuing a liberal arts degree. Look at the conditions of the economy: we are increasingly knowledge based, and precarious employment is the new standard. In these times, a liberal arts degree provides graduates with the flexibility and creativity needed to push past the challenges and find success.

    Suzanne 2013/08/14 at 4:23 pm

    I agree. Degrees in political science, women’s studies or philosophy, to name a few, could also lead to a more enlightened and politically-engaged citizendry, one in which humanist rather than capitalist values are honored.

    Sam damper 2015/12/27 at 4:18 pm

    Science and engineering degrees are exceedingly better choices than any arts degree, you will come out much more knowledgable and with a better understanding of the world and the universe. Plus our world needs more scientists and engineers, we don’t need more artists. And as far as creativity, engineering will give you a more creative and problem solving mind than any other degree, high level, abstract and complex problem solving is one of the main requirements of the job, if you aren’t creative, you aren’t a good engineer. Engineering and science grants all the benefits most people claim liberal arts degrees endow you with and more. If anyone is having any doubts as to which you should choose to major in, choose science and engineering.

Suzanne 2013/08/14 at 4:11 pm

I interpret the Bureau of Labor Statistics data a bit differently. What I see is an over-supply of over-educated (and indebted) individuals in a job market that really just needs lots of low-skilled workers. Most knowledge-economy jobs can be outsourced, and already are, to low-wage economies. I don’t see this trend letting up.

In addition, I work in a field that typically requires a graduate degree (instructional design). Increasingly I’m seeing employers, including my own, looking for people with undergraduate degrees to do the same job. Salaries are lower. Theoretical and analytical skills usually lacking. This in addition to the incredible growth of continguency work doesn’t seem to paint a promising picture for someone weighing the cost of more education against its return.

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