Should I Go Back to School in a Recession?

Factors to consider when deciding whether to return to college or not.

Female returning college student uses a laptop at a kitchen table with textbooks nearby
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Economic downturns have historically been a popular time to further your education. During the Great Recession, students who returned to college after being in the workforce grew by 30%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Most students had either been in the labor market or otherwise out of school.

With the country now in a recession, enrolling could improve your job prospects significantly. Research from the last great recession revealed that individuals with associate's or bachelor's degrees maintained higher levels of employment (and smaller earnings reductions for women) than for those without degrees.

Recently, those with at least a bachelor’s degree have far lower unemployment rates when compared to those without a degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

COVID-19 poses unique health risks associated with in-person classes. However, many schools will likely offer online learning opportunities in the coming year, to minimize those risks. The current environment may allow you to advance your education from home. 

Of course, school tuition and books add up. While financial aid opportunities exist—including scholarships, grants, and private and federal student loans—carefully weigh the pros and cons of a classroom return. 

Go Back to School vs. Search For a Job 

Should you keep looking for a job or sign up for classes? Recessions usually extend unemployment periods, and getting hired also requires more flexibility—including a willingness to shift to new industries—according to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report.  

"Weigh how many available jobs you qualify for without going back to school," suggests job-search expert Ron Auerbach, author of “Think Like an Interviewer: Your Job Hunting Guide to Success.” During recessions, you’ll face tougher competition for the few available positions. If you find you're likely to have few opportunities or don’t have the skills necessary to compete, returning to school may be the ideal option. 

"Use this time productively by going back to school and positioning yourself for your next career move for when the economy opens up more," advises Atlanta-based career coach Hallie Crawford. As well, schooling can prevent a gap on your resume if you can’t find work now. 

However, as COVID-19 ushers in a new normal, earning a new degree brings risks of its own. 

"You may not know the best type of schooling or what education will be required as new jobs and industries take the forefront during this unique time," Crawford cautions. 

For example, certain industries have been hit especially hard by the recent COVID-19 shutdowns, including bars, restaurants, hotels, retailers, services, automotive and media. However, companies also announced 1.1 million new jobs too, mostly in retail and e-commerce.

Even in normal times, more school correlates with a lower unemployment rate and higher earnings—those with a master’s degree have twice the weekly median earnings of those with a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Services (BLS). An associate’s degree can boost median earnings by $141 a week when compared to a high-school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Right Program for Future Career Prospects

Any courses or future degree should help you find a new career (or advance your current career) after the recession ends. Reach out to people in your chosen field to research job prospects, and investigate the long-term outlook for the field. 

"Consider informational interviews with people in your industry or the industries you're exploring to gather information about what it takes to transition into the field," Crawford suggests. An informational interview is an informal conversation with someone in your field, to get career tips, experience, and advice. This conversation can tip you off as to whether school—or how much school—serves your long-term career goals. 

Research salary data and probable demand for your chosen profession or industry through sites such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook from BLS, or Salary.com, or Glassdoor.  

Working Part-Time as a Student 

Deciding to return to school doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You can still conduct a job search while taking online or in-person courses, or attend school while employed part-time

Even if you’re working, you won’t feel out of place in the classroom, as many schools today have enrollees who also hold down jobs. Taking classes that fit into your work schedule could be easier than ever before, due to the proliferation of online courses that can be taken anywhere, in a variety of time zones.

"Since many schools are offering online courses, it can be a great opportunity for many professionals," Crawford said. For example, many schools offer evening and part-time MBA classes.

Finding Money to Return to School

If you plan to return to school many federal financial aid options exist—despite the recession. In fact, online learning will count towards requirements for at least half-time attendance for federal aid eligibility, according to the Department of Education. 

Federal loans require you to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which asks about your financial resources and income. If you've been working full-time until a recent layoff or otherwise employed, it may seem like you have more money available for college than you actually do. 

In this situation, the Department of Education urges returning students to contact the financial aid office at their chosen school—ideally even before completing the FAFSA. With proof of an income change, the school may be able to recalculate your financial aid package. 


Grants and scholarships
may also be available from academic institutions, from state or local governments, or from private companies or non-profit organizations. You should explore these sources of funding first as they do not have to be repaid.

Low-rate private student loans are available, too. Well-qualified borrowers and those with cosigners may be able to access the funding necessary. 

The Bottom Line

Returning to school in a recession depends on your situation. If further college could advance your career prospects, look into your options. You may find that a return to school full-time is right for you or might opt to seek work while attending classes part-time. Weigh your options and do what's right for you over the long-term. 

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Census Bureau. "Postsecondary Enrollment Before, During and After the Great Recession." Accessed August 7, 2020.

  2. ScienceDirect. "The Value of Educational Degrees in Turbulent Economic Times: Evidence from the Youth Development Study." Accessed August 7, 2020

  3. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Unemployment Rate by Educational Attainment and Age, Monthly, Not Seasonally Adjusted: 25 Years and Over." Accessed August 7, 2020

  4. Congressional Budget Office. "Losing a Job During a Recession." Accessed August 7, 2020

  5. Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, Inc. "May 2020 Job Cuts Report: Employers Announce 397,016 Job Cuts in May, Nearly 1M Cuts Due to COVID-19 This Year." Accessed August 7, 2020.

  6. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Learn More, Earn More: Education Leads to Higher Wages, Lower Unemployment." Accessed August 7, 2020.