Being laid off from a job or quitting a job that wasn’t a good fit can uproot your life. Even if you’re itching to get back to work, finding a well-paying job is tricky. It’s especially hard if you have less than an associate’s degree. Returning to school to earn a certificate or degree can increase your employment options and your salary. While it can be scary to enter a degree program without an income, there is financial aid for returning or adult students. If you can afford school with the help of your family and financial aid, the payoff can be well worth it.


Will going to school help me find a well-paying job upon graduation?

Returning to school now could very well increase your future job prospects. The following chart illustrates job availability and average annual income in the United States as of May 2013.

Education Level Number of Jobs Average Annual Earnings
Less than a high school diploma 36,116,050 $20,350
High school diploma 51,519,730 $35,580
Postsecondary nondegree award or certificate 7,874,230 $35,120
Associate’s degree 5,719,860 $58,240
Bachelor’s degree 23,829,150 $68,190
Master’s degree 2,214,480 $64,510
Doctorate or professional degree 3,405,980 $97,550

Some states are more receptive to employees with less than a high school education, including Nevada, Hawaii, South Dakota, and Florida. However, the average annual salary in each of these states only ranges from $19,000 to $24,000. A single adult in Carson City, Nevada can get by on just under $21,000 annually, but a family of four may need up to $60,000. Consider calculating the living wage for your area here. Determine what type of salary would be best for you and your family and then consider degree or certificate programs based on your findings. Remember, the higher degree you hope to achieve, the longer you must stay in school.

How can I afford school if I am unemployed?

Finances are typically the culprit when an unemployed individual is struggling with the decision to either return to school or to find another job. There are a few options for financial aid. The Department of Labor offers unemployment insurance to eligible individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own. Each state manages their own program, so contact your state unemployment insurance agency as soon as you are laid off to file a benefits claim. Unemployment benefits aren’t a guarantee, however, so be aware that you may need to consider other sources of income. Returning to school may also make you ineligible for unemployment benefits, so check with your state to determine the rules. Some states consider a college program as career training and allow you to continue receiving unemployment benefits, but others see it as a choice to be unemployed. It never hurts to ask.

Aside from unemployment benefits, you may be eligible for federal, state, regional, or institutional financial aid. Filling out the FAFSA in October will allow you to determine your estimated family contribution (the amount you will have to pay out of pocket). Depending on your household finances, you may be eligible for loans, grants, or work-study to supplement your contribution.

What is a dislocated worker? Does being a dislocated worker affect my financial aid?

If you are certain that you want to return to school, you may be considered a dislocated worker if you can answer yes to one or more of the following:

  • You are receiving unemployment benefits after being laid off due to no fault of your own.
  • You have been laid off or recently received a notice that you will be laid off.
  • You were self-employed and are now out of work due to the economy or a natural disaster.
  • You are the spouse of an active duty military member and are currently unemployed after a permanent change in duty station or are unemployed or underemployed and having trouble finding adequate employment.
  • You are a displaced homemaker, meaning that you were a stay-at-home parent and are now no longer being supported by your spouse, and as a result, you are unemployed or underemployed and having trouble finding adequate employment.

This has implications when you fill out your FAFSA to receive federal financial aid. If you or your spouse is a dislocated worker, your finances are treated differently on the FAFSA and your estimated family contribution to your education may be as low as zero. This means that you will qualify for more need-based financial aid.

Which postsecondary institutions are most affordable now and most lucrative after graduation?

Typically, the more education you receive, the more money you will make when you get a job after graduating. You'll find the largest jumps in earnings between a high school diploma or a certificate and an associate's degree and between a master's degree and a doctorate or professional degree. The type of institution that is most affordable to you and will result in the highest earning potential depends on your current level of education. If you have a high school diploma, it makes the most sense to aim for an associate's degree. If you have a bachelor's degree and want to continue in your current field, you may choose to pursue a doctorate or professional degree instead of earning a master's degree, though master's programs are generally shorter. Remember, too, that education is a factor in your potential salary, but there are no guarantees that increasing your educational attainment will actually result in an increased salary. And while education alone won't get you a job, increased education can open up additional job prospects; finding and applying to them is up to you.

While you may be struggling with unemployment and your finances, there are plenty of options to make going back to college more attainable, including searching for financial aid from a number of sources and choosing your college wisely. Typically, in-state public institutions offer cheaper tuition than their out-of-state alternatives, and public schools are often cheaper than private schools. Community colleges are a good choice for students looking for a certificate or associate's degree and offer advantages for students with financial constraints or dependents. Tuition is low. Since many community college students are nontraditional, there are often resources to help increase flexibility. Research your prospective institution(s), and talk to an admissions officer about scholarships or programs for students who have lost employment and are choosing to return to college or to attend for the first time.

If you are eager to return to work, a vocational education may be the best choice for you. Trade-focused studies are intended to prepare you to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation, and programs may only last two years as opposed to the time it would take you to earn a bachelor's degree. You will learn how to use and implement the newest technologies and necessary tools for your chosen field and may be able to take part in a paid apprenticeship as part of your education. If you elect to pursue a vocational education, make sure that you are sure of your career choice; the credentials that you earn from a vocational or trade school are unlikely to transfer over to another career path.

Once you have several potential colleges in mind, estimate how much you will have to pay out of pocket for your education at each of them. Then, you can make decisions based on what you've learned.

How do I make my résumé or college application appealing to schools despite the fact that I’m unemployed?

Being unemployed doesn’t automatically make you an uncompetitive applicant, especially if you’re proactive during your unemployment. If you’re worried that colleges are going to think that you’ve been sitting around doing nothing, there are a few things you can do.

  • Volunteer. Fill your time with meaningful activities, whether they be volunteering with your church, getting involved with your child’s school, or reaching out to the local hospital or hospice care facility to see what needs to be done. Prospective institutions want to see that you’ve stayed involved despite your hardships.
  • Schedule an interview. Do this as part of the application process. This way, you can explain head on that you’re out of work, the circumstances behind your unemployment, and your reasoning for wanting to return to school. Attacking the problem head on instead of letting it speak for itself is the type of go-getter attitude that colleges are interested in seeing in their students.
  • Take contract work. Even if you can’t find long-term employment, you may be able to find short jobs or temporary positions that need filling. You may learn a new skill, and again, it shows your prospective school that you’re making an effort to stay busy and involved.
  • Take a free online class. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are often free, offered in a variety of subjects, and scheduled on your own time. You can study from the comfort of your home, and once you’ve completed the class, you can add it to your résumé or skills list.

Page last updated: 07/2017