The decision to return to school for an advanced degree is never an easy one, and that goes double if you’ve been out of school for a while. When you’re an adult with a career and a family, going back to school for your masters can sound out of reach.

But getting that advanced degree can equal a higher salary and more opportunities. Online masters programs make it easier to juggle the responsibilities of school, family, and career, but earning a master’s online still requires a big-time commitment and a lot of hard work. Can you handle that time commitment? Can you afford to go back to school? Will your employer pay for it? What’s your ultimate goal in earning the degree? These are the questions you must ask yourself as you weigh the decision to earn a master’s degree on online.

Consider the Time It Will Take to Earn Your Degree

Perhaps the most important question you should ask yourself before enrolling in an online grad program is whether or not you have time to finish a master’s degree. Most master’s degree programs are demanding; if you choose to study full-time, that will mean one to two years of early mornings, late nights and lunch breaks spent hitting the books. You may need to sacrifice much of your “me time,” and some of your relationships may suffer as you micromanage your daily and weekly schedule to eke out precious study time. You won’t have as much time to spend with your friends or family. You’ll need stellar time management skills and the support of everyone in your life, to make it work.

Many online master’s degree programs are designed with some built-in flexibility to meet the needs of non-traditional students. Most give you a maximum of five to six years to complete the degree. If you choose to study part-time, the burden may be lessened, but it’ll be spread out over more semesters. You could end up spending four or five years earning the degree.

Weigh the Potential Salary Increase

If your goal in earning a master’s degree is to get a better job, earn a higher salary or have more professional opportunities in the future, then going back to school online could be a good move. Graduate degree holders earn an average of $17,000 more a year than bachelor’s degree holders. That’s a significant pay boost that could definitely make earning a master’s degree worth it.

Of course, whether or not you can expect a salary increase after earning a master’s depends largely on the specific degree you earn. An MBA or a master’s in business analytics, for example, could earn you a six-figure starting salary, whereas a Master of Fine Arts may not. Consider whether earning an advanced degree in your field will translate to a significantly higher salary and more opportunities for advancement within your current organization. If so, it may be worth the time and hard work.

Find a Way to Pay for It

Can you afford an online master’s? Online graduate degrees are often cheaper than traditional ones, but that’s not always the case – and often, the savings has to do less with tuition bills and more with the costs of moving to campus, commuting to classes and dropping out of the work force for two years. Going back to school online might mean taking out student loans or draining your savings to pay tuition. But you might have other funding options.

For example, you might qualify for grants, scholarships or fellowships that can help offset the cost of tuition. You might also qualify for tuition assistance from your employer. Most companies are willing to defray the cost of a graduate degree for an employee because, when compared to the costs of recruiting someone who already has the credential, tuition reimbursement is a cheap and easy way for the company to get a more qualified, valuable worker. Talk to your supervisor about tuition reimbursement; even if your company doesn’t have a policy, they may be willing to pay for classes if you’re a good performer. You may need to maintain a certain grade point average or commit to staying with the company for a certain period of time, in order to qualify.

Online programs make it easier than ever to go back to school for a graduate degree, even if you’ve already started your career and family. Weigh the potential benefits, the time commitment and the costs before making a decision about returning to school online. Once you’ve started classes, you’ll be glad you didn’t rush into the decision.

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