Education helps increase earnings. Adults, who may not have had time or money to attend college as teenagers, understand this. It’s perhaps for this reason that nontraditional students, those older than 24, now constitute some 40 percent of America’s college students. But is it always a good idea for the unemployed to go back to school? Probably not.

According to an article by Catey Hill at Smart Money, if someone’s over 50, going back to school might be a bad idea. As she explains:

Drawn by a growing number of college programs targeted at boomers and spurred by the lousy job market, the number of students ages 50 to 64 increased 17% between fall 2007 and fall 2009…. And colleges have welcomed them with programs specifically designed for older students.

Older learners need to do the same kinds of cost-benefit analyses that first-time freshmen do, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of financial aid sites and As a general rule, don’t take on more debt that the starting salary you expect to earn as a result of this new certificate or degree, he says. Secondly, consider how long you plan to work and how quickly you can pay off any debt you might take on by heading to school. “….If you’re looking for a very short-term career extender, it’s not so easy.”

The problem is that it’s actually almost always worse when you’re older. A two-year degree designed to improve job prospects and increase salary costs the same amount whether you’re 19 or 50; it’s just that when you’re 50 you have fewer working years left to pay off the loans you accrue getting the education.

This is an important thing to consider when thinking about for-profit schools, which often deliberately serve working adults.

This makes sense, since these companies are flexible and career focused. They’re also more expensive, on average costing some $22,950 a year. Since most of that is paid by student loans, graduates end up with higher debt loads.

That’s not, in and of itself, a problem. But for students over 50 the financial costs of college may not really be worth it. In terms of salary boosts relative to education debt, it may make more sense never to finish college.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer