If you find yourself stuck in a career path (or lack thereof) that you aren’t happy with, going back to school can be a great way to develop new skills and position yourself for a better life. Especially in the US, it appears that a masters degree is equivalent to what a bachelors degree was for our parent’s. Sure, you may not need an MBA for that entry-level job – but the odds are, you will be competing with someone who has one.

Especially if you want to continue to grow your professional opportunities, going back to school can be a very wise decision.

However, failing to know why you are going back to school can be one of the most expensive mistakes of your life.

In the past, most people have focused on getting into the top university that will accept them. If you receive an opportunity to study at Stanford, you take it – no matter what.

However, more and more people are discovering that $120,000 of debt is not always worth the prestigious name. Especially if your desire is to go work for a nonprofit that pays $30,ooo/year.

I have mixed feelings towards education, but I believe it is valuable – when used appropriately.

Before you go back to college, know your reason for going

Never start another degree without a plan. If you hate your job as an accountant, going and getting an MBA may just make you even more qualified to be an accountant. If you want a law degree so that you can add “J.D.” to the end of your name, in hopes that this will improve your career in business, $150,000 of debt and 3 years out of the workforce may actually hinder your goals more than benefit them.

Yes, everyone will be impressed if you have a Stanford diploma. But that doesn’t mean that everyone will pay you $100,000k a year to sit around and talk about it. You probably don’t want to become the wisest man living under the bridge, or the charity fundraiser who wins the “most debt” award.

Therefore, ask yourself several questions. Is this degree a requirement for a specific job, or am I just wanting to learn something new? What do most people do who have this degree? How long will it take me to pay off this degree? For more questions worth asking, read Six Questions to Ask When Choosing a College Degree.

Once you know your reason for further education, consider these unconventional alternatives to get a professional degree without going broke

Thanks to the technologically advanced world we live in today, there are many options for furthering your education. While it is important to make sure that you end up with an education you will be proud of, it’s not always necessary to spend top dollar to meet your desired educational goals.

You may discover that you can get a professional degree without going broke!

Therefore, if you’re looking to advance your career in a particular direction, consider these options.

Become a California lawyer for $12,000

Northwestern California University School of LawHave you heard of Northwestern California University School of Law? It’s a 4 year, part-time law school that charges a whopping $237.50 a month! 

That’s right. While thousands of lawyers have spent $100k for their diploma, you can get one for just 10% of that. While keeping your day job.

Pretty impressive, isn’t it?

Now the question arises, who is this degree good for. Because, let’s be honest, if it was a bargain for everyone it would dominate the market.

Who should study law at NCUSL?

California is one of the few states that allows you to sit for the Bar exam without going to an on-campus law school. Therefore, if you want to practice law in any state other than California, this degree won’t work for you.

Additionally, law is a very competitive field – even after school. Therefore, don’t expect to land a job at a large law firm with this degree – especially when you’re competing against Ivy League graduates.

And by the way, skip out on Concord Law School. It’s no more prestigious than this one – and neither school is accredited (because no online law schools can be).

Consider getting your J.D. from NCUSL if:

  • You care more about knowledge then job prospects.
  • You’re a business professional interested in using a J.D. degree to boost your reputation.
  • You want to earn a degree while keeping your full-time job.
  • Cost and time are important factors in your decision.

Earn your MBA, at your own pace, for $6,000

WGUAnother costly degree, there are many students who drop $50,000 a year on a 2-3 year MBA. And as any MBA graduate who finished during the recession will tell you, an MBA does not guarantee a job.

If the idea of being an MBA sounds appealing, but you aren’t interested in $150k of debt, then take a look at Western Governor’s University.

This university was established by 19 US state governors who believed that high-quality, online education should be affordable – and done differently. And as you can see from their website, they are making news.

The two biggest benefits of WGU are:

  1. Tuition costs about $3,000 a semester – and you can take as many classes as you want.
  2. Using your current knowledge and life experiences, you can clep out of unnecessary coursework.

Essentially, this means that a hard worker could earn an MBA in one year and $6,000! And perhaps, if you go without sleeping, you could complete the degree in one semester – halving the time and cost.

The school is gaining credibility, but it’s still no Harvard. Therefore, WGU may be right for you if:

  • You need flexibility and an online program seems appropriate.
  • You are able to commit to studying full time (as you pay the same whether you take one course or seven).
  • You like the idea of a nontraditional educational process.

Get an Ivy League degree for under $30,000

Harvard ExtensionSometimes you just want a diploma that will wow people. And there’s nothing wrong with that! We all need street cred.

If you’re able to spend more than 6 grand for your masters, and want a degree that people will recognize, consider Harvard Extension School – the online arm of one of the world’s most prestigious universities – Harvard University.

While on-campus education at Harvard is pricey, online courses cost $2,400 each. Considering many masters programs are around 12 courses, the total cost sits just shy of $30k!

Now, is the degree worth $30,000? That depends. You are giving up the networking opportunities by being an online student – which are one of the most valuable elements of a school like Harvard. And your diploma will mention that you were an extension student.

However, the online program still allows for a couple of on campus intensives, and the diploma is just as real as the regular Harvard diploma!

A Harvard Extension degree may be right for you if:

  • You want to save money on a prestigious degree.
  • The on-campus networking opportunities aren’t as important to you as the degree itself.
  • You are able to afford spending $30,000 for the degree.

Start making your education fit YOUR needs

Your degree is only as good as you make itThe purpose of this article is to emphasize that you should focus on your needs, not a diploma, when furthering your education.

Regardless of how you study, or where you study, a degree is only as good as you make it.

Too many people expect a degree to “qualify” them for a job – even if they aren’t sure what that job is! Unfortunately, this doesn’t work.

The next time you think about getting a (or another) degree, ask yourself these serious questions and realize that the traditional path may not be the best path for you.

After all, using the three programs above, you could have an MBA, JD, and Harvard MA in seven years. And it would only cost you $47,000 – while being able to work full time!

Shoot, I might have to go do that…

For the comments: What are your experiences with higher education? Do you think a degree is worth $100,000? Or would you rather get a professional degree without going broke? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.