Back to school: How to make it work

27 April 2019 by National Bank
Back to school

Whether it's to learn new skills, improve your knowledge or study something that genuinely interests you, there are many reasons to return to school as an adult. If you're planning to go back to school, be sure to carefully consider your reasons, your finances and the time you have available.

A strong desire to learn

Déanne Gagnon, 31, got a late start to her medical studies. With her colourful hair and numerous tattoos, this former body piercer stands out amongst her younger classmates. Born into a modest family, Déanne dropped out of school at 16. Fiercely determined, she will soon achieve her childhood dream of treating and caring for people. A blessing after five years of hard work during which, she says with a laugh, she wanted to throw her books out the window multiple times!
"I felt like all of the odd jobs I was accumulating didn't help me grow or feel useful." explains Rachel Parent, 29. This year, she enrolled in the Bachelor of Environmental Geography at Université de Montréal's Faculty of Continuing Education. As a teenager, Rachel was unmotivated at school and anxious to earn a living. She worked for nearly 10 years as a housekeeper before deciding to take up her studies again. She now balances her schoolwork with her job as a full-time inventory manager. "Time off? Maybe in a few years," she jokes.

Strong determination to succeed

Inspired and committed, these mature students didn't back down from the challenges of going back to school. Despite knowing that their future diplomas will give them a higher salary, this is not what motivates them the most. "Money isn't the thing that motivates you to pull an all-nighter the night before an exam," says Déanne. "Going back to school takes a lot more than that. You need a larger-than-life dream that gives you the courage to persevere despite hardship and sometimes failure."
While motivation is the key to making your return to school a success, it'll be put to the test throughout your studies. Financing and reconciling your studies with adult responsibilities are among the main obstacles.
Balancing her day job with her evening classes, Rachel stays positive in difficult times by thinking about the progress she's already made. "I still have four years of school left. It's a big challenge," she admits. "But when I look back at where I started, I tell myself that I can't give up!"

Photo of Déanne Gagnon

These adult students are more mature and able to put things into perspective. They can rely on their broader life experience to face challenges. "Once you're in the field and facing patients, your life experience is priceless," says Déanne. "Compared to my younger peers, I often felt better equipped to handle our patients' sadness and pain." However, the future doctor wasn't always aware of her strengths. She suffered from impostor syndrome for a long time.

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Organization is key

"Adults who go back to school have a tendency to underestimate how much time and effort they'll need to invest," explains Andrée Plaisance, Assistant Manager at Université Laval in Quebec City. "Expect to spend at least as many hours studying at home as in attending class."
Based on her observations, students who attended school full-time were more likely to succeed than those who followed one or two courses per session while working at the same time. "It depends on what people can manage," she added. Not everyone can afford to stop working."
Each plan is unique and must be meticulously organized. How long will the training last? What's the class schedule? What's the enrolment date? Is it necessary to provide proof of successful completion of exams or prerequisite courses? How much will it cost?

Budget planning

"Ideally, you should start planning your return to school about 3 to 5 years in advance," says François Morency, Financial Planner. "Regardless of your life situation, you have to consider all aspects of your situation to achieve your dream without affecting others." To account for a drop in your budget, you'll need to make sacrifices and redefine your spending priorities. Some choose to limit expensive outings and leisure activities, while others sell their car or move into a smaller home. How will you reduce your budget?
Support these budgetary changes with various financing solutions. Depending on your situation and the scope of your project, you can:

  • Borrow from your RRSP via the Lifelong Learning Plan (LLP). Based on the same principle as the Home Buyers' Plan, the LLP lets you borrow up to $20,000 over 4 years, with a maximum of $10,000 per year. The amount withdrawn can be paid back over 10 years. (learn more) *Check if you're eligible for Student Financial Assistance from the Quebec government. It offers loans, bursaries and special allowances for adult students.
  • Consult your financial institution's Financial Packages for Students, including loans and lines of credit.
  • Check if you can benefit from an employee benefit plan (private companies) or a sabbatical leave with deferred pay (governmental and educational institutions). Under certain conditions, these programs let you defer a portion of your salary so you can receive it during a period of leave or part-time work.
  • Ask your employer if they can support your training, if it will help you improve your work.
  • Consult the loans and bursaries offered by the school or university you want to enrol at.
  • "Creativity is key in finding ways to finance your return to school," asserts François Morency. "Don't limit yourself to one financing solution. Use as many as possible." Consider getting the help of a professional to make the most of your budget and ensure you're not missing out on any options. Whether you want to go back to school tomorrow or in 5 years, everything is possible. Armed with willpower and good organization skills, Rachel, Déanne and many others have proven that there's no age limit to learn and realize your dreams.

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