Photo: Rachel Décoste (Courtesy of Oshane McRae)

Going back to school at 40 can be a daunting prospect. But for Rachel Décoste, a 40-year-old former information technology manager from Ottawa, Canada, a two-year public policy masters in Washington, D.C. with a tuition bill of $54,000 was worth it if it was going to lead to her dream job.

“I wanted to work in a field that I was fulfilled in, one where money wasn’t the ultimate goal,” she said.

Décoste is currently in the final year of her graduate program at George Washington University and her situation is hardly unique. A May 2015 study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that the average American changed jobs 12 times between the ages of 18 and 48. Since the early 2000s, over 40 percent of students enrolled in colleges across the country were above the age of 25. Given that the average American student takes on $37,000 in student debt, a few prudent steps could help prevent turning a career transformation into to a path to financial ruin.

“You don’t want to be in situation that what you’re going to do is putting you into so much debt that you can’t crawl out of it,” said Doug Flynn, a certified financial planner at Flynn Zito Capital Management.

1. Plan Years in Advance.

Diligent planning will ensure that you consider the implications for your assets before a return to school, said Flynn.

After getting accepted to her chosen masters program, Décoste said she took an extra year off to get her finances in order.

“It’s not something you do off the top of your head,” she said. By giving herself an extra year to plan, Décoste was able to avoid taking out loans. She was able to take the time to sell her home without a realtor, saving an additional 5 percent of the purchase price. The funds from the sale of the home were used to finance her tuition payments at George Washington University. She kept a second property in Ottawa as a rental income source, and took out a home equity line of credit as an additional form of financial security in case she needed extra funds while studying.

For those with families, sometimes waiting until the children are out of the house can help keep your financial health in check.

“I would not have tried it with the children at home,” said Mary O’Malley, 63, a Boston-based lawyer who went to Boston University to complete her LL.M in the late 1990s. “You think your children will be around forever and I would not choose to do anything that would take time away from them.”

Waiting to go back to school after her daughter had left home was a way to ensure she could focus on her studies and maintain sufficient cash flow, O’Malley said.

2. Make sure the program you sign up for is right for you.

Flynn recommends checking whether the field of study is something you actually want to do.

“Spend time with people actually doing it — learn if it’s what you really want to do,” said Flynn. “You may say you absolutely love it or you may find out and say ‘Oh my god, what am I doing.’”

Sometimes a certificate program can be less costly and allow you to achieve the same career goals, said Flynn.

Décoste said the George Washington University program was an obvious choice for her because local universities would only let her enroll in a public policy masters with two years of preparatory courses, an investment in time and money that would prove too costly for a middle-aged professional.

“I looked at my age and I thought that to take away four years of my prime income earning time tipped the scales to go towards a shorter degree,” she said.

3. Make sure going back to school brings real benefits for your longer-term career.

For Décoste, a public policy masters at a prestigious institution in the U.S. would offer many intangible career benefits beyond the degree itself, yielding valuable networking opportunities she would not have been able to access at a local university.

“A degree from a top American university and the resources that go along with it would have more weight than a Canadian degree and I could do more with it,” she said.

However, O’Malley said her LL.M focusing on tax law offered few benefits beyond her J.D., since she didn’t have prior experience that would have made it more useful.

“An LL.M isn’t useful if you can’t bring any experience to it, and it was probably a poor choice on my part given that I did not have any accounting background,” she said.

4. Consider which savings accounts and tax incentives can benefit you.

A 529 plan is named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code that allows for educational savings plans. Investments in a 529 plan can grow tax-free and can be used for educational expenses when in school.

Flynn said he does not recommend pilfering through retirement savings plans to fund college; however, for those without educational savings plans, retirement funds can be an additional reserve of funds that can be used for educational purposes.

Décoste said that when she was still working and planning her return to education, she took out a tax-sheltered retirement savings plan. She is now able to withdraw the money as a student in a lower income bracket, minimizing the tax burden.

5. Use your previous training and work experience to generate additional income streams while in school.

Working while you go to school can help ease the financial burden. O’Malley said she took courses part-time while completing her LL.M, keeping it affordable.

“Full time would have been very expensive – forget it,” she said. “The way I did it was to do a couple of courses each semester while I was still working the whole time.”

In addition to working full-time, O’Malley’s employer contributed towards her educational expenses.

Upon arrival in Washington, D.C., Décoste applied for jobs and funding opportunities. The skills she gained from her previous education and work experience allowed her to gain a fellowship from the university, which was a big win for her finances.

“One of the things that set me apart was that it required data manipulation skills, and they valued that I had an engineering degree,” she said, noting that her age and experience worked to her advantage in landing the fellowship.