Businessman finding the solution of a mazeAlthough the economy is slowly recovering, more than 7.5 percent of Americans are still out of work according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For young adults aged 20-24 (in other words, recent college graduates) the statistics are even grimmer – with 13.5 percent unemployment. During an economic downturn, the un- and underemployed often return to the safety of academia to weather the storm, but is going back to school really a good idea?

All in Favor, Say “Aye”

An advanced degree may serve as a gatekeeper, of sorts, to entering or advancing within the career path of your choosing. Even if you have years of experience in your field, prospective employers may be sticklers about that piece of paper. If you find yourself being turned down for jobs because of your lack of credentials, then a diploma may be exactly what you need. You might just learn something, too.

Another good reason to return to school is if you’re thinking about radically switching gears. If you’re considering a drastic career change, make sure to look for a program that offers internships, hands-on training, or shadowing. While it’s important to learn the theory behind the practice of your new career, it’s equally important to get on-the-job experience and network with your future colleagues. Be wary of online programs that promise flexibility and convenience at the cost of credibility; where you went to school is often as important as what you studied.

All Opposed, Say “Neigh”

If you’re thinking about going back to school merely as a stopgap, you may regret it later. If you study for the sake of staving off unemployment for a year or two, you’ll find yourself no better off after you graduate. And, on average, you’ll be $30,000 deeper in debt. In addition, becoming a full-time student may cause you to lose your unemployment benefits, so make sure you know the rules before registering for classes.

Pursuing a more generic course of study—business or English, for example—is less beneficial than targeting a specific, high-growth field. Graduate school should be a means to a specific end, not merely a continuation of your undergraduate studies. That said, there are many alternatives to taking on a full-time degree program. If you need a particular certification to move ahead in your career, either study for the exam on your own or sign up for a low-cost training program. You can also find mentoring and networking opportunities through professional organizations and civic groups, both online and locally. Colleges and tech schools usually offer continuing education programs that will allow you to learn new skills and sample new professions without investing too much time and money.

Recently, more and more universities have begun to offer massive open online courses, or MOOCs. These distance-education opportunities are free, although some may require you to purchase textbooks, and usually last four- to six-weeks. You can sign up to study anything from ancient history to computer programming. While most offer no college credit, they’re a great way to expand your horizons and keep your skills up to date while you search for a job. Best of all, they’re presented by some of the top academic institutions in the world. Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Berkeley all offer free online courses. For even more choices, check out Coursera and Udacity.

Whether you’re crafting a cover letter to land the perfect job or writing an essay to get into the school of your dreams, grammar counts.

Power your recruiting success.
Tap into, the largest network of recruiters.

in Career Advice]