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Deidre Romeo was 40 years old when she started college. Pamela Monroe was 42. Believing that more education would lead inevitably to better-paying jobs and improved lives, both women received bachelor’s degrees, and continued on to graduate school.

But their outcomes couldn’t be more different. Just returned from a weeklong vacation in Mexico, Romeo is back at her job as communications director for a global engineering company.

And since her employer is paying most of her college expenses, Romeo’s student debt is minimal.

“It was scary, but it was one of the best decisions of my life,” says Romeo, who is now 45.

Monroe, meanwhile, has $45,000 in student loan debt but only $2 in her bank account. Unemployed for six months, her best hope now is to regain the job she had before school, working part-time at a Victoria’s Secret store.

“I’m completely indigent,” says Monroe, now 54. “I think my education actually hurts me.”

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Free Tool: Credit Report Card Many Americans believe that going back to school is a universally good idea. They feel that spending the time and money to improve one’s education almost always leads to more pay, better opportunities and happier lives. College graduates earn 84 percent more money over their lifetimes on average than people with just high school diplomas, according to a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

That belief in education as a universal good holds true for middle-aged people. Over 3.9 million people ages 35 and over were enrolled in degree-granting institutions in 2010, the last year for which data is available, up 20 percent from when the latest recession started in 2006, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The number of middle-aged people in college, graduate school or technical school is projected to continue rising to 4.1 million by 2015, the center predicts.

“Older people have always gone to school part-time,” says Jane Glickman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. “But there’s definitely been an increase in full-time education among older students, as more people lose their jobs or go to working part-time.”

Returning to school often helps older students switch careers, get better-paying jobs, or climb the corporate ladder within their current company. But it also can carry significant risks, including burdensome loan debt, without much prospect for higher earnings.

And since older students have fewer years left in the workforce to pay off their school loans, experts say it’s even more critical that they carefully weigh the potential risks and rewards.

“The advice I give really depends on the individual,” says Cristina Briboneria, a financial planner oXYGen Financial in Alpharetta, Georgia. “You really have to consider your age, your expenses, how much money you can expect to make after you graduate.”

[Related Article: How I’m Repaying $120,000 in Student Loans]

A Cautionary Tale

For Pamela Monroe, the decision to start college at age 42 seemed simple enough. She’d worked a series of low-wage jobs, mostly in retail.  With a college degree, she figured she could land a job that paid better and was more secure.

Monroe quit her job enrolled at the University of Arkansas in Fort Smith, her hometown. She graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric and writing, and hopes of becoming a writer of some kind. But the recession that struck the rest of the country in 2006 hit Fort Smith early in the form of layoffs and factory closings.

Monroe applied for the few professional jobs available in town, but was never hired. She continued working retail, including at Victoria’s Secret, and in 2009 she decided to get a master’s degree in speech pathology. This time around she had a more concrete career plan — she knows clinical speech pathologists who earn over $80,000 a year.

But after just a few semesters, a family medical emergency forced Monroe to drop out. Now she finds herself in an even worse state than when she started college — unemployed, and deep in debt. For the past few months, Monroe’s mother has paid her rent.

In a manufacturing town where most of the factories are shrinking, Monroe finds her degree to be something of a liability. She no longer mentions it on job applications because she fears potential employers might think it means they have to pay her more.

“I think people don’t want me now because I do have an education, and most jobs here don’t require it,” she says. “I owe $45,000 for something that is no use to me whatsoever.”

For Monroe, becoming a middle-aged college student was a highly speculative gamble that did not pay off. With no employer to help pay her tuition, and no firm career plans for her bachelor’s degree in a city where the labor market is dominated by blue-collar work, Monroe found that her plan for college didn’t meet her expectations for higher income, nor did it match the hiring needs of local companies.

“To leave work and dedicate years to pay for this on your own?” says Mitchell D. Weiss, a former co-founder of the Center for Personal Financial Responsibility at the University of Hartford. “That’s a risk I wouldn’t take.”

[Related Article: It’s Time to Solve the Student Loan Crisis]

Less Risk, More Reward

Like Pamela Monroe, Deidre Romeo was a single, middle-aged mother with a reasonably low-paying job in a shrinking industrial city.

But Romeo also had advantages. Her employer, Abbott Corporation, pays up to $5,000 in tuition reimbursement for workers returning to school. Romeo also was aggressive about applying for scholarships. She was able to graduate from Granite State College at age 43 with a bachelor’s in business management and “minimal” student loans, Romeo says.

The degree boosted Romeo’s career immediately. She was promoted from an executive assistant to become global communications manager for Abbott.  Now Romeo is three semesters away from obtaining her MBA, and she is considering an associates degree in engineering. Both degrees could help her advance even farther up Abbott’s corporate ladder, possibly including a move to the company’s office in Shanghai.

“It’s paid off financially and in terms of personal satisfaction,” says Romeo. “I don’t worry about paying my bills now.”

Many middle-aged people might feel they have disadvantages compared to traditional college students in terms of higher living expenses, children and greater time demands. But Romeo’s example shows a key advantage that many middle-aged students enjoy: The ability to find an employer that will help pay for continuing education.

“For middle-age students, ideally you want to go to school on someone else’s dime,” says Weiss. “You don’t want to do it speculatively, taking all this risk yourself and hoping it’s going to turn out.”

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The Changing Face of College

As millions of middle-aged students decide that college is a risk they’re willing to take, the face of college is gradually changing. Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, has seen the number of students age 50 and over jump by 28 percent to almost 1,500, the fastest-growing age group.

With so many older students enrolling, “Our median age has gone up the last couple years, for the first time that anyone can remember,” says Will Kopp, a spokesman for the college.

Edie Charles, 46, plans to graduate from Columbus State in 2013 with an associate degree in criminal justice before moving on to a bachelor’s from Ohio University. Charles works for the Ohio Department of Transportation, which reimburses all of her tuition and textbook costs.

As a state employee for the last 23 years, Charles will be eligible to retire at age 53. After that she’s hoping her degree will help establish her in a second career as a criminal investigator.

That transition will be made easier because she will graduate with no student loan debt. Without support from her employer, Charles probably never would have returned to college.

“As a single parent, I’m fortunate to have a stable job and make a decent living,” Charles says. “But I don’t know if I’d do it if I had to incur loan debt at this point in my life.”

Image: Sailor Coruscant, via Flickr

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