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Return to school valued in earnings, relationships

John Seelmeyer
jseelmeyer@nnbw.biz

Vicki Bischoff and Clint Borchard each had notched some career successes before they decided to go back to college.

She was in her mid-50s and had played a key role in creating a family-owned company that built custom homes. He was in his late 20s and had launched a string of entrepreneurial companies since dropping out of college at age 19.

Like others who make mid-career decisions to return to school, Bischoff and Borchard say newly acquired textbook knowledge boosted their careers — but even greater benefits came from the contacts they developed with teachers, fellow students and business professionals who come through the College of Business at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The contacts were so important, in fact, that Bischoff and Borchard created Envirohaven, a startup builder of sustainable housing, after meeting in a UNR class.

While not every student who returns to college will launch a new company, the resumption of classroom education often marks an important pivot point, says Greg Mosier, dean of the College of Business at UNR.

Maybe the pivot is experienced an experienced engineer who decides to get a master’s degree in education so that she can teach. Or maybe the pivot swings upward for the business executive who wants to sharpen his skills through a master’s degree in business.

Either way, Mosier says, the ability to make a mid-career pivot is increasingly important. Few folks these days take a job at age 23 expecting to retire from the same company in 40 years. And many will change professions entirely at some point.

Determining the potential for a financial return on the investment in education is a tricky proposition.

A few weeks ago, Payscale.com found that the potential return on investment for a degree from UNR ranks ninth among public universities in the West.

During a 30-year career, the Web site found, a UNR graduate who paid in-state tuition will receive a net return on investment of $635,900.

(The study looked at college costs and looked at the earnings of graduates to arrive at its estimate.)

Mosier acknowledges that rising tuition and flattened pay growth in many jobs means that the financial payback on many degree programs has lengthened.

But in an economy in which American professionals compete against the best across the world, calculations that are based merely on return-on-investment may miss the point, the UNR dean says.

“Education still pays back better than the other options,” he says. “You’re not even in the game if you don’t do it.”

Borchard, who’s working as chief operating officer of Envirohaven after his recent graduation, says his experience with multiple startups during his 20s translated into a desire to finish his education.

“I went back for the knowledge, not the degree,” he says. “And along the way, I learned to think strategically.”

Bischoff, who’d finished an associate’s degree before launching her business career, was nudged by her grown children into the decision to return to school.

The dark days of the recession — the family’s homebuilding business ground to a near halt — gave her the time to finish an undergraduate degree.

Long interested with her husband, Greg, in sustainable homes, Bischoff created Environhaven as a classroom business plan exercise.

After she made connections with Borchard, their team’s proposal for Envirohaven swept top honors in the 2012 Governor’s Cup competition for collegiate business plans.

Her decision to return to the classroom has proven critical in getting Environhaven off the ground, Bischoff says.

“I learned to better use my resources,” she says. “I learned that there are a lot of great people in this town who want to help new businesses succeed.”