Returning to College as an Older Adult Tips for a Successful Mid-Life Stint in School

Meet the Expert

Sarah Ancel

Senior Vice President, Complete College America

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Written by…

Jessica Santina Read bio

The term “college student” typically conjures up images of 18-year-olds in sweats stumbling to morning classes after a night out partying. But the facts about what’s “typical” today paint a different picture — one of an older student juggling a full-time job and family responsibilities while completing courses at night or on weekends. In fact, according to the Lumina Foundation, a full 38 percent of undergraduate students are older than 25, 58 percent work while enrolled in college and 26 percent are raising children. And only 13 percent of today’s students live on campus.

Regardless of the facts, however, that traditional, younger image still persists, making the idea of a return to school intimidating for many older adults seeking to switch careers or enhance their skill sets by enrolling in college. Not only might they feel out of step with their younger peers, but they face the additional challenges of financing their educations and balancing work and family time along with their studies. This guide provides tips for easing this transition, paying for college and addressing the hurdles that may arise in a midlife return to college.

Why Do Older Adults Go Back to School?

There was a time, long ago, when a person would proudly stick with one job until retirement and then be rewarded with a handsome pension and gold watch. But as the American workplace has evolved technologically, with certain careers becoming obsolete while others have evolved considerably, that old way of thinking about a career no longer makes sense, which often precipitates a return to college.

Here are some of the reasons older adults, ages 40 and up, are returning to college:

The need to remain competitive in the workplace

Older adults (those over 50, especially) are finding that to keep up with their fresh-out-of-college coworkers — who often will work for smaller salaries — or to remain relevant in their workplaces, they simply must update their skills by earning certifications, continuing education credits or even advanced degrees. This is especially true in businesses that change rapidly, such as high-tech companies.

Hopes for career or salary advancement

Some people simply get burned out doing the same job for years on end, and they realize that in order to move into different positions or take on more responsibility, they need to go back to school. Some may want to start their own businesses but need to learn the skills required to do that. Some can’t crack into their next salary tiers without further certifications or degrees. Returning to school can be a pathway toward promotions, raises or employment with a desired company.

A wish for a second act

As people are living longer and healthier than ever before, many simply are realizing that, with several decades still ahead of them, they can reinvent themselves and begin new careers. A 2014 study by Merrill Lynch found that 72 percent of retirees over age 50 wanted to continue working in some way. But whereas many people started their careers looking for growth opportunities and promising salaries, older adults often are looking to make midlife transitions into careers that offer personal meaning, whether it’s to pursue a passion or to make the world a better place.

Concerns about retirement

As baby boomers approach retirement and face dwindling Social Security resources and retirement costs, many older Americans are simply opting to work into their retirement years. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 1 in 4 Americans over age 65 without disabilities are currently participating in the labor force, and that number has been climbing consistently for the last decade. Still others have been given “early retirement” by employers looking to downsize, leaving older adults who aren’t ready to retire with a need to get back to work.

A desire to finish what they started

For many people, finishing that degree simply wasn’t possible when they were younger. Perhaps they couldn’t afford it and needed to go to work instead. Maybe they got married or had kids and found that they had to leave school to raise their families. Or maybe they simply weren’t mentally ready the first time around. Many older adults realize the value of finishing what they started, or they want to be examples for their own kids.

Returning to school is more feasible now

There’s a whole industry devoted to making a midlife return to college more appealing and doable than ever before, from coaches who work specifically with older adults to help them navigate the higher education world to schools that offer courses at night, on weekends or online. Many states, organizations and schools now offer scholarships or financial awards to older students to help entice them back to school. And many of today’s employers recognize the value that advanced training can have on a workplace and will provide tuition reimbursement for employees who opt to earn advanced training.

Expert Q&A

Sarah Ancel

Senior Vice President, Complete College America

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What’s the biggest challenge you see older adults aged 40-plus facing with a return to college, and what do you advise for overcoming it?

Challenges come when life gets in the way. Generally, it’s the juggling. I know many adults who are really good at squeezing every last minute out of their day, but it’s about juggling all their responsibilities.

First, let’s talk about how class schedules are set. We know younger, full-time students select classes based on what they want or need to take, not credit hours. Older adults look at how to balance a class or two with other obligations. Taking two classes at a time doesn’t get students anywhere close to an on-time graduation. What we’ve seen working well is compressed class schedule — so, for instance, taking two classes at a time on an eight-week structure. That type of structure is a recipe that allows students to balance class schedules with the rest of life, without having five midterms a week, and it’s a much better recipe for adults to have a path to an on-time, or at least timely, graduation.

It’s also important to emphasize that it’s less about addressing challenges and more about embracing opportunities. We know if adults have been in the workforce for years, they’ve gained a lot of knowledge. Colleges and universities who serve these folks really well have a standard way of incorporating that prior knowledge, whether it’s allowing them to build portfolios, transferring in certifications they’ve earned in the workplace or walking through each step of their careers in order to maximize their prior learning with credit. It gives adult students a mental boost, honors what they already know and shortens their path to graduation.

Many colleges and organizations are now heavily focused on encouraging older adults to return to school to earn or finish degrees. Why is this?

In many states, colleges and universities are seeing demographic trends that mean the high school student population is shrinking, so for them, [appealing to older adults is] a matter of staying in business. At a state level, leaders are looking at returning adults as a linchpin for meeting workforce needs to fuel their local economies. Interest at the state level is truly coming from a workforce lens. Partnerships are forming between institutions not just to bring these adults back to college but to ensure they stay and go through to graduation.

What efforts are these schools and organizations making to help ease this transition back to school for this population?

It varies by location, but returning students should look first at state-level resources. In Florida, they have a group called Complete Florida, which exists to help students who want to return to school find the right institutions for them and follow all the right procedures to get back into the classroom, and they complement these efforts with a small amount of scholarship dollars. Many states have resources through their departments of higher ed, and there are some at the school level. Within institutions, I’d advise adult students to find out if there’s a coaching program in place or, if there isn’t, to find a faculty member on their own who will take the time to help them navigate the institution and advocate on that student’s behalf if they run into trouble.

Many cities across the country also are part of The Graduate Network, in which there are volunteers mobilized in the community to help students find the resources they need, and they will work with institutions to get these students enrolled and finishing their degrees.

What are the advantages of having older students in the classroom?

I think one of the most-often overlooked aspects of older students is the value they bring to classroom. One of our CCA Fellows, Matt Bergman, commented to me that he never wants to teach anyone but older adults. They’re active learners, they’re attentive, they know why they’re there; they have the confidence to ask questions, engage and integrate their earlier experiences in order to enhance learning and make deeper connections. And if I may share a personal anecdote, my husband just completed this process. He was a lawyer, and he went back to school to become a landscape architect. He just graduated this past spring, and in terms of comparing the two college experiences, he said that as an undergrad, he was intimidated by the whole experience and by his instructors. But as a 43-year-old, he was able to see his professors as peers; he engaged with them in open dialogue. He would find himself squeezing every last minute out of every class, not looking forward to leaving early like he did as an undergrad. I’ve seen that firsthand from others, too, and certainly the faculty we work with validate that.

What should professionals keep in mind if they’re considering a return to college to switch careers?

If you are in a career that’s not satisfying to you as an individual, there’s a clear benefit to training for a career that gives you a sense of purpose and satisfaction in your life. There’s a monetary value, but for folks switching careers, it’s as much about finding something that aligns with your interests. Clearly, for adults without any college degree at all, research tells us that it will have a positive economic value for you as well.

What should older adults know about paying for college?

First, I’d say to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). There’s often a lot more financial aid available than people know, but the way to find out what’s available at the federal and state level is to fill out that FAFSA as soon as possible. In terms of what’s available for students, it depends on the state, although all students across the country can qualify for federal Pell Grants. Many states have need-based programs, and many states are looking at ways to change their eligibility so that more adult students can access those funds. And in some states, such as Tennessee, groups are lobbying to make tuition free for older adults. College Promise programs across the country, when they first started, were geared toward high school graduates, but more of them are looking at ways to give those funds to older adults as well.

Beginning Your Journey Back to College

Though prospective returning students may not realize it, the nation needs them to earn those college degrees. The Lumina Foundation reports that 65 percent of America’s jobs in 2020 will require postsecondary training. In order for the nation to remain competitive in the world and fill all its fastest-growing jobs, it’s essential that more adults enroll in college. This fact alone is driving federal and state efforts to make college more accessible, affordable and appealing for adult students.

Not only that, but it pays to earn a degree. An associate degree means $500,000 more in lifetime earnings, and a bachelor’s degree means $1 million more.

However, adult students considering a return to school should explore their options carefully to determine whether they’re truly prepared to make this change and how to make the experience of returning to school easier and more enjoyable. Some of the options that students may want to look for include:

  • Adult college completion programs or other accelerated programs that help speed the time to graduation, with condensed class and program schedules.

  • Schools that offer credit for prior learning or credit by exam.

  • Online, night or weekend courses.

  • Student advisers or coaches who will work with students throughout their programs to help ensure success and overcome challenges.

  • Transitional counseling services or support groups that are designed to help older adults feel more comfortable with the transition back to school.

  • Online tech support or tutoring services to help nontraditional students navigate technological or academic challenges.

  • Campus child care services.

  • Career planning and placement services.

Ancel says that when it comes to selecting the right program, adult students should seek out a coach or personal adviser first and foremost. “I’d recommend first that they find out if someone can help. It’s much easier to do this with someone who’s trained to look at different options for older adults and walk through it with you,” she says. “If you can’t find that in your community, I advise thinking about your ultimate career goals and map that back into the education program that would be best.”

Before enrolling in any program, however, adult students have some real thinking to do about whether they’re ready to return to school, what their lives will look like while they’re in it and how they’ll stick it out during the tough times.

Students should consider the following:

What are your reasons for returning to school? Is college necessary for your future plans? Do the pros of returning outweigh the cons?

What realistic commitment can you make in terms of time and energy? Does a full- or part-time program make the most sense, for both daily scheduling and time to degree completion? And how will it fit in with your existing work and family commitments?

What personal, professional and academic resources are available to you as you embark on this journey? Will your employer, family and friends be supportive of this process? Does your school or program offer services to students, such as tutoring, counseling, advisement or support groups?

Can you afford to return to school? Have you submitted a FAFSA to determine what federal aid you qualify for? Have you thoroughly explored state, local, organizational and institutional financial resources? Do you have enough saved up that you can afford to pay for your program or the loss of income you may incur while in school? Is there a financial aid adviser who can speak to you about what’s affordable and possible for you?

Have you laid the groundwork for a successful return to school? Do you have a location, tools and schedule for studying? Have you established a home budget that will help you stay on track financially? Are you prepared to say “no” to activities and requests that may interfere with your studies? Can you commit to self-care and taking time to exercise, have fun, relax and recharge? Are you prepared to ask lots of questions to get the help you need?

Returning to school can be challenging, but if a solid plan is in place, the personal and professional rewards of reaching one’s goal can make a difficult journey worth it.

Additional Resources

  • This network of communities across the country works to increase the number of adults completing colleges by engaging businesses, higher education institutions, governments, local organizations and college graduates to assist adults with completing their degrees. Its activities include promoting accelerated programs and working with employers to provide advisement, tuition benefits and other support to returning students, or “comebackers.”

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