Reviewed by Josianne Campbell
A college degree opens doors professionally, financially, and personally--but what if you didn’t manage to earn one in your early 20s? The good news is that there’s no bad time to go back to (or even start!) school. However, there are slightly different approaches and details you may want to keep in mind based on your age range. In this article, we’ll walk through some of the most important factors to consider if you decide to go back to school in your 20s, 30s, 40s, or even 50s.
Why go back to college as an adult?
Today’s students are a diverse group of people with backgrounds as different as their goals. Adult students are a rapidly growing population: more than a third of students currently enrolled in college are 25 or older, and many of those students are the first in their families to pursue a degree. Additionally, today’s students are juggling a lot of responsibilities: about 40% even have full time jobs. So, if you’re thinking about going back to college but are wondering if it’s possible to do so as an adult with a family and a career, know that you’re not alone!
Feeling stress around your decision to go back to college is normal.
Feeling stressed out by the prospect of going back to school is normal, but keep the potential benefits in mind. In general, the higher your degree, the more earning potential you’ll have. (The difference is significant: those with Bachelor’s degrees earn, on average, 50% more each week than those with some college but no degree.) In addition to making more money, you can use a degree as a stepping stone to a promotion, or even as a key to an entire career change. But maybe money isn’t your main concern--perhaps you’ve always just wanted to get your degree to prove to yourself or your family that you could do it. Whatever your motivation, remember that there’s no age limit on accomplishing a major goal.
How do you go back to school at age 20?
There are plenty of reasons you might find yourself wanting to go back to school in your 20s. Maybe you started college right out of high school but didn’t finish a degree due to work or other commitments, or maybe you took some time off because you didn’t feel ready to invest in something you weren’t totally sure about. Whatever your reason for going back to school in your 20s, there are a few key things to keep in mind as you start the process.
- Think about your long-term career goals. Going back to school in your 20s means that you’ve got more life experience than traditional-aged college students, but you’re not necessarily set in a career path yet, so use that to your benefit! Do your research and identify a career path and the necessary degree(s) you’ll need to land your dream job.
- Look for opportunities to talk with prospective institutions about your most recent academic experiences, particularly if you’re worried that your high school or previous college transcripts don’t showcase your potential. An application essay or interview with an admissions representative can be a great way to talk about what you’ve learned since that time.
- If you previously earned some credits from a high school dual-enrollment program, community college, or four-year institution, be sure to work with your prospective institution to transfer as many of those credits as you can. Transferring credits can save you a significant amount of both time and money!
How do you go back to school at age 30?
Going back to school in your 30s can be a challenge because it likely means that you have significantly more commitments than you did in your teens or 20s. If you’re a student in your 30s, you may be balancing work and a young family, so finding a program that works with your schedule and sets you up for the future you imagine is key.
- Research reputable online programs in your area of interest. Online programs can offer you the flexibility that community colleges or traditional institutions might not be able to offer. Additionally, many online institutions are much more prepared to address the needs of adult students as compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
- In particular, consider competency-based programs. While traditional online programs may run on term-style schedules, competency-based programs are often more flexible and allow you to progress at your own speed, as long as you have demonstrated mastery of the material.
- If you have a family, actively involve them in your school search process. Setting expectations together before you get started can help you be successful later.
How do you go back to school at age 40?
By the time you’ve reached your 40s, you may have decades of relevant work experience--but no degree. Maybe that’s causing you to be passed up for promotions, or maybe you’re looking to take your career in a different direction. Though you may have family commitments that make finding time to study a challenge, your 40s can be a great time to go back to school, especially if your kids are in school, too. It’s great for older kids to see their parents pursuing a personal goal!
- Like students in their 30s, you’ll want to seek out a program that offers you flexibility so that you can effectively pursue your studies with minimal disruptions to your work and family life. Look for programs with flexible terms, the ability to take time off without penalty, and resources like on-demand tutoring to help you succeed.
- Consider cost. Think about how many more years you plan to work, and weigh your earning potential post-degree against the cost of earning that degree. While it’s still easy to get a significant return on your investment by going back to school in your 40s, you may want to look for competency-based programs that allow you to move more quickly (and save money) by demonstrating what you know, or programs that offer you credit for previous life experience.
- Make studying a family affair. Doing homework together in the evenings can be surprisingly fun, and you’ll be modeling just the kind of commitment to education you want them to have.
How do you go back to school at age 50?
If you’re in your 50s, you may be wondering if it’s worth it to go back to school. For a lot of people, it absolutely is! If you’ve always dreamed of getting your degree, or if you’re committed to lifelong learning and want to keep your skills fresh and plan to keep working for 15 or 20 years, going back to school in your 50s can be fulfilling and worthwhile.
- Like those in their 40s, you’ll want to think about the return on investment you hope to achieve. If your primary goal in obtaining a degree is to increase your earning potential, you may need to think differently about the cost as compared to someone whose primary goal is to complete a degree for personal reasons.
- If you’re looking for ways to return to school without breaking the bank, look into competency-based programs or alternative credit providers like CLEP or StraighterLine. Low-cost options may be a good fit, particularly if you’re saving for retirement or putting money towards your own children’s (or even grandchildren’s) college funds.
- Even if it’s been decades since you took a college class, don’t assume that you can’t transfer any credits you might have! General education credits may easily transfer to your new institution, even if you earned them years ago.
Though there are challenges associated with going back to school at any age, there’s no wrong time to earn your degree. Regardless of your age, it’s important to understand your motivation, pick the right program, and enlist the support of your family and friends. If you can do those things, you’ll be on your way to achieving your educational, financial, and personal goals in no time.
Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Stevenson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Anissa’s interdisciplinary background and extensive experience teaching research, writing, and study skills help her demystify college expectations for students online and in her classroom.
Looking for more tips for going back to school? Check out this great article: The Best Advice for Adults Going Back to College