Throughout their lives, the baby boomer generation (born 1946–1964) has forged new pathways by rewriting societal rules. Now, boomers are reshaping college life, too, as a growing number of people age 50 and up are returning to school.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, people age 50-plus are returning to the classroom in higher numbers than ever, with students aged 35 and older projected to increase 25% between 2010 and 2021.
The reasons for returning to school at later ages vary, but one factor is changing expectations about retirement. The 17th Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Workers found that 66% of baby boomers say they plan to or are already working beyond age 65, or have no plans to retire.
A plan to work longer and fully retire at a later age than previous generations can only be fulfilled by staying employable. That’s where a return to a college campus can come in, whether classes are intended to help prospective students remain in an existing job longer by upgrading skills, or to prepare for a second — or even third — career.
Alternately, some older students may not have a financial motivation for returning to campus, but are instead hoping to fulfill a personal educational goal, complete a long-delayed program, or to make a career change that’s fulfilling in nonfinancial ways.
Whatever your reasons, if you’re thinking about returning to the classroom as a 50-plus student, here are some guidelines that can help smooth the way.
Explore Your Choices
The very first question to answer is what you’re going to study. As a mature student, you have many options for pursuing additional education: There are certificate, associate, bachelor’s, and higher education programs that can help you achieve your goal.
Once you’ve settled on a program of study, in order to complete it, you’ll need two main ingredients ― time and money ― to help ensure your success.
Finding the time to study may be helped by looking for programs that offer flexible schedules, allowing you to combine daytime and evening classes. You might also consider a part-time program or online classes if your schedule and commitments don’t permit full-time study.
Addressing the financial component of college will depend on your individual situation. For those who are staying in their jobs and attending school part-time, employers may offer tuition assistance programs — or even cover college expenses completely. Some accredited, degree-granting educational institutions will allow students above a certain age to audit classes at no charge (although these students will not usually get grades or credit for the courses). Others offer tuition waivers or scholarships that can allow older students to attend classes and receive credit toward a program of study.
Finally, at older ages, prospective students may have accumulated savings that can be used to cover the cost of returning to school. If you are thinking about using loans to finance education at a later age, however, note that the time available to pay the borrowed funds back can be much shorter for you than for a younger student, meaning borrowing is usually not advised for students at more advanced ages.
Perhaps the last time you set foot in a classroom was several decades ago. If so, you may find that a lot has changed since then.
Compared to previous decades, the classroom experience is increasingly digital. Laptops and other handheld devices, such as smartphones, are welcomed ― and even encouraged ― in classrooms. Many courses incorporate a “virtual” component, such as online study groups and tutorials, and lecture notes are posted online for downloading. Entire programs may be offered via distance or digital learning with no physical classroom component required.
This increasing “digitalization of education” can offer the benefit of flexibility for older students. For example, you might choose a course that’s delivered entirely online via distance learning, which enables you to study what you want, how you want, when you want, and wherever you want.
While the traditional in-person lecture hasn’t disappeared from college campuses, the use of computers is now firmly embedded throughout the educational experience. This means that your fellow students, campus administrators, and instructional staff alike will expect you to make use of the digital approaches to learning that are now “baked into” the curriculum. If you’re not up to date in using technology, enrolling in a course of study will provide your chance to hop on board.
Embrace Your Differences
When you are twice the age of the other students — and possibly even the professor ― in your classes, you may feel socially isolated. Your cultural references (and your jokes) may not be shared with your peers. Classroom decorum, as well, may be a bit unfamiliar: when’s the last time you had to raise your hand and wait for permission before speaking?
These potential hitches should be weighed against the strengths that a more mature student can offer in a classroom setting. These can include your self-knowledge, your motivation to contribute to your own education and that of your educational peers, and your personal know-how.
Compared to younger students, you have more life experience that can help you understand and reflect on the material being presented in your courses — for you, the material may be much less theoretical and more easily “brought to life.”
You may also have the kind of skills that can help round out class projects and discussions, or even help your fellow students in their own career development.
All in all, although you may not look like the other students in your classes or program, these differences can be a source of valuable insight and contribution.
Don’t Overlook Support Services
Returning to school can be stressful, especially if you haven’t studied in a long time. You may be dealing with unfamiliar references or trying to study while balancing other commitments your fellow students don’t have, such as caring for children or other family members, or working at a job.
Keep in mind that your educational institution likely provides a variety of support services you can take advantage of, from academic skills classes to counseling, to help get you through any rough patches. Lecturers may be understanding of your other obligations, providing flexibility if you cannot meet a deadline.
Outside the classroom, remember the support others around you can offer. Once you’ve made the choice to enroll in a course of study, chances are many people will be committed to your success. In times of need, you could call on them to provide support, insight, or hands-on help with challenges you may face.
As motivational speaker Les Brown has said, “You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.” By 2030, the U.S. census bureau projects that one in five Americans will be age 65 or older, so you may find that you’re less of an outlier than you expected to be. As career time frames extend, more and more adults will likely seek continuing education.
Whether you’re contemplating a return to school at age 50-plus to advance or start another career, or even for self-interest, as a mature student in a different place in life than your younger peers, you’ll have to make space for this new venture — both in terms of time and finances — and you may need to learn new social rules to fit in and succeed.
The leap back into formal learning may look like a whole new world—what with the digital and remote technologies—but your life experience may well enrich your undertaking, and that of those around you, in ways that make your returning to school even more rewarding.
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