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Going Back to School at 50: Tips For Making It Work

WVU Online | Wednesday, February 21, 2024

If you’re considering going back to school to earn a degree and are in your 50s, you’re not alone. Adult learners on college campuses are more common than you might think. Those over 50 pursuing a postsecondary education made up nearly 8% of the total student population in 2021.

There are a variety of reasons why adult learners choose to continue their education. Many are looking for a career change, while others are trying to finish a degree they started years ago. Some just love to learn and are looking for an outlet to explore their intellectual interests.

Why More Adult Learners Are Going Back to School at 50

Over the past decade, adult learners have grown into a more significant chunk of the student population. What’s driving this trend? Some of the top reasons include:

Staying competitive in the job market
In the artificial intelligence (AI) age, new technologies are emerging faster than ever. It’s vital for working professionals to develop new skill sets — particularly around technology — to remain competitive.

Those who obtained a degree many years ago or have been in the same career field for a long time may need to upskill or build on top of their knowledge to develop the expertise required for today’s job market.

Establishing a new career
Some adults have been in the same career for decades and feel it’s time for a change. They want a completely different field, and returning to school will help them acquire the necessary skills to make it happen.

For many, changing careers is a pathway to earn a higher salary or secure a stable retirement plan.

Pursuing a life-long passion or goal
Life can get in the way of pursuing an education. Retired military members may have focused on serving. Others may have started a degree program when they were younger but became family caregivers and had to drop out.

Perhaps a retired pharmacist has always wanted to write poetry, and returning to school is a chance to pursue that passion. Many adult learners may now find themselves in a situation where they have the time and resources to start or finish their education.

Benefits of Going Back to School After 50

Whatever the reason for revisiting university life, doing so can be beneficial professionally and personally.

One of the most compelling advantages is financial security.

Adults with a bachelor's degree earn, on average, $1,334 per week and have a low unemployment rate of 3.5%. Those with a master’s earn an average of $1,574 per week and have an unemployment rate of just 2.6%.

The highest weekly incomes and lowest unemployment rates of any educational level are among adults with a professional or doctoral degree. Going back to school also creates networking opportunities for career-switchers looking to secure a job in their new field.

On a more personal level, pursuing a degree helps adults stay engaged with a community and gives them access to a more extensive social network.

Over one-third of adults age 45 and older feel lonely, which comes with certain health risks. Connecting with students during group projects, joining a study or alums group, or even chatting with a professor after class increases the opportunity for adults to make new friends stay intellectually stimulated, and build a community beyond graduation.

Potential Obstacles and Challenges to Consider

An 18-year-old recent high school graduate might seem like the ideal candidate for college. But the reality is older adults often have the self-awareness, determination, and life experience to become successful students. Try not to let social stigma around age deter you from enrolling.

Of course, there are bound to be some challenges along the way. Some to consider include:

Can you handle the rigors of classwork?

Likely, yes! Many adult learners have or have had successful careers, giving them the experience to meet deadlines and juggle complex tasks.

Don’t be discouraged to enroll if you work full-time, either. In 2020, 40% of enrolled students worked full-time. Anita May is one of those students successfully working and pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree online that offers self-paced learning.

Will you be able to adapt to new learning environments?

Likely yes! College may look slightly different than it did in the 1900s. But at its core, it still focuses on reading, writing, and listening — skills most adult learners have mastered from prior career or life experience.

Remember that if you decide to pursue a degree, you’ll need access to a computer and some basic web tools, even if you’re taking classes on campus. The application and course selection process will likely be online.

Do you have the necessary technology skillset?

Likely yes! If you know how to operate a computer or laptop on a basic level, it’s likely you know enough to succeed. For those without confidence in their technology skills, check out free digital literacy courses to help prepare you.

Many adult learners are taking a leap of faith and pursuing their degrees despite these challenges. Take Jillian Lenihan, for example. She completed her Bachelor of Science online at WVU and learned valuable skills and experience to advance her career as a teacher for blind or visually impaired children.

Going back to school is a big decision that requires careful consideration beyond the age stigma. Cost and student debt are some of the most significant determinants. (We’ll discuss more about financial options later in this blog.)

But while pursuing a degree might not be the best for everyone, it’s a logical choice for those looking to delay retirement, remain competitive in the workforce, or get out of a stagnant career.

8 Tips for Going Back to School at 50

If you’re ready to start or continue your education journey, here are some tips and recommendations to help you succeed.

1. Know your reasons and goals for going back to school

It’s essential to understand why you want to go back to school and what goals you hope to achieve. Ask yourself:

  • What is my goal? Do I want to advance a career in my current field? Do I want to switch careers completely? Or am I just looking to pursue a life-long passion without the need to secure work after graduation?
  • What kind of degree do I need to achieve my goal? How long will it take? Would a short certification course be just as beneficial and more feasible?
  • What could hold me back? Do I have professional or personal obligations that might get in the way?
  • How will I earn a living while I’m studying? Can I juggle working full- or part-time while pursuing my degree? Do I have enough money saved to focus on my studies full-time?

Carefully consider your motivations, potential obstacles, and financial implications for getting back on campus or in a virtual classroom. If you decide to pursue an education and a specific career path, be sure it aligns with your interests and current market demands.

2. Set realistic goals for continuing education

If you intend to go back to school to secure a high-paying job or increase earning power, you need to determine if the degree you’re seeking aligns with job market trends. Some of the fastest growing and projected in-demand occupations for 2022 to 2032 are:

  • Wind and turbine technicians
  • Data scientists
  • Statisticians
  • Information security analysts
  • Software developers
  • Physical therapist assistants
  • Medical and health service manager

Of course, you also need to pursue a degree you’re passionate about — but be sure to set realistic goals and determine if there’s an opportunity for advancement once you graduate.

It’s also important to consider your timeline. How long will it take you to complete your degree or certificate program? If you need to work full-time and take part-time classes, it may take you longer to finish.

3. Determine the type of program you want to explore

Once you’ve determined your goals for returning to school, you need to think about the best way to achieve them.

There are a few different program options available. A full-time degree program involves students committing to 12 or more credits in a semester.

Usually, one class equals three credits, so taking four courses a semester equals about 12 hours of classroom instruction per week with an additional 15 to 18 hours of homework and personal study time.

Full-time programs may be a good fit for adult learners who are retired or have adequate funds and don’t need to work while pursuing their degree. Those who choose this program type will typically finish their degrees in the shortest amount of time, but remember, you’ll need to dedicate around 35 hours a week to classes.

A part-time degree program involves students taking 11 credits or less a semester. Typically, students choose a number of classes that work with their schedule.

Part-time programs are great for adult learners working full-time while pursuing their degree or needing to space out classes to pay for them. It does take longer to earn a degree this way. If you’re pursuing your bachelor’s degree, you typically need to complete 120 credits. Taking six credits per semester for two semesters per year would take you ten years to graduate.

A program type that is becoming increasingly popular is micro-credentials. Also known as mini degrees, micro-credentials are professional certifications that are fast and accessible. They’re tailored to a subject area and help students build a professional portfolio unique to them and their career goals.

Micro-credentials are an excellent option for adult learners who are working full-time, want the flexibility of building their own education courses, or want to broaden skills in their current career. These credentials are also significantly more cost- and time-effective than traditional programs though they are obviously not the same as a degree.

If you need additional help determining which program is right for you, contact an Admissions Coach at WVU Online for personalized guidance.

4. Decide whether you want online learning or traditional in-person learning

Millions of students take college classes online every day. Due to its flexibility and many degree options, online learning is becoming increasingly popular. In an online learning setting, you’ll complete coursework in the same structured way as a traditional on-campus class, but you’ll have greater control over when and how you get coursework done.

Like traditional on-campus classes, you’ll still get many of the social aspects of college by completing group assignments and communicating with other students through video meetings and chat tools.

Online learning is often more affordable and ideal for adult learners who work full-time, care for children or other family members, are in the military, or want to travel.

Traditional in-person learning takes place on campus, and you’ll typically need to attend classes weekly. With more face-to-face interactions, you’ll have more opportunities to network and build social connections with other students and faculty. Traditional in-person learning might benefit adult learners who prefer a more hands-on approach with fewer distractions.

No matter your choice, you’ll have access to student resources like study groups, academic counseling, and post-graduation career help.

5. Understand the costs of going back to school

Before you commit to returning to school, make sure it’s financially feasible. You’ll need to consider:

  • Does the field I want to work in have a stable job market? What’s the average salary for the job I want?
  • Will I work for several years after I graduate? Will I have enough time to repay a student loan as I continue working?
  • Do I have enough savings to cover most of my educational expenses? If not, can I find scholarships or a program that offers discounted tuition for an adult learner like myself?
  • Is there a low-cost program available near me or online?
  • Beyond tuition, do I have enough money to cover hidden costs like books, lab fees, and supplies?

If you’re looking for affordable options, a public school might be your best choice.

6. Explore financial aid options.

Covering the costs of tuition and other fees can be a significant burden for older students. Fortunately, many financial aid and scholarship opportunities are available for non-traditional students and adult learners.

To find them, contact your school’s financial aid office to explore what federal, state, and grant money you may qualify for. They can also help you complete a FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application.

Examples of grants and scholarships available for adult learners include:

  • Osher Reentry Scholarship Program: The Bernard Osher Foundation provides funding to help cover tuition and fee expenses for students who have experienced a cumulative interruption of five or more years of their education. Individuals can receive up to $5,000 per academic year.
  • Yellow Ribbon Program: Veterans (or their qualified survivor or dependent) may receive tuition assistance not covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
  • Segal AmeriCorps Education Award: AmeriCorps members who have completed 12 months of service can earn an education reward. You can use the award to pay for tuition while attending school or repay student loans.
  • College Jumpstart Scholarship: Non-traditional students can earn up to $1,000 by applying for College JumpStart’s annual scholarship. All that’s needed is a simple application form and a 250-word essay.
  • WVU Graduate Tuition Waiver: Waivers of WVUniversity tuition are available for graduate students with assistantships and fellowships or graduate students with merit waivers.

There are also several scholarship search engines — like Fastweb and Niche — where you will find more scholarship opportunities. Check with your employer for tuition assistance options, too.

7. Build a support network

Making the choice to continue your education is a brave one, but balancing work, family, and school responsibilities is no easy task. Building a solid support network and asking for help when you need it can help you navigate a full schedule.

Be open and honest with your friends and family about how much time you’ll need to dedicate to your studies, and don’t be afraid to offload daily household chores so you can focus. If you work, try not to take on more than you can handle, and set realistic expectations with your co-workers and boss about your workload capabilities.

There are also many student services available to support your education journey. At WVU, the Reach Center offers one-on-one support to help students thrive academically and personally. Don’t forget to take advantage of tutoring and mentoring services.

Take the first steps

Going back to school in your 50s can be challenging and exhilarating. Whether you’re trying to finish a degree you started thirty years ago, looking to switch careers, or are just interested in learning something new, continuing your education is a pathway to deeper personal and professional growth.

Are you ready to get started? WVU Online offers accredited and affordable degrees and certificates that jumpstart your career. Connect with one of our academic coaches to explore which program is right for you.

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