Published in: Student Loans | Oct. 28, 2019

Going Back to College After 40: Here's How to Make It Work

By:  Dana George

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Think you're too old for college? Nonsense. Here's how to make it work. 

None of us are the same people we were at 22. All of those life experiences change us, and sometimes cause us to rethink our decisions. If you find yourself wishing you'd gone to college, why not give it a go?

Seriously. You're never too old to pursue a dream. Abe Lincoln had all but given up on his political future when he joined the newly formed Republican party, aged 47. Henry Ford was 40 when he founded the Ford Motor Company. Anna “Grandma” Moses didn't start painting until she was 78 years old and went on to become one of the greatest folk artists in American history.

A diverse quartet of middle-aged men and women studying together.

Image source: Getty Images

If your idea of the “average” college student is based on movies or television shows you've watched, you may want to readjust your screen. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nontraditional students (ages 25 and up) made up nearly 41% of the student enrollments at college campuses across the country in 2015.

The point is, if you want to go back to school but worry that it's too late, don't dismiss it out of hand. I strongly believe in the adage, “Where there's a will there's a way,” and also believe that smart planning makes almost anything possible.

Why adults are going back to college

There are many reasons why you might decide to further your education, but these three stand out:

1. You want to stay competitive

The world is changing and if you hope to thrive in the job market, you must change with it. In 1979, over 19 million Americans were employed in the manufacturing sector. Between 2000 and 2007, that number dropped off by 20%, or 3.4 million. And it's not only manufacturing. A study by the Brookings Institution concluded that artificial intelligence (AI) will affect almost every occupation. Many adults who return to school are doing so to equip themselves with new skills that will help them prosper in the ever-changing employment scene.

2. You're fulfilling a long-held dream

Approximately 1 in 3 American adults over the age of 25 holds at least a bachelor's degree. That means 2 out of 3 do not. If you are someone who has longed to check a college degree off your bucket list, going back to school makes sense.

3. You're seeking a second chapter

Someday, as you're sitting around a bonfire, ask your friends what they would do career-wise if they could do it all to do over again. You may be surprised by how would have chosen a totally different career. Going back to school may make this possible -- you can take control of the next chapter of your life.

You may have different reasons for wanting to go back to college. Perhaps you want to set an example for your children, or you're newly single and need to find a way to make a better living. Whatever the reason, here's how you can make it a reality.

Careers worth going back to college for

The great thing about being an adult is that you've lived long enough not to plunge headfirst into a situation that is likely to bury you financially. Or at least you're in the process of learning that lesson. Before you go any further, consider whether higher education is worth the cost of attending.

A Georgetown University study found that bachelor's degree holders earn 84% more than those with a high school diploma over the course of their career. That said, if you're over 40, you won't have 40-50 years left to work and rake in that cash.

So, which careers are worth going back to college for? If you are staying in your current career, find out how much more money you can expect to make once you have a degree. If you are considering a new path, think about careers that will bring you both satisfaction and financial gain. Here’s a sample of three that make the trip back to the classroom worth the effort:

  • Personal financial advisor. A degree in business, accounting, or economics provides a good foundation for this career, and each state has its own regulations regarding the types of exams you will need to pass. Median pay in 2018 for personal financial advisors was $88,890 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). As the population ages, employment opportunities for financial planners is expected to grow 7% between now and 2028, faster than average for all occupations.
  • Registered nurse. Those working toward becoming a registered nurse (RN) normally take one of three educational paths: Earn a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing (BSN), associate's degree in nursing (ADN), or diploma from an approved nursing program. Once you've earned your degree, you will be required to be licensed in your state. The need for RNs is expected to grow by 12% by the year 2028 and RN's median annual pay was $71,730 last year.
  • Information security analyst. Given that everything we do appears to be stored somewhere in a cloud, the need for information security analysts is expected to grow by 32% by 2028. Information security analysts earned a median of $98,350 per year in 2018.

Find the money for college

Did you know that student loan debt among retirees has increased 71.5% over the last five years and that seniors aged 60-69 collectively owe $85.4 billion in student loan debt? If you don't want to be doling out student loan payments into your golden years, make a plan to pay for your triumphant return to college before you do anything else. 

  • No matter which university you plan to attend down the road, see if you can complete some of your education at a nearby community college. You can gain credits towards your main degree at a fraction of the price.
  • If you're planning far enough in advance, put money into a 529 plan to help save for your education. These plans allow you to contribute up to $15,000 per year to your college investment account without having to pay federal income taxes on earnings.
  • Take advantage of every grant and scholarship available to you. You can learn more about grants and scholarships through the finance office at the school you plan to attend, or check sites like The College Investor. Pay particular attention to those targeted at nontraditional students.
  • If you've attended college before and taken out student loans, find out if your previous school offers any kind debt forgiveness plan. One example is Wayne State University's Warrior Way Back program. Aimed at students with an outstanding balance of $1,500 or less who did not complete their degrees, the school in Detroit, Michigan encourages them to re-enroll and "learn" their former debt away. They accomplish this by reducing past-due balances by one-third at the end of each semester until the debt is eliminated.
  • Check with your employer to learn if they offer tuition assistance.
  • Minimize your student debt by continuing to work while you are in college. If it takes you a few years longer to graduate, it beats being buried in student loans.

Come up with a practical, workable schedule

Once you have your finances in order, you need to plan your time. You'll need to build time for class and study into your current commitments. Sit down and write out a daily schedule, then adjust it until you come up with something that you know is doable.

  • Allow your family and friends to support you. If a friend offers to pick up the kids so you can stay late for a study group, say yes. If you need someone to quiz you, ask your family or friends. When you go back to school as an adult, it impacts everyone you care about. Allow them to fully appreciate what you're doing by taking part.
  • Look into online classes. You may find that the flexibility of online classes makes it easier for you to work toward your degree. You'll save time commuting and you can take classes at convenient times. Plus, online classes give you the chance to ease back into school at your own pace. 
  • Find out what your life experience is worth. Look into whether your university offers credit for prior learning. For example, if you've been working in IT for years, it's possible you can earn credit for that and skip courses you don't need. If you've worked in child care, there may be a child development class or two you can skip. Not only do prior learning credits allow you to focus on the coursework you need, but you will save money.
  • Be realistic. As soon as you're back in the education saddle, you will be juggling multiple responsibilities. Sometimes it will be hard and you'll wonder why you took the leap. And sometimes the house will be quiet and you'll be sitting with an art history book, a cup of hot tea, and bowl of Hershey Kisses, asking yourself why you didn't start this fabulous journey earlier. Like life, there will be ups and downs. Knowing that in advance will help you expect and accept them.

Whatever career you choose, remember that you will graduate one day. You're going to look back at what you've accomplished and be proud of yourself. Whether you've earned a degree in order to compete for a promotion, begin a new career, or simply start a new chapter in life, remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” 

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