Wondering How to Go Back to College at 40? Get Ready to Conquer these Challenges
Despite what you might think, it's never too late to get your degree. There are countless reasons to go back to college at 40, and as nontraditional students are the new majority when it comes to higher education in the U.S., you'll be in good company — whatever your reasons are. Some people go back to college in middle age in order to move up in a company or career field. Others return to school to change fields altogether or pursue a dream job that eluded them earlier in life. And there are even those who return to the classroom for the pure pursuit of knowledge.
However, even if it's an easy decision, returning to school isn't always an easy process. Adults in middle age are more likely to be married, have children and be working full time than their younger counterparts. But with the right planning and strategy, taking the right steps to go back to college can be done. Here are four challenges students face when enrolling at 40 and how to overcome them.
1. Balancing college and parenthood
By age 40, many already have a kid or two. If that's you, then you clearly know the amount of energy it takes to raise a child. Is throwing college into the mix even doable? John Milligan, who went back to college at 40 when his stepdaughter was 7, made it work.
"I made it to where my classes didn't start until after my daughter went to school and [ended] before she got out, so I could take her to school and then pick her up," says Milligan, who plans to graduate in December from the University of Arizona with bachelor's degrees in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology.
Being able to arrange your classes around your kids' school is great, but not everyone can do that. If you can't, then balancing college and parenthood becomes simpler if you have a good support system and you take advantage of your campus day care, according to Tracy Griffith, chair of the Advising Adult Learners Commission. Many universities have services set up to help student-parents, so be sure to check them out.
2. Paying your bills
Bills don't go away once you decide to go back to college. An 18-year-old's expenses might not be too significant, but a 40-year-old may have a mortgage, kids to feed and a car to insure. So how do you not neglect those responsibilities while still going back to college?
For one, you can continue to work while going to school — this can be an especially appealing aspect of getting a degree online, as the flexibility of these programs is often ideal for working adults. You might consider looking for schools in your area that offer part-time degrees or distance-learning.
If you do choose to take the working route, according to the University of Illinois at Chicago, you're going to want to get organized with a calendar or planner, figure out how to deal with stress in a healthy way, make the most of campus resources that can help you, and let loved ones know when you need privacy to study.
If working full-time while attending college isn't possible, then you could:
- Take out student loans
- Apply for scholarships targeted to nontraditional students
- Apply for grants
- Work part time while attending school part time
If you don't work full time, you may be losing money by going to college — a situation known as opportunity cost. However, it's quite possible that having a degree will ultimately earn you more money in the long run. Regardless, you need to know how much you're realistically able to work during the school year, what your expenses are, and whether there's a difference between those two.
"Take it at your own pace," says Griffith, who's also an academic adviser at Upper Iowa University.
3. Being a good partner while thriving in school
Compared with the traditional teenagers, far more middle-aged students are married. Being in college while balancing a marriage can be difficult, as Milligan knows firsthand.
"My wife sometimes has felt like I'm ignoring her or not taking care of my responsibilities as a husband and father," says Milligan, who's now 48 and went back to college after doing physical labor for 30 years and getting injured.
But it doesn't have to be impossible, according to Griffith, who also went back to school as an older student while married.
"If you have a passive-aggressive mate, it's going to be really hard to do this," Griffith says. "They may give you guilt trips every time you go to school or work on a paper. You have to make sure your spouse really understands that this is important for you and in the long run makes you a better person and you need their support. It's hard to do if you don't have that."
4. Not feeling too old
As a middle-aged student, you may feel old going back to college at 40 and being surrounding by young adults. However, avoiding that discomfort is all about having the right mindset.
"I understood I might be the oldest student in the class, but as long as I apply myself, it shouldn't be an issue, and it wasn't, for the most part," Milligan says. "Over time, I learned you can learn something from everyone, and everyone has something they can learn from you."
Whether you're old or young, earning a college degree has many benefits. It may help you land jobs, change fields, learn new things, become an expert or get raises. You may have more challenges than you did at 18, but they can be overcome.
Griffith says, "I tell older students, 'OK, if it takes four years to do this, you're 40 now and will be 44 when you finish. Do you want to be 44 with a degree, or do you just want to be 44?'"
- Tracy Griffith, Chair of the Advising Adult Learners Commission and Academic Adviser at Upper Iowa University, Interviewed by the author, August 2014
- "Opportunity cost," Investopedia,
- John Milligan, University of Arizona Student, Interviewed by the author, August 2014
- "Nontraditional student scholarships," SchoolSoup.com,
- Student life: Balancing work and school, University of Illinois-Chicago,