College After 40: 5 Surprising Facts About Baby Boomers Going Back To School

College campuses are buzzing, and it's not only 20-somethings filling classrooms. Plenty of students are going back to college at age 40 or 50 as well. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics found nearly one in 10 undergraduate students enrolled in fall 2013 were age 40 and older.

To find out more about why and how baby boomers are returning to college campuses, Schools.com surveyed some of those in their 40s and 50s who are currently working on a degree. Their answers were part of a larger study regarding college attitudes held by students of all ages.

While the survey participants represent only one portion of the older student population, you may find it surprising to learn why they decided to earn a degree and what they were looking for in a school.

Here are five things baby boomers told us about their decision to become college-bound:

Fact No. 1: Older Americans are self-motivated to earn a degree.

older man extremely happy to be back in college

College may seem like what's expected of younger students, but 40- and 50-somethings aren't driven by anyone's expectations other than their own. Nearly a third of those in their 40s told Schools.com they went back to school because they decided to change careers.

For those 50-59, the decision was less about jobs and more about finally exploring a subject they love: 31.6 percent of those surveyed in that age range said they are earning a degree in order to explore their passions. Compare that to 18- to 29-year-olds who were three times less likely to give that answer and more likely say they enrolled in college because it was a logical next step for them.

Fact No. 2: Regret over unfinished degree programs doesn't seem to be a motivating factor for most.

degree just out of reach

While older students may be motivated to earn a degree for a number of reasons, regret doesn't seem to be one of them. Only 5.3 percent of those surveyed in their 40s say they went to back to school in order to complete a degree they previously started. Three times as many 50- to 59-year-olds had that reason, but that still only equals out to 15.8 percent being motivated by wrapping up unfinished business.

Similarly, few feel pressure from their families to earn a degree. None of those older than age 50 cited family expectations as a reason to go back to school, while the same reason was only given by 7.9 percent of those in their 40s who were surveyed.

Fact No. 3: Most 40- and 50-somethings are studying online.

older woman studying online

Almost half of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed were heading to an on-campus degree program. However, older students are saying 'no thanks' to campus life, and studying online instead. Nearly three out of four surveyed students in their 40s are enrolled in a fully online or hybrid degree program, which is one with online classes that have some on-campus requirements. More than 84 percent of those surveyed in their 50s are studying online or in hybrid programs this upcoming school year.

Online programs are likely popular with these groups because they offer flexibility, something ranked as a priority by approximately 60 percent of those over age 40 who were surveyed.

Fact No. 4: Cost is a top concern for older students.

older man worrying about money

Baby boomers value flexibility, but it's not their number one concern. Instead, cost topped the list of reasons why older students enrolled in a particular school. Among younger boomers in their fiftieth decade, 68.4 percent say cost was one of their top three priorities when it came to selecting a school. That number was slightly lower for 40- to 49-year-old students — but not by much, with 63.2 percent of them listing cost as a priority.

People in their 40s who said cost was important were 1.3 times more likely to pick an online program, and only 16.7 percent of cost-conscious respondents went with a traditional, on-campus degree — which might say a lot about affordable online education is perceived.

Among those ages 50 and older, 46.2 percent of those for whom cost was important selected a hybrid program and 38.5 percent went with a fully online program.

Fact No. 5: Mature students don't care if they stand out.

older college students happy to be back in school

Finally, by the time they hit their 40s and 50s, people apparently don't care as much about fitting in. Only 5.3 percent of those age 40-49 and 2.6 percent of those surveyed in their 50s say they were concerned about selecting a school with other students like them.

Likewise, older students really couldn't care less about social activities and campus life, which tend to be more important to younger students. Among surveyed 18- to 29-year-olds, 8.6 percent were motivated by extracurricular activities when selecting a college while the study found absolutely none of those age 50 or older cited them as a reason to choose a particular school.

Bottom line?

College is no longer a young person's domain. Older Americans are heading back to school, not because it's expected of them to keep up with the younger generation, but because they want to. Fortunately for them, online and hybrid programs are making it easy to schedule study times around work and family events, and as the Schools.com survey shows, many returning students are taking full advantage of these flexible education options. For additional information about those options, read more about how you can leverage old college credits, and what else it takes these days to go back to college as a nontraditional student.

1. Characteristics of Postsecondary Students, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_csb.asp