College is no longer the domain of 20-somethings. Plenty of students are going back to school at age 40 or even older to earn degrees in business, computer science and other fields. What's more, they're doing it their way and making the most of online education options.
A Schools.com study found returning, nontraditional students were five times more likely to enroll in a fully online degree program as compared to first-time students. In fact, 55 percent of survey respondents age 55 or older were enrolled in a fully online program. Another 35 percent were taking classes through a hybrid program that combines online with on-campus coursework. Only one in ten of these returning students were going back to school the old-fashioned way, through a traditional, on-campus degree program.
Why are boomers so in love with online learning? Our survey didn't answer that question definitively for the purpose of this article, but it does reveal some interesting facts that may explain why older students are heading online for their degrees, and you can ready more about why baby boomers are back in school.
Fact #1: Mom and dad aren't still footing the bill.
It's no surprise that boomers are paying their own way through school. While 23 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds say family is their primary way of paying for college, none of the age 50+ students we surveyed said their family was pitching in to pay tuition. After all, at their age, they are more likely to be supporting mom and dad themselves rather than getting support from their parents.
Instead, students older than age 50 say they are using a mix of scholarships, grants and loans to cover their costs. In addition, nearly 16 percent say they plan to work their way through school. In order to do that, they need a degree program that will let them balance their work with their studies.
For these working boomers, an online degree may be the perfect way to ensure they can keep the job that's paying their tuition bills while still getting their coursework done.
Fact #2: Older students want flexibility and they're picking majors that work well online.
Older students may also be flocking to online programs simply because they like the flexibility these programs offer. It's a perk almost everyone can appreciate, even if they aren't worried about scheduling classes around a job.
Of the returning students we surveyed — that would include both boomers and those younger — 46 percent said flexible learning options such as online or night and weekend classes were among their top three reasons for selecting their school.
Majors for older students working well online
Despite how far technology has come, degrees in some fields, such as nursing, will likely never be fully online. However, boomers aren't studying nursing or medicine. They are selecting majors, undergraduate and graduate, which work well as online programs.
The following are the most popular majors selected by students age 50 or older who were surveyed.
- Business or finance: 23 percent
- Computer science or technology: 19 percent
- Psychology: 12 percent
- Education: 12 percent
Fact #3: "Making memories" isn't a priority.
When we asked nontraditional students, including boomers, what they want to get out of their college experience, only 5 percent placed having fun or making memories among their top three goals. Clearly, returning students aren't going to college for the experience as much as they are for the degree.
That may be one reason boomers appear to have little trouble bypassing the traditional college experience. They aren't necessarily looking to make BFFs at the bar or have late night study sessions in the library. Instead, they say they are hoping to get a good education and a successful career path out their time in school.
Fact #4: They aren't hung up on how they get a degree.
Although online degrees are now relatively mainstream and offered by some of the most distinguished schools in the country, some people look upon them with disdain. So much so that 37 percent of surveyed 18-24 year-olds believe an online degree is less valuable than a traditional degree.
However, boomers have no such hang-ups about how their degree is earned. Among those age 55 or older in the survey, 40 percent say an online degree is as valuable as a traditional degree, and an additional 30 percent say the degree is what matters, not where it came from.
College used to be a four-year period in which you could little else other than attend classes and study in your free time. However, online education is changing the game and opening the door for nontraditional students of all ages to earn degrees.
Today's boomers are taking advantage of nontraditional education options to get the degree they want while still having time for their job, grandkids and the other things they love.
Schools.com survey, 2015