When Becky Bettis was 25, she enrolled in community college in Springfield, Illinois, determined to get a degree that would lead to a stable job to help her support her two children. She received her associate degree in 2012 and went on to earn her bachelor's degree in criminal justice from University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) in December 2014.
Bettis, who recently turned 30, says that going to school in her 20s carried some challenges. She had to balance her schoolwork with caring for her two sons (one of whom had homework of his own), while juggling her part-time job (sometimes more than one) and other real-life priorities. Plus, Bettis says many of her younger classmates didn't take school very seriously. "Some of them are there to learn, but some of them are there because their parents want their kids in college, not because they're really trying to get that much out of school."
Still, the challenges were worth it. Bettis is thrilled to have her degree and is on the lookout for a job in the criminal justice field. She's also considering pursuing her master's in public administration. She said that because she went to school later, she was more prepared to learn and determined to get the most out of her studies. Despite her later start, she's confident it will lead to a higher-paying career than the alternative.
"College, now, especially an associate degree, is like a high school diploma used to be 15 or 20 years ago," she says.
It pays to go to college
The statistics don't argue with that. According to the 2014 Pew Research Report, "The Rising Cost of Not Going to College," millennials ages 25 to 32 who have graduated college earn, on average, $17,500 more annually than their counterparts who have a high school diploma. Further, those surveyed in the report who have college degrees were more likely to state that their education has been "very useful" in preparing them for — and advancing within — their career. And then there's this: According to The New York Times, which analyzed 2013 statistics from the Economic Policy Institute, Americans with four-year degrees make, on average, 98 percent more per hour than those without their degree.
Those are the kind of stats that come in handy for Clarissa Casper, an admissions counselor with UIS who frequently speaks with 20-somethings considering enrolling in school and talks about the steps to go back to college.
Casper says that even though only a few years separate the "nontraditional" student in his or her 20s from an 18-year-old freshman, there tend to be a lot of differences in their mindsets.
"A lot of times students that are older are more motivated," Casper says. "They're taking things into their own hands," as opposed to students who have just graduated high school, whose parents accompany them to tour the campus or fill out applications. "The maturity levels are different," she says.
Casper says that enrolling in college is a positive thing, regardless of age. She shared the following pieces of advice for men and women in their 20s on how to go back to college:
1. Find a good fit.
When considering schools, find one that meshes with your schedule. Many schools cater to non-traditional students and offer night and online classes that make it easier to plan around work and family obligations.
2. Consider your options.
Many students in their 20s who enroll at a university have attended the local community college and transferred in. That's a great way of saving money and getting a jump start on your education.
3. Seek out the right services.
Acquaint yourself with the career services office and ask for advice about jobs and internships. Colleges have great connections with employers, and by gaining experience while you're in school, you'll establish connections in the field and be more prepared when you graduate. "A lot of employers are looking for students who are graduating not only with their degree, but who were also involved with internships and have experience in the field that they're going into," says Casper.
4. Age doesn't matter.
If you're concerned about being older than your fellow students, Casper encourages you to get involved in activities on campus. "Once you become friends with someone, you just kind of forget there's an age difference," she says.
5. Grow your earning potential starting today.
The younger you are when you graduate, the more years you'll have to earn — and save — the higher salary associated with that four-year degree.
Casper says that returning to school can get harder with age, as mortgages, car payments and other expenses grow, along with family commitments. Younger students, on the other hand, can often balance a part-time job and school, with fewer worries.
"They're still young enough that if a door closed, they're going to climb out the window. When they're older they might feel a little more closed in," says Casper. "Although it's never too late, in my opinion."
See how your college experience will differ in your 30s and 40s:
How to go back to college at 30
Going back to college at 40? Get ready to conquer these challenges
1. Becky Bettis, University of Illinois at Springfield graduate, Interviewed by the author on Dec. 15, 2014
2. Clarissa Casper, University of Illinois Springfield admissions counselor, Interviewed by the author on Dec. 16, 2014
3. "Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say," David Leonhart, New York Times, May 27, 2014, viewed Dec. 17, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/27/upshot/is-college-worth-it-clearly-new-data-say.html?_r=1&abt=0002&abg=0
4. "The Rising Cost of Not Going to College," Pew Research Social & Demographic Trends, Feb. 11, 2014, viewed Dec. 17, 2014, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/