Despite what you might think, it's never too late to earn your degree. There are countless reasons to go to back to college — or even start college for the first time — when you're over 40, 50 or even 70. Some people go back to college later in life in order to move up in a company or career field. Others return to school to change careers altogether or pursue a dream job that eluded them earlier in life. And there are those who return to the classroom for the pure pursuit of knowledge.
Regardless of the reasons older generations are headed back to school, expect good company. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that students of middle age and beyond enrolling in college to grow by 20 percent through 2025, compared to lower percentages of enrollment growth for traditional students.
However, going to school isn't always an easy process, and college when you're over 40 can seem daunting. 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.
Six ways to overcome the challenges of college at an older age
1. Learn to balance coursework with family life
By middle age, many people 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? According to John Milligan, who went back to college at 40 when his stepdaughter was 7, you can make 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 from the University of Arizona with bachelor's degrees in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology.
Map out what help you would need before starting classes. 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 check out your target schools to see what they have to offer.
2. Consider online education
If you want to learn how to go back to college at 40 (or beyond), you'll want to know about online education. Online classes can fit a wide variety of learning styles, are available at many schools, and can lead students of all ages to succeed without having to attend college in person. Virtual learning helps provide necessary flexibility when juggling a college workload with family or work commitments.
What's more, a Schools.com survey found students older than 50 were not interested in the extracurriculars that often come with the college domain, saying "no thanks" to campus life to instead turn to online learning. Taking all or some coursework online can help adult students stay focused on their education goals by eliminating the "extras" those students aren't looking for out of their college experience.
The same Schools.com survey showed that students in college over 40 or 50 chose coursework in the virtual realm over the traditional classroom as a way to save on costs that might otherwise come up if sticking to the brick-and-mortar school experience.
3. Plan around work and school commitments
You can continue to work while going to school, if you approach it with a positive, but realistic, mindset. This can be an especially appealing aspect of earning 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 allow part-time enrollment in degree programs 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
- Let loved ones know when you need privacy to study
And if you're planning to change careers, working while you're taking classes may also help you ease your transition.
4. Budget responsibly and know what costs to expect
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, a family to feed and a car to insure. So how do you not neglect those responsibilities while still going back to college?
If working full-time while attending college isn't possible, then you could:
- Apply for scholarships targeted to nontraditional or adult students
- Apply for grants
- Work part time while attending school part time
- Take out student loans
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 can 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. Learn more about financial prep in our How to Pay for College guide.
5. Be a good partner while thriving in school
Compared with the traditional teenagers, far more middle-aged or older students are married. Being in college over 40 or 50 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."
Be sure to keep communication lines open and strong, and keep your partner in the loop about when you may need extra support or anticipate being more occupied with your studies than usual. Regularly share your academic wins, too — highlighting that personal success might help your significant other understand how important this educational journey is to you, whether you're starting or completing a degree or taking this as a necessary step to change careers.
6. Don't feel too old to be in school!
As a middle-aged student, you may feel a little strange about going back to college at 40 or back to college at 50, while being surrounding by young adults. However, avoiding that discomfort is all about having the right mindset. Mature students may actually be less worried about selecting a school with other students like them: older students are probably more focused on the "job" of earning their degree than in the social aspects of campus life.
"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 careers, learn new things, become an expert or get raises. You may have more challenges than you did at 18, but they can be overcome.
If you're wondering about how to go back to college at 40 or even 50, here's what Griffith has to 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?'"
- John Milligan, University of Arizona Student, Interviewed by the author, August 2014
- Nontraditional student scholarships, SchoolSoup.com,
- Opportunity cost, Investopedia,
- Projection of Education Statistics to 2025, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed May 2020, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017019.pdf
- Student life: Balancing work and school, University of Illinois-Chicago,
- Tracy Griffith, Chair of the Advising Adult Learners Commission and Academic Adviser at Upper Iowa University, Interviewed by the author, August 2014