If you’ve been out of school for several months, years, or even decades, the idea of returning to college can be intimidating. Whether you’re in your 30s or 70s or anywhere in between, you might worry about fitting in with 20-year-old classmates, mastering the technology required for class, or juggling college with work and family life.
It might surprise you to know that adults over the age of 25 now represent approximately 40% of all students in college. And that number—nearly 8 million adult learners!—is only growing. So the good news is that depending on where you attend school, concerns about fitting in with a younger crowd or being the only one not familiar with the tech might not be as warranted these days.
But why are so many working adults going back to school? One reason is the inherent value of a college education and degree. But another important—and perhaps surprising—reason is that adult students actually have multiple advantages over their younger classmates when attending college. Here are some of the benefits working adults enjoy as they go back to finish their degrees.
Adult learners may pay less for school
Some colleges and universities offer adult learners discounts on tuition. In some states or at certain schools, you may even qualify for free tuition if you’re of a certain age (e.g., 60 or 65). If you’ve served in the military, the GI Bill and other benefits may empower you to graduate without debt.
Many institutions now offer special scholarships or grants to returning adult students. Check with your school's financial aid office to discover what's available to you.
Work and life experience enhance your classroom learning
When you’ve spent years in the workforce, raised a family, or served as a caretaker for loved ones, you’ve gleaned lessons that can’t be taught in a classroom. You’re likely more adept at avoiding procrastination and managing your time because you’ve already had to juggle and prioritize your responsibilities. That firsthand knowledge also informs and enriches what you’re learning in the classroom: as an adult learner, you’ll be better able to apply theories and skills because you have a broader range of experience to call on, whether from past or current jobs or from daily life. And sharing your perspective with your fellow classmates broadens their understanding of the material as well.
Challenges have built your resilience
The obstacles you’ve had to overcome by the time you’re 25 or 45 are often more significant than those you may have faced when you were 15 or 18. If you’ve ever lost a job, experienced the breakup of a relationship or the death of a loved one, or faced a major illness or the challenges of raising and supporting a family, you are likely to be able to ride out the ups and downs of college more easily. That ability to put things in perspective and cope accordingly are skills that can help you power through to graduation.
Maturity often results in a stronger sense of direction
After high school, some students enroll immediately in college because it’s what their family expects of them or because it’s just what their friends and peers are doing. Many begin their first year not having a clear goal or direction in mind when it comes to their education or career. Still others might be excited to attend college but aren’t truly ready to take on the experience. This can lead to confusion about what classes to choose or multiple changes of major, which can increase the time and money spent on the degree.
By contrast, as a working adult, you likely know who you are and have a better sense of what you want in life—and how college fits into that bigger picture. You may have experienced how hard it can be to advance your career without an associate or bachelor’s, so you’re more likely to appreciate the value of the degree. If the burden of paying for college lies solely with you, you’re literally and figuratively more invested in your education. You’re also likely to be more driven because you have specific personal goals in mind, such as proving to yourself that you can complete your degree or serving as a role model to loved ones. And if you have already determined your career path, then you can choose your coursework more strategically because you’ll know which classes will benefit you most.
Consult your school's registrar about whether you can earn college credit for previous work experience. If available, this could enable you to graduate earlier, saving time and money.
Drive, not distraction
For students in their late teens and early twenties, college is often as much a social experience as it is an academic one. Younger students are often learning how to live on their own for the first time. College life tends to consist of attending class and studying but also making new friends, getting involved in organizations and extracurricular activities, and attending campus events.
As an older student, you already know how to do laundry, make doctor’s appointments, and cook (OK, you might be snickering if you’re not exactly a whiz in the kitchen, but you get the drift). You’ve probably already built a more stable support network of friends, and you’re more likely to be spending your off hours working or being with your family. That means you’ll likely have clearer priorities and can stay more focused when it comes to completing your coursework.
It’s normal to feel intimidated by the prospect of returning to college after a break. But knowing that you possess certain advantages as an adult learner can help you stay motivated and avoid feeling like an impostor. Just keep reminding yourself that the work and life experience, resilience, maturity, and drive that you bring to the table as an adult learner are all immensely valuable. And those are the factors that will ultimately empower you to achieve success.
Get the support you need to move forward
You have an advantage as an adult learner. If you’re considering taking those next steps in your education, our ReUp Success Coaches are here to provide guidance, including clear, actionable next steps. Ready to connect?