Written By Larry Buhl
Given the length of the post-recession slump, it’s not surprising that many laid off employees have gone back to school to acquire a new degree, gain new skills or even reinvent themselves entirely, even after decades in the workforce.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Education said that in 2010 approximately 5 million, or 25 percent, of college students nationwide were over age 30.
Though going back to school can be nerve-racking for those who left the classroom behind years ago, many older students say that once they got over the trepidation of entering classes with people half their age, they found several advantages that their classmates didn’t have.
Ability to focus. Most likely, older students won’t be drawn into keggers and football games — not that there’s anything wrong with those things — like their 18-year-old counterparts might.
Business owner and author Dr. Robyn Odegaard returned to college at age 32, and in 6.5 years received B.S. in psychology, a master’s and a Ph.D. in applied psychology with a concentration in sport and performance. “It takes some ‘kids’ that long to get a four year degree. If that isn’t a benefit of being older, knowing what you want and going for it, I don’t know what is.”
You can set your own path. Younger students are used to being told what to do, while older students are used to solving their own problems, and that can be an asset. You won’t be influenced by your parents, who have the “perfect” major in mind, for example. (Though your significant other might have ideas.)
Life experience. Many older students find their work and life experience are plusses, not minuses.
A successful but unfulfilled corporate executive in the late 90s, Karen Eichman had been out of school for 18 years before she began to pursue a law degree part time. “As a kid going from high school to college and beyond, I hadn’t lived enough, yet, to get it. At 41, I did.”
Let’s face it: many eighteen-year-olds don’t know what they want to do, and even after a four-year degree still need some real world experience to figure out what they really want to do.
Eric Chen was working in corporate finance and venture capital when he decided to ditch Wall Street for something more fulfilling. He moved Hartford, and earned a Master of Science in Management and a Master of Business Administration, both from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “I had to readjust my ambitions with respect to grades. I even chose classes based on whether or not the class fit into my schedule. Juggling school, a job and a family was very challenging, so I learned to be efficient about my activities — which meant that I didn’t waste any time and got the best bang for the buck when I studied.”
Challenges are less daunting. Once they’ve been knocked around by the real world, the difficulties of the classroom seem minor, say some adult students.
For Chuck McCabe, who returned to school get his GED and bachelor’s degree, the classroom was very hard at first. “My vocabulary was limited, my reading comprehension was poor and I had difficulty concentrating. I learned to focus and compartmentalize, while also taking every studies skills course and seminar available to me,” says McCabe, who now owns and operates a private career school in Virginia.
The fear factor
With all of the potential upsides of going back to school, what stops even more adults from taking the plunge? According to Mike Doolen, a professor of English at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY, and author of “The Success Manual for Adult Students,” it’s fear.
“When people are away from the learning environment for 10, 20 or more years, they worry that kids will be sharper and overwhelm them, or that they’re just not suited for school anymore. Turns out, in almost all cases, they’re dead wrong.”
Doolin, who was a student of non-traditional age himself, says that not only do older students perform better than most of their younger classmates, they often help motivate others once they get their sea-legs in class.
“Ask anyone who teaches college and they’ll tell you, when you put a middle aged student in their class, the performance of the whole class goes up. Once older students get past their fear, there’s no stopping them.”