College is often billed as a young person’s game. The vast majority of students out there are considered “traditional” students. This means that they are between the ages of 18-22 and went straight into college right after they finished high school. It’s what we were all taught was the norm. You finish high school and then you either join the military or you go to college. But…what if you didn’t? What if you got a job? What if you spent a few or even many years (or decades) working?
Surely, there comes a time in life when it is too late to get your college degree, right?
According to a Wall Street Journal blog post, as of 2007, almost 40% of enrolled college students were considered non-traditional. That number grows as you broaden the definition of “non-traditional” to include criteria like taking a year off to work before going to school, being employed full-time, part time attendance, etc.
In The Atlantic’s 2011 article “Old School: College’s Most Important Trend is the Rise of the Adult Student,” Frederick Hess says that college students that most of us think of when we think of people in college: 18-22 year old’s, living on campus and going to school full time, only make up about a sixth of a school’s total student population.
And, finally, the American Psychology Association says that as of 2010, there were almost four million students enrolled in school who were over the age of 35.
There are a lot of factors contributing to the rise in “non-traditional” and, if you’ll forgive the word, “older” student populations. A changing economy is forcing people out of manufacturing and many trade jobs. As the companies that kept the economy booming throughout the later half of the 20th century are boarding up their windows their workforce–many of whom are not yet retirement ready (and even some who are but who can’t or don’t want to retire yet)
are forced to either go jobless or head back into the classroom to learn how to compete for higher-tech jobs and a computer-based economic system.
It’s also worth noting that the idea of working in the same company for forty or fifty years is no longer the norm. The average adult will have a few different careers in her or his lifetime and switching from one career to the other often requires a new (or, in some cases, a first!) degree.
Finally, sometimes life changes force us to re-evaluate our lives. Death, divorce, relocation, family circumstances, any number of situations can make us take stock of where we are in life and decide to make a few changes.
Basically: it is never too late to go back to school. More importantly, you don’t have to worry that you’ll be singled out or one of only a few “real adults” in the classroom besides the professor. The classroom is more diverse than ever! Plus, these millennial students aren’t nearly as hung up on age issues as the generations that came before them.
Choosing a School
Deciding to go back to school may not necessarily mean diving back into the world of full time four-year academia. Many adults who have made the decision to return to school choose to do so part time or through very specific programs that are built to accommodate the needs of students who have families, full time jobs, etc. For example, the adult programs at Warner Pacific College in Oregon allow students to work at an “accelerated” pace to help them complete their degrees in less time (which helps make the degree more affordable).
There are also some schools, like University of Phoenix, that meet primarily online. There are campuses across the country, of course, but most of the classwork happens in a virtual environment. This allows students with varied and unpredictable schedules to complete the work on their own time and, sometimes, at their own pace. Online programs are also helpful for adults who spend a lot of time traveling. School can happen wherever you are.
The point is this: you can go back to school whenever you want. If you’re worried about student loans and traditional learning environments, accelerated programs, adult ed programs or online schools are all options that are available to you. So the question isn’t whether or not you should. The question is what do you want to study once you’re there? Think of it as starting out, not ending up!