Have you been thinking about going back to school as a path to advancement in the work you already do, or to launch a new career? If so, you will be joining the 8.7 million older students (ages 25 and over) who returned to college last fall. Your lifetime earning potential will increase by finishing a college or graduate degree, if you are diligent in researching your new direction. In fact, earlier this year a report by the Federal Reserve stated that a college education is worth $830,000 more than a high school diploma. Earnings continue to increase with advanced degrees, in most instances. Yet for many people, even the prospect of a better standard of living may not be enough to overcome barriers, both real and perceived, to begin school again and graduate.
One of the biggest barriers is F.E.A.R. – False Expectations Appearing Real. Here are some common misconceptions I have heard from my clients.
- I didn’t do well in school when I was younger. When I ask clients what else was going on in their lives either in high school or before they abandoned college, their present circumstances have changed. Maybe there was too much disruption at home for them to be able to focus on school, or maybe they no longer party like they did when they were younger. Maybe they had a learning problem which went undetected, such as ADD/ADHD or dyslexia, both treatable and both unrelated to intelligence and learning ability.
- I am too old. I’ve had clients tell me this as young as their 20’s. If you were to start a 4 year degree this fall, you would be 4 years older when you plan to graduate. How old will you be in 4 years if you don’t go to college? And what are the chances you’d be stuck at the same job? One of my clients just turned 67 and completed a Master’s Degree last spring. She is entering a field where her previous work and life experience give her a distinct advantage. Even the prospect that she might still owe student loans at the end of her life was not enough to dampen her enthusiasm for the work she is now beginning.
- I don’t want to be the oldest student in the classroom. The prospect of competing with younger classmates who are native computer users is daunting. Even if you are an immigrant in computer land, you will be among other adults who are practicing new skills and teachers and staff who want to help you succeed, if you only ask. As a former instructor of college courses with both traditional age and adult students, I can assure you that faculty welcome older students. At the risk of stereotyping younger students, I found that most of my adult students (and some of the younger ones) possessed a strong work ethic for the effort required in college, didn’t complain, were highly motivated, and brought depth and breadth to class discussions based on their life experiences.
- It will be too hard. Yes it’s hard, stressful, time consuming, and possibly the biggest challenge you might choose to take on. Once you discover what you want to do and what you get to learn about in order to do it, you might also find that it’s fascinating, compelling, even fun, and possibly the best way you have ever spent your time or money.
What I have observed over the decades I have worked with adult students is this: at first they are very concerned about earning decent grades. That’s usually not the hardest part. What’s a bigger challenge is to set up their lives around being a student again. Life stressors, and not lack of achievement, more commonly are the reason why returning adults might not succeed. It’s quite a balancing act if the adult student has to juggle a family and a job, in addition to classroom, lab, and study time. Consider making a lifeline of your life so far, predicting as much as you can in to the future, including events in the lives of immediate family members. You might decide to postpone beginning an intense period of retraining until your youngest child reaches an important independence milestone. Perhaps in the meantime, you could prepare by ordering your old transcripts and finding out how many credits will be accepted, or taking one prerequisite course each quarter. This can be done with the help of an adviser at your chosen college.
If you have school age children and a spouse/partner at home, you are going to need their understanding and cooperation to help out more than before. By sitting down to do homework together, you are modeling discipline, time management, and good study skills. Plus everyone has much to gain by a parent becoming qualified to go after a better paying job after graduation. The bigger the change in lifestyle, the more support you are going to need in order to be successful. That is why beginning to continue your education will take careful planning and preparation, and consulting a career professional can save you a lot of trouble later on.
Career Counselors can offer you a number of assessments, pieces of the puzzle to figure out what direction would suit you. My fellow blogger, Andrea King wrote about additional means to making a choice of college major and career. Read it here.
Your chances of uncovering your answers improve by first learning about yourself through synthesizing results of career assessment tools in order to make informed decisions about what to explore. Then learn about the career options you have uncovered by talking directly with people already working in those jobs. A career counselor can help you stay on track, analyze, and digest all the information you have gathered. He or she can also help you get clearer if you become overwhelmed along the way.
In Part Two of Returning to School, I will address how to overcome external barriers, the big one being money. How will you be able to afford to go back to school? I will write more about creative ways to fund education as well as guerrilla tactics applied to learning new skills.
Anne Bryant, MA, LPC
Anne has thirty years of experience offering practical skills and support to people experiencing transitions in their careers and personal lives. Openings available for individual and group sessions.