BY ANTON LUCANUS
We occasionally hear inspiring stories of 60-something-year-olds making the bold decision to return to university in order to change their lives or achieve a life-long dream of being educated. But in actual practice this is no longer a rarity. The number of people turning to tertiary education in their twilight years – seeing it as an opportunity to reinvent their lives, improve their salary or tick off a bucket list item – is only growing. In the U.K., the Open University now has 11 percent of its students over the age of 55 and 3 percent over 65 – a huge development considering that 10 years ago the idea of a senior citizen re-enrolling in an education course would have been thought preposterous. The number of people aged 30 to 34 in the EU who have completed tertiary education continues to rise steadily, from 23.6 percent in 2002 to 39.1 percent in 2016. Women are leading the way, from 24.5 percent in 2002 to 43.9 percent in 2016.
But some would-be students see their age as an obstacle or a reason not to further their education. They see embarking on a four or six-year course as a waste of time and investment, largely due to the short life span of a career started after one turns 60. Many are also of the preconceived notion that retirement should be a time of relaxation, of kicking back and enjoying the good life – not of sitting in exams and having to do assessments again.
But in fact, there are countless benefits to becoming a mature aged student – and by mature aged, I am referring to anyone who has not studied for over 20 years and is over the age of 40.
Firstly, gaining further qualifications such as an MBA can lead to one earning a salary increase. Whichever university or online provider one opts to enroll with, there is a strong likelihood that an MBA will prove a strong long-term investment. Research shows that MBA graduates enjoy, on average, an 18 percent rise in their base salary upon graduation; an increase that jumps up to 53 percent after another three to five years.
For others, gaining a degree or MBA – even a graduate diploma – is about achieving a life-long dream and feeling a sense of success for perhaps the first time in their lives. For 63-year-old great-grandmother of five and grandmother of seven Priscilla Santiago of Connecticut, gaining a bachelor’s degree was her way of “owning” her life again after a series of misfortunes and abuse, including a devastating sexual assault that forced her to drop out of high school 47 years earlier.
“Everything happened for me from age 59 to 63,” she said. “It’s never too late for you to do what you think you can’t do. Every day God gives you the chance to do what you want with your life. Don’t let insecurities prevent you from living out your dream.”
Many older women alive today were born and raised in an era where female education was not valued by society. Today, by entering university or college as a female student, those women are taking advantage of the same opportunities offered to young women today – opportunities they were not lucky enough to be given. The sense of self-fulfillment gained by those women is one that goes on to encourage other female seniors to jump on board and gain a qualification too.
However, having a degree or other qualification is no simple guarantee of finding a job in this day and age, where sluggish recovery following the Great Recession has seen an overall unemployment rate of recent college graduates drop to 7.9 percent. Despite common belief that having a degree certificate will lead to job offers, the reality is that employers are seeking professionals with both qualifications and experience. New graduates often find themselves incredibly frustrated with this criterion when job seeking in a new field, since without relevant experience, what hope do they have? They need experience in a certain field to get a new job, but they need a job to gain that experience.
It turns out that choice of college or university, as well as the chosen subject of study, makes a real difference in terms of employment prospects upon graduation. One study found that the unemployment rate for nursing and education majors at U.S. colleges was roughly 5 percent, but that number rose to 10 percent for graduates of architecture and information systems. The digital marketing, entertainment and I.T. industries are generally more favorable toward younger employees, while healthcare and accounting are more willing to consider older employees.
It is often recommended that those wishing to begin studying later in life consider enrolling in a certificate program rather than a four or six-year degree or master’s program. By doing so, students can learn new skills and specialized training in a particular discipline program but take less time to do so than they would earning an associate’s, undergraduate or master’s degree, enabling them to accumulate less student debt and progress toward a new career more quickly. Given the flexible nature of certificate programs, they also allow students to take up an internship or part-time work in the relevant industry while studying.
Slowly, America’s biggest universities and community colleges are making the move to popularize certificate programs, in acknowledgment of growing demand by midlife students seeking an alternative to traditional adult education. Technical schools, community college websites and industry associations are a great place to search for certificate programs targeted toward this demographic. The Plus 50 initiative, a U.S. based program offering life transition counselling services, education courses and other support services to people over 50, is also worth having a look at. Perhaps the most effective way of entering the industry as a midlife graduate, however, is by leveraging opportunities that may exist within your new school’s alumni office or network of professors and classmates.
Byline – Anton Lucanus is the Director of Neliti. During his college years, he maintained a perfect GPA, was published in a top cancer journal, and received many of his country’s most prestigious undergraduate scholarships. Anton writes for The College Puzzle as a means to share the lessons learnt throughout his degree and to guide current students to achieve personal and educational fulfilment during college life.