By Danika McClure
For many students who are just out of high school, college is a time where they can experience the freedoms that young adulthood has to offer, while also making new friends, taking challenging courses, and exploring their future career options.
However, the college experience is rapidly starting to look quite different. A growing number of students are older, returning to school part time, and their rate of enrollment is growing even faster than students of traditional college age.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students aged 25 and older accounted for roughly 40 percent of all college and graduate students in the year 2009. By the year 2020, that number is expected to rise by at least three percent with over 9.6 million non-traditional students heading to college.
Additionally, students over the age of 35, who accounted for 17 percent of all college and graduate students in 2009, are expected to comprise 19 percent of the graduation total by the year 2020.
Why the sudden spike in college enrollment?
The reasons are numerous, but many older students have realized that in order to progress in their careers, they need to sharpen their current skill sets to better meet the needs of an increasingly technology oriented workspace. In some cases, older students are gaining expertise in order to launch a second career, to take their new career in a slightly different direction, or to gain the skillsets to turn their hobbies into a sustainable business.
Regardless of their reasons for returning to school, however, older students face different challenges when it comes to affording a college education.
Many younger students have the benefit of financial savings and support from their parents, as well as access to scholarships, grants, and the FAFSA. In most cases, younger students haven’t invested years or decades into their career.
For older adults, however, there are a number of financial factors to consider before going back to school.
“If you are talking about changing careers and going back to school to change careers, you have to run the numbers on it and determine the break-even point–how many years would it take you to get ahead compared to if you stay in your career,” investment director Joe Jennings tells CNBC.
For those who are considering leaving the workplace altogether, that calculation is especially important, as they will have to consider the income they will forego in addition to the cost of tuition.
For those who are continuing in their current career trajectory, hoping to building on their skills in order to advance their earning potential, there are a number of financial options available. Many employers are willing to sponsor your educational journey if you take certain classes to build your skillsets.
Older students can also look into scholarships that are not based on financial need or written specifically for students of a particular age. The FAFSA is also an option available for students of any age. Similarly, tax credits such as the Lifetime Learning Credit are available for students who meet certain income criteria.
Regardless of how older adults choose to pay for college, the benefits of returning to school are significant. Higher education can be a way to rejuvenate a stagnant career, or even a way for older adults to make a drastic life change–perhaps in a more fulfilling direction.
Though older generations are beginning to re-enroll in college in drastic numbers, many worry about the transition of returning to school in an environment that is primarily marketed and geared towards young people. But older students who have returned to school have spoken out, offering advice for those returning to college.
“I was anxious about going to school with kids one-quarter to one-half my age,” writes Sarah Kelly, a 50-year-old woman who returned to college at age 47. However, she later realized her fears were unfounded. “I worried for nothing. The kids were gracious and respectful. A lot of them called me mom. I was their surrogate mom away from home. I was flattered when they asked me for advice. I was gratified that they accepted me into their lives.”
Kelly’s experience is not unlike many other older students who have returned to school.
“While I did find myself in the minority, I did not find myself alone,” Eric Simpson writes for The Huffington Post. “While the weight of the student body population are much younger than me, nobody really seems to care.”
Simpson also goes on to say that he was much more prepared to receive a quality college education than he was when he first chose to go to college right out of high school.
“This time around I feel oddly more receptive to the whole process, more aware of what I am learning and why. I am surprised at how exciting and stimulating an education can be. But I’m also far more directed in my purpose. I have become what my peers in high school used to disdainfully call ‘a straight arrow’.”
Non-traditional enrollment has become one of the foremost trends on today’s college campuses. Older students are returning to school in order to revive a stagnant career, to gain new skills, or to transition into other fields entirely. For these students, higher education has become a pathway to a meaningful career opportunities, new experiences, and lifelong learning.
Danika McClure is a writer and musician from the northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl