Going to College in Your 30s (and Up): The Survival Guide
I’m in my early thirties, and went back for my master’s degree to give my career an boost.
I’d love to say it was a breeze, but it has been really tough. I’m studying for tests and balancing a full-time job while friends are having more kids and taking nice vacations.
I never thought I’d earn a master’s degree. When I was a kid, I envisioned that of course I’d go to college, but I’d stop after four years. Then I’d get married and have kids. Fade scene. But to get my career where I wanted it, I needed more education.
If you decide to go back to school after your 20s, you’re in for a lot of benefits, but also some challenges.
You might think, “It’s too late for me to go back to college. I’ve got to focus on my career and family.”
But it’s never too late. Someone I know went back to school in his 60s. Rather than feel odd that most of his classmates were in their 20s or younger, he became their mentor and gave them life advice.
Getting a degree can give you a lot of benefits. Here are a few ways to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible.
Organization and time management
I consider myself to be organized and conscientious, but going back to college requires another level of focus.
Once, I forgot about a test and missed it. Once. It was not fun explaining that to the dean and having her bluntly suggest I learn to read a syllabus.
After that, I made a chart of when assignments were due, and checked them off one by one. I also use Google calendar to keep track of important dates; it can send notifications to my phone so I never forget another due date.
If you’re going back to college later in life, odds are you’re working full time and taking care of a family in addition to taking classes. It’s a delicate balancing act.
I recently had a training on time management, and they gave surprising advice: You don’t need to be perfect at everything. Just get things done.
I think about that when my kitchen is a mess when I’m working on a big project. I can finish the project now and clean later. I can’t do everything all at once, so I do what I can.
I’ve also found that the more I do something, the faster I get. Papers that used to take me four days to write now take four hours. Give yourself time to work on something new, and you might be surprised by how quickly you learn new skills.
Going back to school meant staring down the barrel of student loans. I’m a grad student, so I couldn’t get Pell grants. I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship, but it didn’t even cover a full semester.
According to U.S. News and World Report, the average graduate student ends up with $57,600 of student loan debt.
If you’re studying for a bachelor’s degree, you may be eligible for need-based grants. In the U.S., you’ll have to file a FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to check your eligibility for grants and loans.
My work doesn’t offer tuition reimbursement, so I have to get creative. I rent textbooks when I can. I saved $150 this semester by borrowing a textbook from my library. I could only borrow it for free for six weeks, but the fees for keeping it a few extra weeks were less than a dollar.
College graduates make more money--on average, $900,000 more over their lifetime compared to people with only a high school diploma.
But you have to make sure your degree is going to be worth it. Will there be a job or promotion for you when you graduate? If you want credentials to be a teacher, there are programs to help forgive your debt. In other jobs, you may be paying down your loans on your own.
Take care of yourself
A few weeks ago, I got a letter from the IRS. I saw it scanned in my daily USPS email, and panicked. Was I getting audited? I thought my taxes were fine! When the envelope came and I opened it, it said … someone had accessed my FAFSA.
That was me. I submitted my FAFSA, so everything was fine. But the letter was one of a million tiny stressors that are part of going back to school.
At first I tried to put things off until I graduated. But then I realized, just because I’m going to school doesn’t mean I have to put my life on hold. I went on a vacation, though I woke up early in the mornings to submit coursework to my online classes. And I’m writing here on Medium, and (slowly) working on a novel.
It seems backwards to take a little time off for things I enjoy, but if I don’t, I get burned out and can’t focus on school at all.
It’s possible to go to college at any age. To gain credentials that will advance your career or let you switch to a new job, you’ll need to work hard. But you need time management skills and balance in your life in order to succeed.