- story by Ellis Anderson
Since I’m 59 years old, most of my college classmates could technically be my grandchildren. Yet, apparently I’ve got lots of company. According the American Council on Education, adult learners now make up an astonishing 40 percent of people attending college nationwide.
Older adults enrolled in college are usually called “non-traditional” students and we attend for a variety of reasons. While most are seeking career advancement or new job skills, some are embracing continuing education as a way to stimulate their minds. Others are pursuing passions that jobs or parenthood pushed to the back burner. A few, like me, want the satisfaction of getting a degree they wanted to pursue earlier in life.
In 2013, a friend from my college days suggested that I look into distance learning classes at my former university (Lipscomb in Nashville, TN). After a few phone calls, I drove to Nashville and met with admissions directors and was thrilled to discover that I could finally complete my degree online. A financial aid program designed to encourage returning students made the idea both affordable and irresistible. I began classes in January, 2014. By August, I had my degree in hand. Now, I’m completing my first year in a master’s program at the University of New Orleans, working toward an MFA in Creative Writing. If things go according to plan, I’ll be waving that master’s diploma in the air sometime in my 61st year of life.
The past months have been challenging and exciting and sometimes downright scary as I’ve juggled my studies, my business and my family. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Here are a few things I learned along the way, outside the virtual classroom.
1. Do your homework. Make a list of potential college choices and explore their adult education programs online. Don’t be deterred by distance. If you have previous credits from a college, start there. Some colleges with adult degree programs have admissions recruiters who will be friendly, helpful, and encouraging. Make a list of questions and then schedule an appointment in person or by phone.
2. Find ways to save. The college financial aid office is a great place to start your search for assistance before you consider taking out loans. The adult education department at Lipscomb offered a program (“Turn Back the Tuition”) that saved me thousands of dollars. Other national online resources are available, like “Scholarships For Women,” which has a special section especially for older women listing several financial aid possibilities. If you’re continuing your education solely for a bigger paycheck, do your own cost analysis before borrowing money. You don’t want to be paying off college loans with Social Security checks.
3. Leverage your experience. Many schools offer class credit for your career and/or military experience. It’s called Prior Learning Assessment (PLA). In some cases you can take college level tests (like the CLEP, College Level Examination Program). At certain schools, you’ll also be able submit a portfolio for college credit consideration. In a portfolio, you’ll detail your work experience and pull together evidence of your mastery of a subject. Expect to submit work samples, certificates of training and/or letters of recommendation. It’s not an easy or a fast process, but it can save hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. Before applying to a school, find out what they offer in terms of PLAs from an adult program specialist. You can also learn more at www.acenet.edu.
4. Do not expect online classes to be easy. One common assumption is that you’ll save lots of time by not attending classes in person. Not exactly. In addition to the reading and research papers you’d be assigned in a campus class, every online class I’ve ever taken requires that online students take part in discussion boards. The idea is to simulate the discussion and interaction you’d have in the classroom experience. You’ll be expected to post essays and papers in a monitored online “classroom.” You’ll also be expected to read other students’ work and comment on it. This entails a lot of extra reading and writing. It can be intimidating at first, but don’t be discouraged. Most instructors will offer helpful tips for newbies. Think of all the traffic jams you’re missing out on.
5. Study ivy league for free. If you’re looking to learn for self-improvement and obtaining a degree isn’t important, the Internet offers an incredible array of free classes in every imaginable subject. Explore sites like Coursera or I-Tunes U. Sometimes classes offer certificates of “official recognition” (imagine the fun of hanging a certificate from Yale or Duke on your office wall). In some cases, college credit can also be earned.
6. There’s never a perfect time. Don’t wait for circumstances to align perfectly before you begin, because they won’t. You’re old enough by now to know that. Yet, an honest assessment of how you spend each day will probably reveal several hours you can redirect toward studies. For instance, consider a Facebook fast or swapping out television time for study time. After a few days of a healthy diet, your brain won’t miss the junk food.
7. See your age as an advantage. Research shows that adult students make better grades and graduate at a much higher rate than young students (80 percent compared to 50 percent). As a mature adult, choices like studying for a test versus rocking out at a concert are easy. Our lives aren’t nearly as dramatic either, giving us lots of energy to redirect in positive ways. As an adult, you’ll also be entering college with an irreplaceable asset: your life experience. Combining education and experience is a surefire recipe for success. So get cooking!