BY GAYLE THOMPSON
There was a time when college, and higher education in general, was almost exclusively reserved for young adults fresh out of high school, who were still figuring out what career path they wanted to follow. Back then, anyone over the age of 25 or 30 who was sitting in a college classroom was an anomaly. But those days, fortunately, are long gone. Today, college campuses are filled with adults, of all ages and backgrounds, and while the reasons for students obtaining higher education vary, one thing is certain – age is no longer an excuse to not pursue a new career or, for many, even a childhood dream.
According to a report by US News (http://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/2007/10/26/heading-back-to-college), the number of college students ages 40 to 64 has grown almost 20 percent, to more than two million, in the last ten years – and those numbers are expected to significantly increase in the near future.
For some, the pursuit of higher education is thanks to the economic downturn. As smaller companies get taken over by larger ones, many organizations require a college degree for their employees. Even without making a degree mandatory, many employees see a degree as a way to increase their chances of keeping their jobs, or even getting a much-needed promotion.
For others, a return to college is a way to reinvent themselves, and start over with a new career, after spending years, even decades, in one occupation that maybe wasn’t how they always dreamed of making a living. The older years can be a perfect time to learn a new skill, or even begin an entirely new job in a new and exciting field. Retirement, with its benefits and financial incentives, can be the perfect time to fulfill a childhood dream that may have been dormant for most of their life.
Regardless of the reasons, which can be as diverse as the students in a classroom, times have never been easier for an older adult to return to the classroom. Many companies now offer tuition incentive, reimbursing students for part, or in some cases all of their college education, as well as offering paid time off to attend classes.
For those who are unable to miss work to go to class, online colleges are increasing at a rapid rate, and offer a wide array of degrees, even offering a master’s degree or a doctorate in many cases. Onlinecolleges.net (http://www.onlinecolleges.net) offers a comprehensive list of the best colleges and universities that allow students to obtain a degree from the comfort of their home, at a schedule that’s convenient for them.
Even with the accessibility of college for students of any age, there are still several steps to keep in mind, in order to make the transition to a second career as seamless as possible. A recent US News report (http://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/2008/08/20/6-tips-on-planning-a-second-career) offers a few crucial things to remember.
First, prepare yourself. Know how much work will be required, how much it will cost, and if it’s feasible to continue your current commitments while pursuing a higher education. Second, connect with other people who are on a similar path. Ask questions to other people who are already doing the same thing you hope to do with a degree. Third, assess how much money it will cost, both in terms of potential missed work, and college tuition. Make sure that college is something that you can afford, and if not, set aside money each month until you can live comfortably, and fulfill your financial obligations, before hitting the books.
Financial aid, in the form of school loans, grants and scholarships are available for students of any age. Each college will have a financial services department that helps students and prospective students find ways to pay for college. Scholarships.com (http://www.scholarships.com) also offers a complete list of both standard scholarships and unique ones that are tailored to students in specific, and sometimes unique, situations. Collegegrant.net (http://www.collegegrant.net/) offers a list of grants that will pay part, or even all in some cases, of a student’s tuition, that doesn’t need to be paid back. It’s what many refer to as “free money” that is given to a deserving student.
The bottom line is, there are plenty of ways to pursue a higher education. The key is finding the path that works best for each student, and making the necessary life adjustments so that the college experience is positive, rewarding and can lead to many years of happiness in a new and exciting career.
Gayle Thompson is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn. Most of her writings can be found on AOL’s country music site, The Boot. She also contributes to various websites, and helps songwriters and artists write their website content. She is married, the proud owner of a spoiled cocker spaniel, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child in April, 2012.