What it’s like to go back to school in midlife

Going back to school in your forties and fifties can be scary, but sometimes necessary, especially in this post-pandemic roller-coaster economy.

According to a 2021 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the financial benefits of higher education are significant.

The report, titled “The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings,” highlights that individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $2.8 million over their lifetime.

This figure is 84% more than those with just a high school diploma. The study further notes that bachelor’s degree holders earn 31% more than those with associate degrees.

Going back to school in midlife can be daunting, but it can also be your ticket to an encore career. Here is how I did it.
Photo: Shutterstock

However, it’s important to point out that income-earning potential is not tied to just any college degree, but also to the type of major one graduates with.

A petrochemical engineer will likely make more money than, say, a Philosophy major.

Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals a significant shift in the demographics of students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States.

In 2010, about 58,000 students aged 35 and over were enrolled in such institutions. Fast forward to 2021, and this number has impressively increased to 314,000. This trend underscores a growing inclination among older individuals to pursue higher education, possibly driven by various factors such as career advancement, personal development, or adapting to changing job markets.

This shift in enrollment patterns could have far-reaching implications for both educational institutions and the broader job market. It highlights the evolving nature of education in the modern world, where learning is increasingly seen as a lifelong journey rather than a one-time pursuit.

To enroll in college and start a new career when most people are supposed to be slowing down and getting ready for retirement might seem senseless to many.

But let’s face it; a good life is filled with second, and even third acts, and time passes whether you pursue a degree later in life or not.

I went back to college at 44

Going back to school in midlife can be daunting, but it can also be your ticket to an encore career. Here is how I did it.

I went back to college at 44 and then pursued a graduate degree in what is probably the most useless major in the universe: creative writing.

My reasons? After 20 years as a photojournalist, which is physically taxing, I was ready for a career change.

I also had just gotten divorced and wanted to find work that would not require me to travel at the drop of a hat, as I had shared custody of my very young son.

My plan was to get a B.A. and become a high school English teacher so I could have the same schedule as my little boy. But I always loved writing fiction, too. The fiction writing major fit my plans like a crystal slipper.

Also Read: Keeping the Over-50 Brain Nimble and Sharp

Benefits of going to college in midlife

Going back to school in midlife can be daunting, but it can also be your ticket to an encore career. Here is how I did it.

Attending college does much more than give us the knowledge and skills to follow a specific career path. In college, we make new friends from outside our usual circle.

We are exposed to different ideas and perspectives. In other words, attending college at a certain age can help open and expand our minds.

This is especially true where a Liberal Arts degree is concerned. We also make new friends and perhaps discover talents we didn’t even know we had.

For me, getting a BA at age 46 taught me that I could work harder than I ever had. I juggled long class hours with photography work and raising my son.

I built what I hope will be life-long friendships with my peers and professors. But most important, I discovered that I was actually pretty good at writing fiction.

As I received my BA, I decided to go all the way and get an MFA in creative writing.

The outcome of finally obtaining a degree has been different to my initial plans Instead of teaching in high school, I now teach college courses. My fiction has been published in a number of journals and won a few awards.

All this was a boost to my ego and confidence, and now I am trying to get a novel published. One of several I have written, and rewritten, and rewritten some more.

For the first time since I became a photojournalist – and I am talking of my first five years in that business – I feel that I have found my true calling as a fiction writer.

I don’t think any of that would have happened had I not gone back to college.

How to afford college

Going back to school in midlife can be daunting, but it can also be your ticket to an encore career. Here is how I did it.

Now, something to watch out for when going back to school is the expense. It’s no secret that college isn’t cheap. Take your time and do your research. Your current employer might offer tuition assistance.

There are also government grants and fellowships as well as work-study programs that could help defer the expense of four years at a university.

Because I did the legwork I mention above, I didn’t pay a cent to go to school, both undergrad and graduate. I avoided loans at all costs and I recommend you do the same.

If you are thinking of going back to school in midlife, look deep within and think of the reasons why you want to do this. I certainly feel I made the right choice, but I had a very clear goal.

Going back to school in midlife can be daunting, but it can also be your ticket to an encore career. Here is how I did it.

Before you enroll, make a list of the positives and negatives of going back to the classroom. Meet with one of the college’s academic advisors to see what it will really take to get that degree.

If you decide to go ahead with it, then be determined and keep a positive attitude. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

Focus on it and work your way toward that goal, one day at a time, no matter what gets in the way: daily life, kids, family, work …

And if it looks like it might be too much to handle, or that it will take too long, remember this: life is a journey.

It’s not about when or how you arrive. It’s about making the best of your travels. If you want it badly enough, you should go ahead and enroll, no matter what your age.

Going back to school in midlife can be daunting, but it can also be your ticket to an encore career. Here is how I did it.
Phillippe Diederich

Phillippe Diederich is a bilingual author and photographer born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Mexico City and Miami. His photography has appeared in The New York Times, Time magazine, U.S. News and World Report and other national publications. Phillippe's novels Sofrito and Playing for the Devil's Fire are both published by Cinco Puntos Press. He is the recipient of a PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship and the Editor-in-Chief of Viva Fifty!

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