Empty Nesters

Back in School Decades Later

Getting a degree or certificate in retirement or later in life can have its advantages.

The stories about older adults going back to school usually focus on people like Jim Kruger, a college dropout who, after retirement, worked his way up from a community college to a master’s degree in public policy and now at the age of 71 is on track to receive his doctorate by his next birthday.

Kruger’s experience is inspiring but not necessarily typical of returning learners, who increasingly have lots of options besides traditional degrees, such as certificate programs for specific skills.

“The environment today presents substantially more choice than we saw a decade ago,” says Rovy Branon, vice provost for the University of Washington Continuum College, which includes professional and continuing education. “The right education increasingly depends on the individual. For some, a graduate degree is the perfect accelerator into a final act of one’s career. On the other hand, certificates from reputable institutions can provide a shorter path to signal new and ongoing skills development.”

People go back to school for myriad reasons. They want a degree or the expertise to land a promotion or pay raise; they want to switch careers; they have been laid off and need to retrain; or after retiring, they want to return to work in a new field or fulfill a lifelong dream.

The number of older Americans enrolled in higher education is unclear because the statistics often don’t include nondegree programs or isolate 50-plus learners. But there’s a sense the number is growing.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions by students age 35 years and older increased 23% between 2000 and 2014 and is projected to rise 20% between 2014 and 2025. That anticipated growth is greater than for younger students.

Anecdotally, many in the field say more adults later in life are seeking further education. Branon notes that his school’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, designed for those age 50 and older, is seeing increasing membership and is one of 122 similar programs across the country.

New Ways to Learn

Higher education has changed dramatically in the past few decades while tuition has soared, so investing the time and money in a degree may not be the best option.

You may be better off with a certificate program, which continuing education can provide for a variety of skills that enhance your employability. For example, the University of Washington Continuum College offers 87 certificate programs, as well as graduate and undergraduate degree tracks. The certificate programs typically last about nine months part-time and are offered in everything from fundraising management to health care analytics to digital marketing. The cost of each program usually runs less than $5,000.

Community colleges are another great place to look. “They’re our best-kept secret,” says Becky Klein-Collins, associate vice president for strategic communication and collaboration at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. “It’s where some of the best technical training is going on for high-demand fields—programs that will be the engine of the economy as we start to rebuild.”

Increasingly, four-year universities also are offering certificate programs. Take Adelphi University in New York. It currently has about 30 different certificates and will probably double that number over the next year, says Andy Atzert, the university’s dean of the College of Professional and Continuing Studies. A certificate course in the College of Professional Studies consists of six workshops of six hours each, so a certificate is awarded after 36 hours, with most costing between $1,200 and $3,000.

Adelphi will offer something that an increasing number of higher education institutions are looking at, Atzert says: a digital credential. That means your certificate would be part of a digital portfolio that an employer can click on to see the list of skills you learned in the course.

“We’re really looking to tell employers what you actually accomplished,” he says.

Janet Ferone, 65, thought she wanted a degree but ended up with a certificate instead. After retiring from her job as a long-time administrator in the Boston Public Schools, she was eager to get her doctorate in education at Harvard University. 

“I’ve always loved school,” says Ferone, who graduated high school when she was 16, was the first girl in her family to go to college, and got her master’s degree at 22. Back then, she received little guidance and, in retrospect, felt that if she had known more, she would have aimed higher.

“Living in Boston and seeing Harvard—it was wow!—I wish I had aspired to go to an Ivy League college,” she says. When Ferone retired as an administrator for special needs students, including those in gangs and on drugs, she couldn’t shake the idea of getting her doctorate there.

“It kept nagging at me,” she says. Besides, the advanced degree would burnish her credentials in her current job as an education consultant.

So she met with the admissions counselor, but the program seemed too restrictive and didn’t click with her. Then someone mentioned the Certificate in Advanced Education Leadership through Harvard’s School of Education. After hearing more about it, she decided the part-time program was for her. As a result, she will be done in a year rather than three (although she can take two years to complete) at a lower cost. Plus, the program attracts international students, something Ferone was particularly interested in.

Still, she hesitated when she found out it was all online because she loved being on campus. “But online means people from all over the world participate, which is fabulous,” she says.

Ferone started in February and is surprised at how different it is from her schooling so many years ago; for example, homework is not necessarily the written papers she expected but can be a student-made video. She finds the new approaches stimulating and is glad she chose the certificate program over getting a Ph.D.

“I really went with my heart,” she says. “I had the luxury of going with what resonated with me.”

Virtual Classrooms

For older students balancing work, health and family, the obstacles for returning to school can seem insurmountable. One is technology. Even pre-pandemic, many classes were online, and it’s not unusual for people who went to school before the internet was created to be flummoxed by a virtual classroom. 

“I’ve taught online primarily for the past 12 to 14 years, and that’s one of the biggest challenges for adult learning—the technology brick wall that they perceive is there,” says R. Lee Viar IV, president of the Association for Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education and a college instructor.  “Even though online platforms offer a host of opportunity and are extremely convenient, it scares them to the point where they won’t even contemplate going back if it’s online.”

Even if the course is taught in a real classroom, the technology can feel daunting. Janice Wald, a middle   school teacher in California, went back to college 12 years ago at the age of 50 for her master’s degree in education.  When it came to technology such as Google docs, Dropbox or other programs used in class, “I was behind the 8-ball on everything,” she says. 

But she says an educational technology class, which was required, helped her both personally and professionally. While she still teaches middle school (and received a raise after earning her master’s degree), her goals have changed. She pursued the degree, thinking she would teach college after retirement but embraced technology instead by launching a blogging career, something her professors encouraged.

“Now I have the confidence to pursue my blogging, which I wouldn’t have had if I had not taken the program,” she says.

If technology feels like an insurmountable hurdle to pursuing higher education, ask the university or community college if they can provide you with a counselor or coach to navigate the first few lessons, particularly if they’re online, suggests Klein-Collins, who also authored Never Too Late: The Adult Student’s Guide to College ($19.99, The New Press). 

“It’s worth asking, because they will want to make sure their students are comfortable with the program,” she says.

If you have children who can help, turn to them. Or consider hiring a local college or high school student to walk you through the process (either virtually or perhaps at a social distance in your own home) before the class begins.

Of course, not all older adults are apprehensive about technology. “We’ve found this population has really taken to remote learning” during the pandemic, says Branon, of the University of Washington. There’s no driving, and some courses are recorded so students can catch up on lectures or watch them again. “Many ask us to continue this form even when in-person options continue,” he adds.

The Money Question

If finances are a stumbling block, don’t give up on returning to school. Just realize it may take research and creativity to make it happen.

It’s worth speaking to any college or university you’re interested in to discover their options for financial aid. For those applying to undergraduate or graduate courses, “I always encourage folks to fill out a FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid),” says Susan Norton, who directs the Office of Adult Learning at Wichita State University. “I would do that before looking at any scholarship information.” 

Because most federal grants, scholarships and student loans are based on financial need, too many people say, “‘I’m not going to be eligible; I make too much money,’” she says. “That drives me nuts. You never know, and it’s fairly simple to fill out. It takes one evening to do it.” 

If you take out student loans, beware of taking on too much debt. 

“A little debt is fine if you have a long work-life trajectory ahead of you,” Klein-Collins says, but be cautious. In particular, for-profit colleges often push students to take on student loans to pay for courses. There are many good for-profit institutions, but research has shown that far fewer people who enter for-profit colleges graduate in six years, compared with nonprofits, and 14.3% of the students default on their loans, more than double those who attend nonprofits.

As Klein-Collins says, “If a program administrator is pressuring you to take out student loans, it’s time to hit the pause button and explore some other alternatives before getting into debt.” 

Some of those alternatives can help you save money, reducing or even eliminating the need to take out a loan. For instance, many higher education institutions offer college credit for life experience, which doesn’t  necessarily have to closely match the degree you’re pursuing, Klein-Collins says. “If you find the right institution that really knows how to help you leverage the learning, it can shave a lot of time off your degree.”

Adds Atzert: “People may not realize that if you had a leadership position in the military or experiences as an EMT, you can get college credit for that.” 

Take Andrea Schenkel, 58, who decided she wanted to get her bachelor’s degree. Growing up in Germany she had left high school after 10th grade, something that was not unusual then. She now splits her time between New York and Germany, and last year decided she would finally apply to a college in the U.S.

An award-winning novelist, Schenkel got into John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a part of the City University of New York system, and received a year of credit for her life experience. At $9,500 for 15 credits (the out-of-state tuition), that’s a good savings. By going to summer school, she hopes to finish her B.A. in English in a little over two years.

If you are employed, ask if your company has a tuition assistance or reimbursement program. Over half—56%—of respondents to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2019 Employee Benefits Survey said their companies offered undergraduate or graduate educational assistance. 

“Assistance runs the gamut,” Klein-Collins says. “Some employees require the program of study to be 100% aligned with their corporate interests; other employers offer a little more freedom as long as the postsecondary program is accredited.”

If you are negotiating an exit package, “it’s definitely worth asking for assistance with retraining” she adds.

Be sure to clarify if it’s tuition assistance, which an employer pays directly to a university, or tuition reimbursement, which requires you to put out the money first and then get reimbursed for some or all of it.

Much of that aid is just sitting there unused. The percentage of workers taking advantage of such benefits is estimated at about 10%. No one is sure why so few people use the assistance, but experts say it’s probably a combination of lack of knowledge about the programs, no time to return to school and not enough money to make up any financial shortfall the company doesn’t cover. 

Don’t ignore government programs. Although many are stretched thin now, some promising options may exist at the local, state and federal levels. Kruger, the Ph.D. candidate in his 70s, says Maryland’s Golden Identification Card Program paid almost all his tuition. The program is available for those over 60 years old who are working 20 hours or less weekly.

If you’re unemployed or about to be unemployed, the Department of Labor’s Career One Stop can connect people to short-term training for high-demand occupations at low or no cost.

The IRS allows $5,250 in tax-free education assistance from an employer; anything above that is usually considered taxable income. Fellowships, grants and scholarships for tuition, fees, books and other supplies are generally tax-exempt if you’re attending an accredited program and studying for a degree. 

Hard Lessons

Like any journey, going back to school is bound to have bumps along the road that require adjusting initial expectations. That’s what happened to Hope Venetta, 46, who works in Durham, N.C., at a trade association for mental health professionals, planning professional development conferences. She decided she wanted to become a counselor herself and thoroughly researched all the options in her area. 

Although she knew it would be tough, she planned to both work and attend school full time. Happily, she found a program offered online and in the classroom that would only require her to be on campus on weekends, when she wasn’t working. It met all her other requirements, and she signed up three years ago. 

“I talked to people who had been through the program before and to the admissions folks, and they all seemed to hesitate when I told them my plan,” Venetta says, but she ignored any doubts. “I thought I’ll just buckle down and do it.” 

But she couldn’t. The homework and readings were more than she expected. She couldn’t miss any weekend in-person classes or she would have to begin the semester again, and when she chose attending class over a conference she had organized, her employer wasn’t happy. 

The cost of tuition and books—about $10,000 a year—meant “instead of going on vacation, we’re paying for grad school,” she says. The financial sacrifices, as well as the time away from her husband “is a lot to ask from a spouse.”

So Venetta reluctantly decided to attend school part-time. She will still earn her license, but it will take five years instead of three. 

Changing your education plans is not unusual, says Viar, 53, who has a doctorate and is going for his second master’s degree, but “there’s a difference between totally walking away and stepping off the path. If you look at all the course credits you have to take, it’s overwhelming. But one credit at a time, it’s attainable.” 

That’s also what Kruger learned. A former pipefitter, who started his own company, Kruger had dropped out of college in his youth to get married. Once retired, he found that playing golf wasn’t enough so he took classes at a Baltimore community college. He then attended the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, where both his daughters graduated from, to get his bachelor’s in political science in 2013. 

Watching his daughters walk across the stage for their master’s degrees inspired him. “I thought I’d like to get one of those.” So he did and assumed his doctorate would go just as smoothly.

But after a grueling weekend-long examination that he “failed miserably,”  he couldn’t advance to the dissertation portion of his Ph.D. program.

“I was discouraged but still hopeful about doing other things,” he says. “I knew with this old brain I could not pass that test.”

Health problems and family issues pushed school to the side for a while. But then he discovered that UMBC had changed its requirements—he could take a course, instead of a test, to continue the Ph.D. program.

He passed, and in March, he defended his dissertation proposal (on an aspect of solid waste). He expects to have his doctorate this time next year.

And there are other unexpected rewards. “It’s made me feel so much better about myself,” the novelist Schenkel says. “I think both sides benefit—the younger students see that even when you’re older, you can go back to school. I learn from them, and they learn from me. It’s a wonderful exchange.”

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