Going Back to School at 40 and Beyond
Are you considering furthering your education but you think you’re too old for school? Many would-be students over age 35 see age as an obstacle to continuing their educations, but some have tackled it to prove that you’re never too old for school. Here are some real-life examples.
Back-to-School Age: 58
Degree: Master’s in Nursing Management/Leadership
Brenda Echols wanted to pursue her master’s in nursing management/leadership with Western Governors University, a nonprofit online university designed for working adults. She was and still is the only person in her family with an advanced degree. Here's what she had to say about her journey to a master's degree as an older student.
"My biggest challenge was overcoming breast cancer while working on my degree. It almost took me out of school, but when I thought about it and talked it over, I decided to hold on and hold out as strong as I could.
"I believe others can do it, too, if they believe. It's never too late to believe. Being a student helped me maintain my focus during my challenges. My dream sustained me along with family and friends. I never missed a beat."
Back-to-School Age: 47
Degree: Cosmetology License
Career Change: Banking to Salon Owner
Sarah Kelly resigned from her job at Wells Fargo Bank in the spring, took a summer break, and then entered the Aveda Institute Minneapolis to get her cosmetology license in the fall of that same year. Previous to that, she had received her bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Minnesota back in 1990.
"It's not exactly graduate school, but I've opened a salon and have had a very successful shop for a few years now. I've been so much happier in my new vocation. It's my dream job and it's absolutely what I was meant to do.
"Too old for school? Absolutely not! I was anxious about going to school with kids half my age, but I was also a more dedicated and serious student. I was motivated to lose weight—it is the beauty industry, after all.
"I worried for nothing. The kids were gracious and respectful. A lot of them called me Mom. I was their surrogate mom away from home. I was flattered when they asked me for advice. I was gratified that they accepted me in their lives. I was floored when they asked me to speak at our graduation. It was very flattering."
Back-to-School Age: 55
Degree: B.A. in International Studies
As a 55-year-old freshman with zero college credits, Theresa had a steep road ahead of her when she enrolled at NYU School of Professional Studies. There had been a 38-year gap since her last formal schooling. She had no SAT scores, but she did have decades of life experience from which to draw.
"I'd been a business manager/outreach coordinator for a prominent children's theater. I'd developed and managed a world-class Arabian horse farm. I'd been heavily endorsed as a candidate for the Seattle School Board, lobbied the Washington State legislature on education issues, and ridden across the United States on the Bicentennial Wagon Train. But I couldn't secure a minimum wage job. I was being screened out because I had no college degree.
"My B.A. concentration in International Studies will bring my resume up to date and I'll maximize my earning potential for the rest of my productive life. Has it been challenging? Yes. Worthwhile? Hell, yes. It helps that my personal standards are in sync with the university's high bar."
Back-to-School Age: 58
Degree: Medical Billing & Coding
Former Occupation: Small Business Owner
Debbie had reservations about going back to school at an advanced age, knowing that she would be older than her classmates and probably even older than her instructors.
But after owning several small businesses, including a children’s consignment store and an RV service and repair shop, the Western New York resident found herself unemployed and looking for a more stable position.
She knew that the healthcare field was growing, so she decided to enroll in Bryant & Stratton College Online’s Medical Administration for Billing and Coding Degree program.
"You just have to keep going and put yourself out there to other people because you'll never know what comes back to you when you do. You might lose some of your memory and mind when you get older, but going back to school really proved to me that you're never too old to learn."
Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD, C.Ht.
Back-to-School Age: 44
Degree: Doctorate in Clinical Psychology
Career Change: Stand-up comic to psychotherapy/clinical hypnosis, speaker/author
After working as a stand-up comic for many years, Nancy returned to school in her mid-40s to earn her doctorate in clinical psychology. She found that she was bored only working 30 minutes a day, so she began volunteering at a shelter for sexually abused teens.
"It was an absolute epiphany. I fell in love with it—it woke up the healer in me and now I'm an expert in sexual abuse recovery and prevention. I treat sex offenders as well as victims. It's my belief that the best way to help victims is to help the perpetrators.
"I went on to write the self-help, non-fiction Your-Turn: Changing Direction in Midlife, which is a collection of over 40 stories of people over 40 who made positive transitions in their professional and personal lives.
"It's never too late to create a life you love. You must be prepared to hear, "How old will you be when you finish?" a number of times. I learned to answer this one, "The same age I'll be if I don’t finish!"
Back-to-School Age: 45
Career Change: Salesperson to motivational keynote speaker/author
Getting a degree at Monroe Community College changed Yvonne Conte's entire life. She couldn't find work after losing her sales job due to a corporate merger. She couldn't pay her bills and she lost her home to the bank. Financially, she was ruined. She was 45 years old with only a high school education.
"I enrolled full time as a communications major, not really knowing what I would do with that degree. I learned to work a TV camera in my classes, to write scripts, and to run a radio station. But what I really learned was how to research, interact, write, and network. And because I graduated with a 3.85 GPA, I had confidence for the first time in my life. That belief in myself was worth the price of tuition.
"I began teaching classes about writing, stand-up comedy, and acting at local businesses. Eventually, I began to speak for local businesses and I was a full-time keynote speaker and a published author within a year of graduation. I've now published six times and I deliver 50 to 60 keynotes a year all over the United States. None of that would have happened had I not attended college."
Back-to-School Age: 50s
Degree: Ph.D. in Leadership and Change
Rhoda recently received her Ph.D. in Leadership and Change some 30 years after earning her master's degree. Many friends and colleagues asked her why she would do this. After all, she had a successful career and she didn't need her Ph.D. to advance.
"It was something I always wanted to do for myself, a personal goal. It certainly wasn't easy. It took a good seven years to complete, all the while keeping up my work schedule, my leadership commitments, and many other commitments.
"What helped me was the fact that it was a high-residency program. It met throughout the year for determined periods of time. Half my cohorts were over 50 and I listened to older graduates who had been through it. I learned a great deal about leadership, organizational change, quantitative and qualitative research, and so much more.
"You'll need friends inside and outside the program to support you emotionally. And, yes, I'd advise everyone to do it and I would likely do it again."
Back-to-School Age: 41
Career Change: Headhunter to Holistic Health Coach
"I thought I was a rock star, so much so that I even had the audacity to fly the Concord to England because I couldn't be bothered with first class. I thought money grew on trees and it was just going to be in abundance forever. I made enormous investments at my local places of worship: Christian Dior and Luis Vuitton.
"Then I did the usual marriage, mommy, and becoming-a-yoga teacher thing, but I wondered what else I could do. I came to the realization that I was 41 and had skills in yoga, social networking, and a bit of branding. I dabbled in fundraising and development, but that wasn't a good fit and the money wasn't the same. I decided I’d become a holistic health coach because I still had the entrepreneurial spirit.
"The program offered at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition ticked all the boxes. Learning is all online, support is via website and iPad, and it gives me the flexibility to work from home and, hopefully, help others and network with like-minded people.
"This is a far cry from the Concord days, but it sure feels more fulfilling."
Back-to-School Age: 42
Career: Director of Educational Excitement
Chris returned to school in his early 40s when a layoff was looming at his company. The layoff thankfully passed him by, but he took the opportunity to get the education he had always wanted.
"If age has taught me anything, it's taught me that you never know what's coming next. So why not study the topics that excite you? Perhaps your passions will lead you to something unexpected, something better than you thought possible.
As a returning older student, I quickly discovered that I lacked the skills to handle a heavy load of schoolwork along with full-time employment. Fortunately, my business background helped me to research academic success tools and create a hands-on set of techniques for efficient, enjoyable school success.
When I first heard news of my company's planned layoff, I had no idea what was next for me. Today, I'm having a wonderful time helping other students, young and old, succeed in school. It has been a wonderfully unexpected outcome."
Back-to-School Age: 50s
Career Change: Marketing to College Career Strategist
Elizabeth Venturini is a graduate of UCLA’s College Counseling Program. She makes the college admissions process easier for high-achieving, late-blooming teenagers and all the stressed-out parents who love them. She focuses on the end result of graduating with a college degree: getting a job.
"Not knowing all the terminology used in education was the biggest challenge I had to face. Coming from the corporate world was an advantage because I had a business perspective and I used that throughout my coursework.
"The UCLA College Counseling program provides students with the tools they need to help teens and adults with today’s demanding college admissions process. It gave me the opportunity to start a new career and to do something I feel passionate about.
"I'd suggest that anyone in career transition who's interested in going back to college to complete a career interest assessment first. Discover your current likes, interests, values, and work style. This is important because what you might have valued in your career when you were 20, 30, or even 40 years old might have changed now that you're in their 50s or older."
Degree: Master’s in Broadcast Journalism
Career: Internet Talk Show Host
Greg Mantell decided to return to grad school for his master's in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He saw it as an extension of what he was already doing with an Internet talk show, and the best way to take it to the next level. He was able to get in due to networking, placement, and connections. He says that it didn't really hit him that he would be older than many of the students who were in their 20s until a few people mentioned it.
"As an interviewer, I'm used to interacting with people of all ages—I interview many people both younger and older than I am. I received a graduate research assistantship with the Investigative Reporters and Editors program, and they seemed to like the fact that I had real-world experience. Personally, being older hasn't phased me as much because many people are going back to school at an older age now and I did already graduate from college years ago.
"Unlike a 20-year-old who doesn't know what he or she wants to do, I know what I want to do and I'm very focused on doing it. I'm sure that adding the master's program can only help take things to the next level.
"Advice? if you know why you want to do the program, then go for it. There's no reason not to. It's a different world these days. I've read that entering students at Harvard Medical School range in age from their 20s to early 40s."