Getting a later-in-life degree

August 16, 2021

Leah Glennon

I went back to school to get my MFA in creative writing comparatively late in life, when I was in my early 50s. Although I had always wanted to go to graduate school, I waited a long time for a variety of reasons. Most of these had to do with my oldest son’s learning differences, and the academic and emotional support he needed from pre-K until the day he graduated from college.

When things finally eased up and returning to school seemed possible for me, I needed to work through several concerns. Was it too late? What in the world would I do with a graduate degree? Was I being self-indulgent and wasting money?

I was also worried that I would be the token “old lady” on campus, seeming ancient to a bunch of 20-somethings, and wondered how that might play out.

Debunking education marketing stereotypes and finding the right program

The overarching issue however was that I had no idea where to look for support or guidance as an older, prospective student. Having recently gone through the college application process myself with my 2 sons, I knew well that every smiling face pictured, on every brochure and website, was of someone roughly one third my age.

When I searched for programs specifically geared towards older applicants —frequently referred to as “non-traditional students”— I found courses identified as “life-long learning opportunities,” or “senior enrichment programs.”  Basically, not for credit courses that focused on a singular interest and/or related topics. Although many or these courses sounded interesting, they weren’t what I was looking for.

I did find degree programs designed for older students at various colleges and universities, but this was rarely by clicking a dedicated tab on a home page. Instead, I had to dig deeply into websites, discovering that the constant images of youthful, beaming students seen on previous pages had been replaced by photos of people with white hair, surrounded by other people with white hair, all looking as though they were being sequestered. I ended up feeling more other, more “nontraditional,” than ever.

Eventually, after much consideration and soul searching, I decided to move ahead. I prepared myself for a more solitary experience than I might have had in my 20s, but meaningful none the less.

Finally when I arrived at the campus for the first time, I was stunned to discover that I was not the token “old woman” in the program. In fact, it was sweet relief to see many students who were even older than I was.

Over time I spoke with several of my non-traditional peers and asked the following questions:

  • What prompted you to go back to school later in life?
  • What did you hope to gain from the experience?
  • How did it feel being on campus, attending classes? Was it what you had expected?
  • What was your experience like, researching and selecting the right program?

My questions resulted in some interesting answers and perspectives. 

Personal accounts

One woman I spoke with was a widow in her mid-60s, who had completed her undergrad degree the year before. She explained that she had married her high school sweetheart, gotten pregnant soon after, and had a baby every couple of years until there were 6 of them all told. She had loved being a mom to her “lovely, motley crew,” and was now thrilled to be a grandmother. “But my life flew right by,” she said. “It felt like I went from 18 to 60 in about 15 minutes.”

Then, suddenly and sadly, her husband died soon after he retired. “I had no idea what I was going to do with all that new and scary time to myself,” she told me. “I had never lived alone. I don’t think I had ever been alone, in almost 50 years.” 

After a 2-year phase of painful re-adjustment, and with the support of friends, family and “a wonderful therapist,” she started to feel cautiously excited about the future. 

“My children of course were grown and off living their lives, and my husband’s pension had kicked in,” she said. “So all of a sudden I thought, what the hell? There was literally nothing in the way of going back to school, aside from my own anxiety.”

What she wasn’t prepared for was the difficulty in finding the right program. She had a similar experience to mine: searching websites, calling admissions offices, and found the whole exercise overwhelming, intimidating and often less than encouraging. In the end it was a friend who came to her rescue by mentioning a flyer she had seen, advertising an undergraduate program at a local community college.

“In a million years, I never thought I’d go to college, let alone get a master’s degree. Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m doing this,” she told me. “But it’s changed my life. I am proud of myself and confident in a way I’ve never been before. I only wish other people my age would consider it too. I’ve made it my mission to spread the word!”

I also spoke with a man who had been a career officer in the Air Force, eventually achieving a high level of rank and success. He retired at 62 years old, and decided then that he would pursue his lifelong dream to write a memoir. He went back to school because, “I wanted a mentor,” he said. “And some other novice writers to hang out with. I wanted ground rules and deadlines too. Something more official than just me and my laptop alone in the spare bedroom.”

When I asked him about his experience finding the right program, he said, “I can’t really say it was ‘an experience’ per se. It was more like a game of hopscotch, closing my eyes and crossing my fingers while I jumped. No rhyme or reason to it.” He too struggled with seeing himself in a university setting, especially as an “old guy with a pepper and salt crew cut. I was sure those kids would run in the opposite direction when they saw me coming.” Instead, he was now having “the best time of my life,” only wishing he had done it sooner.

As I spoke to more and more of my peers, not just in my field of study but in a wide range of degree programs, I heard similar stories. Though the reasons for returning to school varied widely — from following a lifelong dream, to more practical or financial ones having to do with significant career changes etc. — the majority of people I spoke with, found the process itself daunting and complicated. Making the decision to go back to school was hard enough, but dealing with the age-related self-consciousness, and the difficulty in finding an appropriate program, were all difficult hurdles to overcome.

Expert opinions

I decided to speak to a few professionals on the other side of the process, and interviewed members of 3 different admissions committees to get their perspectives and input. One, a member of my own MFA program, who has been involved in admissions for over 15 years; another who serves on the admissions committee at a well-known clinical psychology program in New York City; and a third who served for more than 20 years on the admissions board of a prestigious medical school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I asked all 3 the same questions:

  1. When an older applicant applies to your program, does their age enter into your personal decision-making process?
  2. Is there a general feeling, spoken or unspoken, within the program itself about admitting older students?
  3. Does the presence of older students within the program have an impact on the general, younger population or on the program as a whole?

Insights into how members of the teacher faculty feel about working with older students

Get ready older, prospective students, because here comes the good news.

The responses I received, across the board, were overwhelmingly positive. In the opinions of all 3 admissions committee members, an older, non-traditional applicant is a huge boon to both the program and to the in-class experience of students and professors alike.

In the words of one interviewee, “Older applicants bring their developed layers of life experience with them, which is exciting for professors but also for younger peers. They have more hindsight, more perspective and more to say.” 

Further, all 3 admissions committee members agreed that having an even greater percentage of older students on campus would be a plus.

“It would be wonderful,” said one. “But sadly I think the older applicant is part of a huge, untapped population. We need to find a better way of getting the word out.” 

Happily, the word does seem to be spreading. A report that utilizes data collected by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), predicts, “…that the rate of non-traditional student enrollment in degree-granting institutions will grow faster than traditional student numbers over the next 6 years. The NCES projects an adult student population of 9,670,000 by 2025, which will form almost 42% of the country’s student body.”

In accordance with these NCES findings, the following recommendations have been made to higher education institutions by the Education Commission of the States (ECS):

  • Restructure financial aid policies to be flexible for adult-learners.
  • Provide multiple avenues to award credit (prior learning assessments, competency-based education, online courses).
  • Require student supports at institutions including individual advising opportunities and online resources.
  • Create degree maps or degree outlines allowing students to follow a roadmap to completion.
  • Provide course availability in multiple formats and days/times.

(*Information above from the ECS website)

Overall takeaway

If you are considering a return to school, getting a later-in-life degree, go for it. Across the board, admissions committee members will be happy to see your application arrive on their desks, or in their inboxes. The path may not be clear yet, but don’t let that deter you. If you can’t easily find what you’re looking for online, call admissions offices directly. You’ll get there in the end.

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