Can or should I go back to college?
July 17, 2012 7:13 AM   Subscribe

I'm in my 30s. Can/should I go back to college? What about student loan debt?

I'm 32. I went to nursing school for 2 years from ages 18-20 and dropped out because I decided it wasn't the career for me. I love medicine but nurses are really short staffed now. I got an Associate in Computer Information Systems, which these days is about as useless as a high school diploma. All of my credits are more than 10 years old so some or all of them may be expired - I won't know until I pull my transcripts - and the thought of having to start over is a bit scary.

I've been looking into going back to college (Purdue) and I've found a field I think I want to do: Audiology. The thing is, it looks like I'd be commiting to at least a Master's, and I could continue on for the professional doctorate, Au.D. (The respective Undergraduate Majors page.) I won't go into all the reasons I'm interested, but I have always been interested in the ears, sign language, etc.

But I see so many people saying "don't get more student loan debt." I have no savings, and am in lots of medical debt. I want to be able to make a better life for myself, and I don't think I can do that working retail or odd jobs for the rest of my life. Yet, the idea of committing to graduate school is a bit terrifying... what if I don't get in? What if I change my mind, will I even have a Bachelor's degree?

Complicating this is that while I could do perhaps the first year or two at my local campus (~30 minutes away), the core audiology courses are only taught at the main campus, ~90 minutes away (and not available via distance ed). I fear this would mean I would either have to live on campus (can I DO that at my age?!*) or else get all my classes on 1-3 days a week and commute. Obviously this is going to make the situation more expensive.

So is it worth it, in terms of racking up student loan debt, to go back to school? My family wouldn't be able to contribute anything. And what else do I need to know about going back to college at my age?

*And by that I mean obviously I can physically do it, but can I deal with a bunch of just-barely-adults who want to party a lot? I'm skeptical about campus life.
posted by IndigoRain to Education (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A few notions here.

1) Is audiology something that meshes well with experience and connections that you already have? In that case, it might be worth going into debt to be in this specific program, knowing that you'd be furthering your career and would probably have a guaranteed job waiting for you at the end of it. (Or maybe even a promotion at a job you already have?)

2) There's something to be said for having a college degree. Others will chime in regarding whether it's the equivalent of work/life experience at this point, and whether it's specifically worthwhile to go into debt in order to get this degree. But it's not like you're talking about a second BA or a PhD or a useless humanities MA.

3) What kind of financial aid might you qualify for? If you work retail, you probably don't make a ton of money.

4) Isn't Purdue a sort of expensive school? If you're looking to get a degree just so that you Have A Degree, can you do it in a way that results in you going into less debt?

5) I absolutely would NOT go into private school debt to start a bachelors degree in a field you're not sure you want to pursue. Especially if it requires a masters degree to net you an actual job.
posted by Sara C. at 7:27 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

But I see so many people saying "don't get more student loan debt." I have no savings, and am in lots of medical debt.

You should not go into more student loan debt for a career that you think you want to do. If you want to get into that field, you need to start by getting entry-level jobs in that field and making contacts and gaining real experience. Once you begin to have that under your belt and you can identify specific jobs and career paths within the industry, that is the time to make decisions about school.

You may need a Bachelor's to get an entry-level job, and in that case, get the cheapest Bachelor's you can get in a related field (finishing nursing is probably a good idea, or some other sort of applied science/medicine degree)
posted by Rock Steady at 7:29 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

You need to view college like any other investment.
How much money will you invest - what will be the total return and what will be the rate of return.

The total return is: your earnings with the degree minus your current earning capacity.

When assessing all this information, plan conservatively - if the job market is mediocre, plan for it to be rocky.

If you assess the investment like that, and it is profittable - then do it.
If not, then don't.
posted by Flood at 7:33 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, you can do this. Yes, you can live on campus. Yes, you are right about making a better life for yourself.

I can't speak to the job and earning opportunities in audiology, but you are right that a profession will make a better life for you. The earlier you start the better, trust me!

If you don't get into grad school, you apply again, or figure out something else. You are not too old.

I, marked early in life as an intellectual superstar, flunked out of college not once, but twice. I graduated with a much different major at age 34. I was working in the same field at the time.

At age 50, I got a master's in ... journalism -- !!! Not exactly booming these days. But I am a working journalist, I use all of my education every day (including the failed courses), and I love my job. Every. Single. Day. (MeFi procrastination notwithstanding ...)

You can do it, and you should plan, plan, plan.
posted by jgirl at 7:34 AM on July 17, 2012 [13 favorites]

Many residential campuses have housing for "non-traditional" (read: full-grown adult) students. There will also certainly be apartments NEAR campus, some of them preferred by grad students.

There are a number of scholarships out there for adult women going back to college, often put out by something like a "state business and professional women's organization" or a "city women's club" or whatever. Please take a look at these; they are more numerous than adult students realize.

If you need a master's for audiology work, and you can get into the master's program with a B.N. or a B.S. in any area with adequate science background, I think I would pursue an inexpensive B.N. or B.S. and then think about grad school after that.

(Sara, Purdue is a public school.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:34 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the biggest risk here is that to work in any capacity as an audiologist or a speech language therapist, you need at least a masters degree. Even if you are really set on this field, it might be better to hedge your bets and get a bachelors degree in a field that is immediately employable (like nursing) while taking audiology electives. This will help to ensure that if you can't go further after your BS, at least you have a degree that is employable, and not a BS in pre-audiology-studies, which does not seem to be employable.

Going back to school at 30 for nursing is totally cool - lots of people do it. With regard to expense, look into getting another Associates degree at a community college to start off. My sister is doing this at a community college that has a program to facilitate transfer of Nursing Associate graduates to a 4-year school. Being a non-traditional student at community college will also be simpler than at a 4-year school.

Additionally, I would suggest contacting the audiology clinic associated with Purdue and seeing if you could talk to or shadow an audiologist or speech therapist, to see what they day-to-day is like and get advice for your potential education and career.
posted by permiechickie at 7:36 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

While I'd love to be the voice of encouragement saying "Follow your dreams! If you believe in yourself, anything is possible!" that would be a lie and could result in unfortunate consequences.

It really doesn't sound like you've thought through the long-term to maximize your opportunities. "Audiology" seems like a highly specialized field and I can't see much demand for their services. If you're interested in the study of the ear, why not otolaryngology? Your nursing classes would come in handy there, and there are far more opportunities for doctors than PhDs.

Also, you are incorrect in saying that an Associate's degree in Computer Information Systems. It may not enable you to get into any technical field, but it is an invaluable bullet-point on any job that requires office work. I have a Bachelor's in M.I.S. (the more "businessy" equivalent of computer science), and whenever I'm on an interview and they ask "Do you have familiarity with (insert random obscure software here)?" I say "No, but with all due respect, I really can't picture it being that hard to learn. I mean, I majored in a degree which involved creating software - compared to that, learning how it works shouldn't be that complicated." It works every time. I suggest using the skillset you already have to try to advance yourself before going deeper into debt for a highly questionable major.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:37 AM on July 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Seeing as I have a ton of my own, I'm not the best person to ask about student loan debt. I can, however, talk about living on campus at Purdue as an adult.

As an older person it can be done. There is a residence hall (Hawkins Hall) that is specifically 21+, for starters. The people there are, for the most part, not going to be the usual loud, rowdy, college sort. There's also Purdue Village, which are basically a bunch of university-owned apartments. They're very outdated, but conveniently located. There are a few freshman undergrads in Purdue Village, but not many, and chances are if you decided to go there you probably won't end up near them. Otherwise it's mostly foreign families who live there.
posted by semp at 7:38 AM on July 17, 2012

Some quick googling suggests there might be an audiologist shortage.

Have you considered something like a job shadow or talking to audiologists to see if it's right for you.
posted by drezdn at 7:42 AM on July 17, 2012

Yeah, I don't think your age is a problem at all. Lots of people get professional degrees in their 30s! I am concerned about you going to all the time and expense to get a degree in audiology without any experience in that field. At a minimum, I think you should visit the program in person, shadow a professional audiologist for as long as they will let you, and get as much information as you can about job placement prospects for graduates of the program.

Also: even if there is an audiologist shortage now, will there still be an audiologist shortage when you complete the program, which would be at least five of six years from now, maybe longer? I have seen this happen in many fields: there's a shortage; universities expand programs to meet the need and beyond; now there's a glut of new grads.

I say this as someone who got a professional degree in a field that seemed like something I would like and which I basically do like most of the time but I'm not sure it was the best decision for me.

What about finishing your bachelors first and then going from there?
posted by mskyle at 7:46 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

See if you can talk to a couple of audiologists about job prospects, if you haven't already. I am on my way back to school (in my 40s!) for a related field, Speech Language Pathology, which also requires a master's degree. When I mentioned this to my son's speech therapist, she said, "Well, you'll never be unemployed." There's a shortage of speech language pathologists, and demand is expected to keep growing. For this reason, I am comfortable taking on a modest amount of debt to get through school--salaries start around 50k, IIRC, and I've set my sights on no more than 30k in debt.

Also, you might look into what is the lowest-cost way to get that bachelor's degree. I have a BA but need about 36 credits of undergraduate prereqs to be able to apply to a master's program. When I spoke to an advisor in the speech and audiology department at a university near my home (she was amazingly helpful!) she told me about an on-line program some of their students had done. I'm in Michigan; I'll be taking my prerequisites through a state university in Utah of all places. The tuition is substantially less than any of the brick-and-mortar options I have in my area, and I won't have commuting or childcare costs. (I did my research to make sure that doing this particular program wouldn't look bad to the schools I am planning to apply to).

So, I'd wonder if there is someplace cheaper than Purdue where you can do your undergrad work and still be competitive for master's programs. Based on my experience, advisors in the master's programs might be happy to talk to you about this. I was, as I said, surprised by how helpful they've been willing to be.

I did some undergraduate work in my early 30s, in classes with mostly typical college-age students. I didn't have much in common with them, but I did manage to make some friendly acquaintances among them, and I learned from my classes. I wouldn't want to be in a situation where they were my main social outlet, but in terms of being in classes with them, it felt fine.

Don't go for a for-profit online school like Phoenix, but do look into alternatives to your local school. I assumed I'd be doing my prereqs at a regional state university an hour away from home, and this on-line program is going to be both cheaper and more convenient. It's through a state university, and I have reason to believe that, if my grades and test scores are good, I'll have no trouble getting into a master's program when I'm done. There might be something similar for you for at least some of what you have to do.
posted by not that girl at 7:48 AM on July 17, 2012

Response by poster: Answering a couple of questions:

Why not another college? Purdue is the closest in case I end up not living on campus and needing to commute. Plus, my mom is sick and I'd like to be as close as I can. A friend pointed out to me that Ball State is cheaper, and while I'm embarrassed to admit this, Purdue requires me to take fewer and less advanced math classes than Ball State, and I started failing math in 5th grade. I can do basic algebra but not much more (including division - I can't divide to save my life) without serious, serious tutoring.

Why not otolaryngology? I am specifically interested in hearing science and not in sinuses or the throat except insofar as they apply to speech. I don't want to perform surgery. Plus otolaryngology requires medical school whereas audiology does not.

I am happy to finish a Bachelor's degree but it will not be in nursing. I'd have to start all over, my nursing school credits are the ones I know for certain are expired, and I do not like it. I just don't know about the general credits. They might still apply towards the preprofessional audiology undergraduate major. I will contact Purdue and ask whether or not I would get a BS - looking at Ball State's website, you do get a BS at the end of their program.

If anyone knows of a practical way to find an audiologist to shadow or speak to, that'd be great.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:53 AM on July 17, 2012

@wolfdreams01: A Doctor of Audiology (Au.D.) degree is a practical doctorate, not a Ph.D. It's the equivalent, in the world of hearing loss/disorders, of a Doctor of Optometry, and involves training to diagnose and correct hearing problems. It's not a research degree.

@IndigoRain: As baby boomers age, there is going to be increasing demand for audiology! That doesn't mean that you should go into significant debt to become an audiologist, though. If you complete the program for a BS in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, you'll have a bachelor's degree before starting the 4-year Au.D. degree. If I were in your shoes, I would contact the undergraduate advisor in Purdue's department (Michelle Mullin, contact info at the bottom of the page) and ask about career prospects: what do students do with the preprofessional BS degree, how difficult is it to be admitted to the Au.D. program, do students generally work during their Au.D. studies, how much debt do their students have, etc.

Then, if it sounds like something you might want to pursue and have a good shot at, you'll need to check with the undergraduate admissions office on how many of your previous credits, if any, will transfer.

On preview: not that girl has great advice. I'll second the point that graduate advisors are usually quite happy to talk to prospective undergrad majors about the career prospects in their field, especially in a practical field like audiology.

As for campus life, check with the undergraduate housing office to see whether there's separate housing for "non-traditional students" (i.e. those older than the usual 18-22-year-old crowd) or whether you'd be eligible for to apply for grad student housing. Most of the older students I have (at the University of Massachusetts) end up living off campus, in studios or sharing apartments with other older students.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:00 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Purdue Audiology program has a clinic associated with it, link here. People getting their clinical audiology degree are required to get clinical experience - it is a teaching clinic. Call the clinic, ask to get an appointment to talk to an audiologist about the field (either phone or in person) and go from there.
posted by permiechickie at 8:27 AM on July 17, 2012

Go back to school at any age! People do it all the time. I really hate the idea of incurring debt for this enterprise.

Look into scholarships and grants. brianogilvie has excellent advice, so be sure to do what he says. Do as many intro courses as you might need to complete your bachelors at a cheaper JC and transfer the credits.

I'd also recommend finishing up the nursing degree, concurrent with your other studies, so that you can be a nurse while you're studying Audiology. Nursing pays a hell of a lot more than a random retail job and there are tons of nursing jobs that don't involve direct patient care.

Do whatever it takes to get as little debt as possible. It appears that audiologists make between $60,000 to $80,000 per year. That's not a huge amount of money if you're racking up all kinds of debt.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:31 AM on July 17, 2012

First of all, I don't think 30's is too old. Consider that retirement might be a pipe dream for the boomer and younger generations, and it makes sense to want to be qualified for the best job(s) that one can get; 40 years is too long to work "odd jobs."

Also, many older students do far better than the young ones who are just attending college to mark time and make their parents happy. Older students are serious about their studies and applying themselves.

Get the bachelor's - if not in nursing, see if you can find a related field that will let you transfer as many credits as possible - because a bachelor's degree is necessary for most jobs in most fields these days. I know people say that a certification in a field such as computers/tech can work, and sometimes it can, but especially in bigger cities overflowing with talent, an additional BA (even in a field such as English) is what gets your resume read instead of circular-filed immediately.

For the Master's, if you know you want to work in the field and it's a necessary requirement - then do get it (while incurring as little debt as possible). What I would do, if I were you, is take all the advice you are given in this thread and research your field thoroughly, do informational interviews, and if possible get an entry-level job in the audiology field (even if an unpaid internship is absolutely all you can get with only a BA).

Do not go to a for-profit school, ever. A for-profit degree is worse than nothing and is the kind of degree most likely to leave you with un-payable debts. I think in your circumstances it might be wise to choose Purdue if you can't do math without "serious tutoring." If math classes are truly a roadblock you will be more likely to drop out. By the way, if math is that much of an issue, have you been tested for a learning disability? If you have "dyscalculia" and it is confirmed by testing, you will be able to qualify for the Office of Disability Services, and in my experience they are an absolute godsend. Please get tested if you haven't.

College is not just for kids. A good job is not just for kids. Even if you decide to stop at the BA, you will probably be able to get a better job, or move up to one, and pay off your medical debt.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:44 AM on July 17, 2012

"Audiology" seems like a highly specialized field and I can't see much demand for their services.

I have a friend finishing up an Au.D. and from what I understand, the aging boomer population is about to need hearing aids en masse. Again, this is second-hand information and depends on the demographics of the place you're practicing in.
posted by griphus at 8:48 AM on July 17, 2012

You REALLY need to think about this in much more simple terms: the amount you pay for school, vs. the amount you will earn when you graduate. Do your due diligence! It's exactly the same as buying a house and understanding whether you can afford the entire monthly payment, and what to expect when you need to resell it.
posted by yarly at 8:50 AM on July 17, 2012

You shouldn't worry about your age at all, except perhaps as a factor in debt repayment. If you take on tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, you'll probably consolidate it and then be paying it for 20 years. Which means if you're 32 now, you'll be done with school no earlier than 38, which means you're paying, say, $400 a month until you're at least 58. Use the online student loan repayment calculators and figure out your debt load. You say you're already in large medical debt: that's at least dischargeable by bankruptcy if needed. Student loans aren't. Just keep all that in mind.

You should follow the advice here about getting as many prerequisites and standard classes done through junior or community colleges as possible. For example, you could take classes at Ball State and then transfer to Purdue later, thus avoiding the math issue. Then apply for any scholarships you possibly can remotely qualify for. When you get to the grad level, if you excel in your undergrad courses, you might be able to get a teaching fellowship. I'd worry less about grad school costs now, and focus on undergrad costs.

You might consider taking some math classes at the CC level anyway. Will there be math required for Audiology? Most sciences require a basic level of math/statistics. Check out the course requirements as well as the overall undergrad requirements.

Good luck! With some maneuvering you should be able to pull it off.
posted by clone boulevard at 9:33 AM on July 17, 2012

I would get as much information from the field's professional organizations. Here is the student page for ASHA. Here's a list of other organizations. I have no idea what the preeminent organization is, but they're a good place to start doing research into the field. They will list sources of financial aid specific to audiology and there might be some sort of accreditation process for schools. Find out which is the preeminent organization and make sure you attend a program that is accredited by that organization.

On another note, I was an older student and I lived in a 21+ dorm. It worked out just fine because most of the people there were paying their own way, thus they were more serious and studious. People self-policed to a good degree and loud parties were quickly shut down. There's always the library for peace and quiet, though.
posted by desjardins at 9:38 AM on July 17, 2012

You might as well do as much of your GE at community college. It's cheaper, the instructors are usually more available, and classes are generally smaller. You're going to have to take extra math anyway if you struggle with it as much as you say you do, so you should do it in an environment where you're more likely to succeed (though Purdue's math 153 doesn't show a prereq, I can't imagine passing algebra and trig without knowing how to divide). Transfer students are desirable because they've already demonstrated their willingness to succeed at college. GE classes at university are really not worth it, IMO. My community college classes were just as rigorous (if not more so) than the two or three lower division classes I took at the University of California.

As far as being older: it depends on the major, but most of your cohort won't care as long as you don't look down on them or behave in a patronizing way. The most irritating students are those who think the professor is their peer and/or monopolize discussion. Remember that you're a student among students- not some older person among kids- and you'll be fine.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:03 AM on July 17, 2012

Audiology is a very in-demand field and will only become more so as the population ages. While they can work in a variety of capacities, most of the work is with the elderly fitting hearing aids. Your chances of finding good work as an audiologist are high, though willingness to relocate is probably pretty necessary.

To practice as an Audiologist, you need a 4-year AuD. Many AuD programs in the country require no pre-reqs for entry, though you will have to complete some ASHA requirements before finishing your AuD to qualify for certification and many students choose to do these before entering their AuD program (I believe it's something like 1 course in natural science, 1 course in math, 1 course in social science or something similar). You do of course have to have a BA in something before you apply to Audiology school.

The 4 years include a final year externship, which generally has a light course load so the cost is much lower and you may be paid for your position. So it's three years (plus summers if you need to do the ASHA pre-reqs) of solid tuition and housing costs. Most AuD programs do not offer financial aid. I believe Vanderbilt is the exception, which is a basically a tuition-free program but is highly, highly selective. If you can, go to a state school instead and pay in-state.

The median salary for Audiologist is around $70k. You can probably expect to start at $65k out of Audiology school and after 20 years or so may make upwards of the 100k mark. Geography of course plays a significant role in this. If you are willing to move to very rural places and work with hospitals, you may get signing bonuses and higher salaries.

With the job outlook and the salary you can expect, audiology is about as good a field as they get. Job security is very good, because people will also age and always want to hear. So, should you do it? First, you'd need to get your BA. 10 years+ might render many of your credits untransferrable, though this will be school dependent, but your associates should get you covered for some of the low-hanging credits you need. Basically, you're looking at about 6 or 7 years or so of school total. Yes, it is certainly possible. That will put you at 38-40 starting out, which still means you'll have at least 25 working years in the field. My advice, if you want to do this, is to forget about Purdue. Go to IU, which is a great school, or some other state school, at least to complete your BA. They will probably be more amenable to letting you transfer old credits than Purdue would be. See what your financial aid package looks like form them. Get a part-time job. You can get through state school without too much debt if you're independent and qualify for a decent financial aid package, which you probably will. Get all of your ASHA requirements done in undergrad. Do well. Then try to get into a selective Audiology program that will cover part or all of your tuition. But if you do have to take on $100k in dept to do this, that might not be completely insane if you expect to make $100k a year, but it will still make your 40s some pretty frugal years. If you take it all out in federal loans, you can get income-based repayment, which I think caps at around 10% of your net income. Otherwise, if your take home pay is around $5,000 a month, you're looking at something 1,000-1,500 monthly loan payments, so you'll have something like 4k a month to cover all of your other debts and to live on. Whether or not that works for you is up to you, but if you would really love Audilogy, that seems reasonable to me. If, however, you don't really love it, that might become quite burdensome.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:23 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

For most degree programs of the sort you're interested in, you're going to have to pass college algebra and statistics. If your math skills are as poor as you say, a community college would be a great place to start because they have remedial math courses taught by faculty with training in "developmental math" who will be able to help you catch up to college-level math.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:57 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

If this is at all an option for you, look into jobs at Purdue. I earned a master's degree for the cost of my textbooks when I was working at a university thanks to the tuition remission program there. Purdue's website says that they have a "generous tuition remission program" (though the link on that page doesn't seem to lead to anything more specific about what that means). Different schools handle this in completely different ways; some let you start taking free/discounted classes immediately, while others want you to work for a year before eligibility kicks in. If you do visit their audiology clinic to talk to someone there, ask them what they know about the tuition remission program. I know at one point when I was considering a different master's degree at a school I was not working for, one faculty member I spoke with specifically recommended that I try to get a job there because of their great tuition benefits for employees - it's not a taboo topic to bring up.

I don't know anybody working in audiology, but I do know a couple of people who are speech pathologists, if you'd like me to put you in touch with them.
posted by jessypie at 2:16 PM on July 17, 2012

IANAAudiologist, but I am a speech pathologist.

Being an ASHA-certified audiologist does mean having a doctorate in audiology. You'll be in for a lot of debt. I would strongly suggest contacting the people at Purdue and asking if they can put you in contact with someone to shadow, even someone in the on-campus audiology clinic. I'm not sure if they can - most interactions an audiologist has with patients are confidential, just like a doctor or therapist - but they might be able to.

Also, since you don't have a bachelors you'll likely have to get a BS in Communication Sciences & Disorders. That was my bachelors decide to either pursue speech therapy or audiology at the master's/doctoral level. If you decide to stop at the bachelors level, keep in mind that a BS in that field is not very marketable at all.

Also, keep in mind that these programs are tough. Not everyone gets admitted to the doctoral's extremely competitive. If you can't get in, you'll be stuck with an undesirable bachelors, which kind of sucks. I had a few friends in that worked as a sales associate for a hearing aid company, and another went out to California to work as a speech therapist with an emergency license. There aren't a lot of opportunities beyond that.

I don't mean to discourage you...just go in with your eyes open. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions.
posted by christinetheslp at 3:55 PM on July 17, 2012

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