Back to school at 40?
July 31, 2006 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Should I go back to school at 40, and get that degree?

Even though I have a good career, making more than adequate income, and a lot of experience in my field, I never actually earned a college degree. I took some community college classes in my 20s, but now I'm 40 and wondering whether it's a good idea to at least go earn a simple AA degree (and maybe transfer to a 4-year school).

I work in print production (e-pro) and graphic design; I'd probably go back for a degree in graphics and/or fine arts. Money is more or less not an issue. I would be doing this for my own personal satisfaction, and as a resume builder should I ever need to look for a new job (though it's less necessary in my field than a good portfolio).

I'd have to stick with evening classes, possibly at a community college to start; does anyone have experience with starting over in college at my age? Can this even be done with a full-time job? Any recommendations for the (preferably North-) Seattle area?
posted by TochterAusElysium to Education (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
All the money in the world wouldn't make me happy if I wasn't already doing what I loved to do (ok, it would help just a teensy weesy). Follow your bliss.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 5:04 PM on July 31, 2006

Best answer: Been there done that. Never regretted it for a minute - it was time well spent and it is still paying dividends 30 years later.

As an adult learner you will need to find some internal motivators because adults learn what they need to know and have trouble tracking on stuff that doesn't seem relevant. In a degree program there will be several classes that make no sense or hold no interest. Adjust.

There are a lot of things going on in school that you normally wouldn't attend to in your own field because they aren't used day-to-day. What you will like is the synergy, the ability to take what you already know and use it in new and different ways because you can, not because you have to.

posted by ptm at 5:05 PM on July 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

You've got nothing to lose and everything to gain from expanding your education. The additional skills could be applied to your experience, or could be useful during any career change. You may want to attend part time, so as not to disrupt your work. Good luck!
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:10 PM on July 31, 2006

Colleges will often offer professional adults a large number of credits for life experience. You should definitely look into that if you pursue college.

As for whether you should do it, I don't know what any of us could tell you. If it was something you always wanted, and you were excited about it, I'd say go for it. But you don't sound excited about it. It'd be a substantial investment of time and effort. I can't help but think that you could find something more important to you to put that time and effort into. But reading tone in a paragraph of text is dicey at best and perhaps I've totally misread.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 5:16 PM on July 31, 2006

Go for it. Most likely you'll benefit from it in a myriad of ways.

As noted by another commenter, "follow your bliss." If you want to go back to school, do it. Age doesn't matter. Just remember - if some smartass 19 year old laughs at you for returning to school, kick him in the head for me, eh?
posted by JoshTeeters at 5:17 PM on July 31, 2006

It's never too late to learn something new.
posted by cholly at 5:29 PM on July 31, 2006

Best answer: Just finished my undergrad at 44 and started a good EMBA program this week, almost exactly a year later. It was hard managing the time but the learning was great. I'm glad I did it and I've enjoyed the learning experience more than I thought possible.
posted by white_devil at 5:29 PM on July 31, 2006

Best answer: I took a few university spanish courses 5 years after graduating from engineering, and a project management course 5 years after that. One thing I noticed is that having work experience will give you much better time-management skills than most of theyounger, regular students you'll be studying with. Listening to them whine about how much work they had to do was truly entertaining. If anything, school seems to get easier the older I get.

I doubt that more than 2 courses at a time would be doable, and even 2 at a time might be really taxing on your time if you're working 40 hours a week and have a family and other commitments, especially if it's a course with a lot of reading involved.

One pitfall I remember seeing some mature students fall into is constantly arguing with the instructor about niggling points that aren't really relevant to the material being presented. It probably has to do with having more confidence, or from having experience that conflicts with the material being presented. While it's good to participate in discussions and you may have valid points, sometimes you have to accept that it's just theory.
posted by cardboard at 5:35 PM on July 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As an adult learner you will need to find some internal motivators because adults learn what they need to know and have trouble tracking on stuff that doesn't seem relevant.

I had a much easier time the second go-around with college, because with more life experience behind me, I found relevance in almost everything. The first time around, I couldn't find the relevance in things like "history" or "the roots of the English language". The second time, those things had some meaning for me.

Before you conclude that community college is the only way to go, check into the adult learner programs mentioned above. You might be able to write some essays and get credit at a four-year institution.

Unless the experience of college is what you're after, in which case, you will no doubt find peers at a community college, or a 4-year school that caters to the full-time worker. The last class I taught at a C.C. had one "traditional" student (maybe he was 19?) and 15 older adults of varying ages, up to my favorite - a retired grandfather taking classes for fun. You certainly won't be unusual.

As far as whether or not it can be done, it all depends on your level of committment. Yes, it will take time away from family, friends, TV watching, net surfing and social activities. But maybe that's a sacrifice you're willing to make?

Another point in favor - in my experience interviewing candidates for tech jobs, I usually gave some extra consideration to someone who had juggled school and full-time work over someone who had gone to school full-time or who didn't go to school at all. It wasn't so much the fact of having the degree, it was the ability to organize committments and responsibilities with a successful outcome that was appealing to me.

Good luck with your decision. Remember, you'll presumably turn 45, or 50, or 55, or whatever age, with or without a degree...
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:36 PM on July 31, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you all; I'd mark all answers as "best" but gave preference to those who've done this themselves. Zed, yes, I am excited; I'm just a mellow writer, I guess. Again thanks. Special thanks to those who mentioned life experience credits; I'll look into that!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 6:04 PM on July 31, 2006

I have seen two sides to people going back to school at an "older" age.

First side: both my parents have gone back to school, my mom for english and writing, my dad for a metalworking certificate. They are both 55+ and have loved every minute of it. Both are doing things they have wanted to do since they left high school. They both have a full volunteer/work schedule, and work with the colleges to find courses that fit their goals and schedules.

Second side: I have also seen mature students get waaaay out of their depth by jumping into full-time classes too soon. An acquaintance of mine (60+) wanted to learn about how to use computers. He enrolled in full-time computer science and has ended up struggling through a variety of math and science classes without learning any basic computer knowledge. His health has suffered due to the stress of trying to keep up with the young'uns, and he is in danger of giving up all together very close to the end of the program.

My advice is to take it slow for a semester. Take a night/weekend course or two, and get to know the profs and councillors at the school. They're the ones who will make sure that you know what your options are. It can be very intimidating to learn at the same level as much younger people after being out in the working world. Do remember that you are all in the same boat in these classes, and be friendly, if not friends with them.

Good luck!
posted by cathoo at 6:09 PM on July 31, 2006

I would be doing this for my own personal satisfaction

That pretty much answers it right there. If it is what you want for you, just do it. Enjoy.
posted by caddis at 6:09 PM on July 31, 2006

I work in print production (e-pro) and graphic design; I'd probably go back for a degree in graphics and/or fine arts.

I'm in the business too. At your age I suspect you might find yourself feeling you'd be better placed teaching that material than learning it. In your shoes I'd consider branching off into something you weren't already perhaps too familiar with.
posted by zadcat at 6:20 PM on July 31, 2006

You gotta go.

But I'll add one more item...

You're future proofing yourself. One day the type of print production you do might disappear. Then what? Get the degree now (in fact, always be learning in some way shape or form.)
posted by filmgeek at 6:29 PM on July 31, 2006

Response by poster: Zadcat, you're probably right; that's one reason I'm tending toward fine arts, as I have much less experience away from the computer than I do in front of it.

Another data point: I recently completed a year-long certificate program, and that's what made me realize that I can handle evening classes - in fact, now that the program is done, I'm craving class time. And that's what prompted this question. Thank you again for all your answers. I'll keep an eye out for more.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 6:43 PM on July 31, 2006

I really screwed around during my first go-round in college and ended up leaving school as a junior after 8(!) years. 10 years later, I've started attending college again and the difference is amazing. Not only am I more focused, but the class material is coming to me effortlessly.

The sense of self-satisfaction upon receiving high marks on a paper is enormous. It will do wonders for your confidence.

For a three hour course, I estimate that I spend probably three hours a week on homework. Sometimes it's less, sometimes more, depending on what's coming due, but three hours is an average. I think that's eminently doable with a full time job. Nobody said that you have to take 15 hours a semester, right?

Look around and see if you can find a school near you which caters to adult students.
posted by Addlepated at 7:27 PM on July 31, 2006

Any recommendations for the (preferably North-) Seattle area?

Evening/Weekend classes at UW perhaps?

Do it, it'll be great.
posted by Hildago at 7:53 PM on July 31, 2006

Best answer: I'm (cough..)53
I just finished the coursework for masters degree in Multimedia.
Self link to the some of the work I did in the program
It was the most fun I've had in years. Of course, I was working full time and it darn near killed me.
But I sure enjoyed it.
I second the notion that as an adult you get more out of school, and you do a better job.
So... JUMP. Just don't jump into a big bucks expensive private program.
posted by cccorlew at 7:57 PM on July 31, 2006

Just to be the voice of dissent, I tried this and HATED it. I felt that I couldn't concentrate on my job or my relationship the way I should because of classes that didn't relate to my job or to any job I could see myself having in the future. It was a total waste of time and money, and I'm still really angry over it years later.

I personally don't see the point of degrees for their own sake; if a degree is for a job, the degree should teach you how to do that job.

What exactly do you think you will gain by going back to school? If you want to go back to school just for enjoyment, that's okay, but consider it a really expensive hobby.
posted by Violet Hour at 8:08 PM on July 31, 2006

My parents married as teenagers. 37 years and 4 kids later, they're still married (yay!) but they never went to college and always felt badly because of it. After 20 years as a house painter, my dad went back to college full-time and ended up getting his Master's in Education. He's now teaching high-school history and economics. (He's 54, by the way, and graduated a year ago).

I helped him outline and edit his English papers. My brother and sister helped him with math, and we all helped him learn how to use a computer and put together a web site portfolio. The main difficulty that I remember was getting him to understand the idea that some knowledge resources for his research papers were better/more acceptable than others. He graduated with honors and was on the Dean's List most semesters.

We all cried like babies at his graduation ceremony. We are so proud of him.

The hardest thing about his going to school fulltime was that in addition to the actual work of school for grades was a huge amount of "skills education". Learning to type. Learning to hit "save" more often than every 3 hours. It doesn't seem as if that would be your problem. though....

Another issue was that since he was a fulltime student, he wasn't really working, although he had a student job on campus tutoring other students. So my mom had to carry the financial burdens herself. Not easy, and something to consider if you have a family.

Good luck!
posted by mdiskin at 3:29 AM on August 1, 2006

Best answer: I went back to finish my bachelor's degree in 2002, having left college in 1971 to marry and raise kids. I promised myself back then that one day, I would go back, but work and travel and life carried me in other directions. Still, in the back of my head, was that promise to myself. And finally, 35 years after I started, I finished a bachelor's degree. Long after it wasn't important to anyone else, it was still important to me. I didn't want to end my days, a welsher to myself.

By way of practical advice, I strongly suggest doing CLEP exams for as much of your undergraduate requirements and electives as you can. They are excellent value for money, and can shorten your time to degree completion by one or two semesters in most programs.

A second bit of practical advice is to research institutions and learning methods carefully, and select a school that is fully accredited, and which offers classes and teaching methods which are suitable for how you learn. Online courses seem convenient, but the lack of personal interaction with instructors and classmates makes online education a sterile endeavor, in my opinion. Most adult learners will do better to start back in a traditional classroom setting, and refresh their study skills with others in similar straits.
posted by paulsc at 4:20 AM on August 1, 2006

Best answer: Do it!

After a 20-year break I went back to college to finish my engineering degree, and surprised myself by having a wonderful time! The difference, for me, was that I was there voluntarily rather than it being just expected (leave high school, go to college, yada yada). This time it was for me.

I discovered I has so much fun learning new things that I didn't want to quit, so when I finished my Bachelor's, I went for a Master's. Then, what the heck, a Doctorate. All in all, I re-started in 1993, and finished in 2001.

It's made a difference in not only my job and income, but in how I feel about myself, too. Totally worth it!

I say again, DO IT!
posted by Bobtheordinary at 4:24 AM on August 1, 2006

Best answer: I would highly recommend that you consider Antioch University. They have schools in Seattle, Los Angeles (where I went), Ohio, and New England. At 44, I just completed my BA in Liberal Arts (emphasis in creative writing). It is mostly for people like us who are going back to school to complete a degree. I couldn't be happier with the quality of education I received from Antioch. Ignore all of this stuff about adults not learning as fast, etc.... I have learned so much more, and have appreciated it more now than I did when I was supposedly "college age."
Good luck with your education.
posted by scottr at 7:32 AM on August 1, 2006

If you want to do it, and it's possible for you to do it now, you should do it. One of my favorite people, a woman who's like a mom to me, is just finishing up her bachelor's degree at Smith college -- at 65. She was told by her father when she was a young woman that it would be a "waste" for her to go to college, and that she wasn't smart enough anyway. He married her off to a family friend, and so she raised her kids and did secretarial work to support herself and her family. once her kids were grown and her marriage long over, she realized it might be possible to make that old dream of hers of getting some higher education come true. She is now a semester or so away from finishing her degree, and I've never seen her happier -- discovering that she not only enjoys a "life of the mind" but is "good" at it has been incredible. And she's finally accomplishing something she always wanted to do.
posted by mothershock at 8:12 AM on August 1, 2006

Best answer: Sorry I'm late to the party; I didn't see this yesterday. I'll add my story:

I turn 40 this month and I am currenty working on my BS in accounting. Over 20 years ago I was working on a CS degree but I didn't have the real desire to finish and I left in my 3rd semester. Without withdrawing. Yes, my last semester I had 3 Fs and a C. Not sure how I got that C. In April 2004, after an extended layoff from a very good paying job in IT (worked my way up the hard way over the years), I decided it was time. I enrolled (full-time!) for summer classes and earned 4 As. In May I received my associate's degree (just a milestone, not a destination) and proudly marched at commencement, haiving maintained my 4.0 average here. But I came back to school to get a job. After my first semester I took a part-time student job for a while, then I did some work study, then I was offered a full-time support staff job a year ago (for a heck of a lot less money than my IT job but money isn't everything), which I am still doing. I'm only taking two classes a semester now, including summer, since I started working full time, but I am getting free tuition now and not accumulating any more student loan debt. Funny thing is I've always known I was capable of this and I always wanted to finish my degree but I had a million excuses not to. Now I'm looking beyond my bachelor's degree. (I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up.)
posted by AstroGuy at 2:11 PM on August 1, 2006

same here, Cobol for 10 years, no degree - but that isn't good enough anymore (company got bought out, I got married and moved to a no-COBOL-jobs-in-site location), 3 yrs passed, now I'm halfway thru a web-design associates - damn I had it good, but this web stuff is way cooler than COBOL anyway!
posted by BillyG at 8:14 PM on August 1, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks again, everyone. I have an appointment with an advisor at the UW, and inquiries in at several other local colleges. I'm going to do this! Thank you, AskMeFi.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 9:10 PM on August 1, 2006

Best answer: Also a late comer to the posting party...

I am 43 yrs old and started back to school 3 yrs ago. I will graduate in March '07 with a degree in Information Systems. I currently work as an IT Director, like you, making good money and am stable. I went through the same mental gymnastics prior to enrolling struggling with the "is it worth it" questions. I knew one thing for sure, I hated NOT having a degree. I started school in 1981 and promptly dropped out due to lack of motivation that was being saturated with plenty of alcohol. Now I have two kids, a good family, house, etc. 50 hrs./wk, and go to school full time.

Do I enjoy it?


It sucks ass, bigtime! I hate how I have to tell my 10 yr old daughter I do not have time to go on a bike ride or go camping because I have homework to do. I hate how I have the impending debt upwards of $20g's waiting for me at 44 y/o with two kids getting to the age where they need things, including their own education, cars, marriage, etc. Oh, and don't forget retirement somewhere down the road. I also hate the God awful load of work that I have to do ...knowing I am paying to do it instead of GETTING paid to work. I could go on but, hopefully you see the other (yes, whiny) side.

Do I think it will be worth it?


My kids see how hard I work and I tell them why, that it sure beats flipping burgers at the fast food place. They see that my life as a parent and adult is not just about fixing broken things and scolding, but to WORK TOWARDS SOMETHING. When I complete a couple of classes, I feel great knowing I accomplished something, something that not everyone in the world gets a chance to do. And like somoene above said, I am doing it with all this extra baggage on my plate as well, that has to be worth something to somebody. My father (who has his PhD in education) said he did not want to die without seeing me with a degree, so there is that, too. All the good jobs I see in the great places I want to live require a degree, and I AM future-proofing myself. I got burned in one job and was not ready, never again, not with a family.

Hope this helps to confuse you a great deal. It's a big decision and should not be taken lightly just based on "feel good" advice like, "It's WONDERFULL!!"....because, you know, sometimes it just ain't.

Oh, one more thing. I am taking online classes through Capella University, an accredited college. It helps with my time management a great deal not having to commute. In fact, I need to get back to my homework...
posted by SparkyPine at 1:01 PM on August 2, 2006

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