Money & Policy

The 4 Drawbacks of Going Back to College in Midlife

Tips from a man who has returned to the classroom himself

While going back to college in midlife certainly has its benefits (see my Next Avenue article, 5 Reasons to Go Back to College at 50+), there are also some potential drawbacks to consider.

I’ve encountered them myself while returning to school full-time in metro Atlanta for a four-year degree in psychology. Here are the four big drawbacks you’ll want to know about before heading to the lecture hall:

1. Time

If you’re taking 12 credits — the minimum to be considered a full-time student — you’re looking at the equivalent of a full-time job, once you factor in homework, writing papers and studying. The rule of thumb is that one hour of class equals two to three hours of study time per week.

Don’t forget to add commuting to the equation, which might add an hour or more per day.

Expect to experience cognitive dissonance with your professors. They’ll see you as a peer, but treat you the way they do a 19-year-old.

Then there are all the time-consuming things you need to do to maximize your ability to learn and your performance in school, such as getting enough sleep and exercising.

2. Money

Everyone knows about the high cost of college, of course. But at this point in your life, you may or may not qualify for financial aid. The answer depends on several factors, including how much aid you’ve already received in the past as well as how many college credits you’ve taken.

Don’t try to figure this out on your own; make an appointment to meet with a financial aid adviser at the school you plan to attend.

Remember, too, that many financial experts discourage taking on debt as retirement nears.

Tuition and books aren’t the only financial costs for midlife students. If you’ll be commuting to school, there’s also fuel and upkeep for your car. Plus: extra meals out, since you may find yourself eating on or near campus. These small outlays can really add up over time; I recommend keeping a packed cooler in your car, which you can visit throughout the day.

3. Your Age

No matter how much you think you’re in touch with twentysomethings and the world they inhabit, you’re not. This isn’t just potentially embarrassing; it can affect your performance by making you wary of participating in class, which, in turn, can affect your grade.

Expect to experience a little bit of cognitive dissonance with your professors. On the one hand, they’ll see you as a peer; on the other, they’ll treat you the way they do a 19-year-old. It gets even stranger when the professor is significantly younger than you.

Also, since the target audience for most classes is so much younger and inexperienced than you, don’t be surprised to find yourself sitting through material delivered over eight weeks that you believe could’ve been presented just as effectively in a two-day seminar.

4. Having Doubts

Yes, you want to believe that going back to school will pay off in the end. But are you sure? After all, younger students have a good 20+ years more than you to make it in the field you’re studying.

This prospect can be demoralizing, especially when you compound your professional concerns with fears about paying the new tuition bills.

On top of that, life has a way of taking bigger bites out of your time, as you get older. Your own upkeep takes more effort than it used to (it’s harder to bounce back from an all-nighter at 60 than at 20). And if you have kids or grandkids, they’ll be looking to you, too.

The Bottom Line

All of these potential drawbacks need to be seriously considered if you are contemplating going back to college as an older adult. Any of them, or something else entirely, could cause you to second guess your decision. You have to decide for yourself if returning to school is worth the effort.

For me, I think it is.

I love the college environment, the focus on learning and exploring ideas. I’m not doing it for the prospect of a well-paying job down the line, although that would be a nice way to wind up.

I’m intrinsically motivated to learn new things. Usually I do this through reading a wide range of subjects. But having the opportunity to do it as a college student again has been too good for me to pass up.

By Stephen L. Antczak
Stephen L. Antczak is a freelance writer,  specializing in articles about money, work, volunteering, education and aging.

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