Going Back to College at 30, 40, or 50: Is It Too Late to Complete My Degree?

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Today, 18-year-olds fresh out of high school aren't the only ones getting college degrees. Going back to college at 30 is normal. Going back to college at 40 is normal. In fact, age is now nothing but a number when it comes to completing a bachelor's degree online or in traditional on-campus programs.

PBS NewsHour recently reported on a "silver tsunami" of adult students who are enrolling or re-enrolling in university programs in large numbers to achieve professional and personal goals. Faculty often refer to these mature students with defined career paths or who are nearing retirement as OWLS: "older, wiser learners."

The National Center for Education Statistics paints a clearer picture of the OWLS trend in higher education. Nine percent of full-time undergraduates enrolled in state schools are older than 25. In private universities, 13 percent of undergraduates are older than 25. Those figures jump dramatically in part-time programs. Adult college students make up 40 percent of part-time bachelor's degree candidates in state programs and 59 percent in private university programs.

These statistics suggest part-time degree programs are the best fit for adult learners—many of whom are still raising children, working toward mid-career goals, or busy with personal commitments. They often gravitate toward programs that let students complete bachelor's degrees online, such as the Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Programs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It is a flexible online degree program geared toward working adults who decide that going back to college at 30, going back to college at 40, or going back to college at 50+ will enrich their lives. Through a blend of live lectures, independent readings, assignments, and self-paced video modules, students acquire transferable skills they can use in their current roles or to land their dream jobs in other industries.

Adults pursuing bachelor's degree completion online often have many questions, such as: Will I be the oldest undergraduate student in my classes? Can I afford to go back to college? How likely is it that I will complete my degree? This guide addresses some of those common questions and looks more closely at why it's never too late to earn an undergraduate degree.

Will I Recoup My Investment if I Go Back to School?

Prospective adult students often worry they have too much on their plates as it is because they're trying to juggle parenting, caring for older parents, and workplace obligations. Going back to college at 30, 40, or 50+ can feel overwhelming before questions about how to pay for a bachelor's degree ever come up. When they start researching tuition, financial aid, and scholarships, these learners often wonder if investing in higher education to pursue bachelor's degree completion is worth the financial risk. The biggest question on their minds may be: Will my earning potential offset the cost of college tuition once I complete my college degree?

The answer is that bachelor's degree holders earn more money, even if they don't change careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with associate's degrees earn $938 on average per week. Employees with bachelor's degrees earn closer to $1,305 per week, or an additional $19,084 per year.

You may be able to earn more in your current job after you go back to school. With a bachelor's degree and the new skills you gain in your college classes, you'll also be a stronger candidate for higher-paying jobs. Unless you plan to retire one year after completing your bachelor's, your college education should eventually pay for itself—particularly in UT's bachelor's degree completion program.

Tuition is affordable at $22,680 for in-state students and $27,180 for out-of-state enrollees, and you may be able to recoup the cost of earning your bachelor's degree in just a year or two. If you want to pay off your student loans more quickly, look into whether your employer has a tuition reimbursement program that covers undergraduate education.

Will I Be the Only Older Student In My Class?

Whether you complete a bachelor's degree online or on campus, you won’t be mistaken for a professor. Nontraditional students make up a large percentage of today's undergrads, so you will likely take classes with people going back to college at 40, 50, and beyond.

In higher education, as in life, age is just a number. Many people throughout history hit their stride in adulthood. For example, Stan Lee wasn't a well-known figure in the comics world until he was almost 40. Julia Child released her first cookbook at age 50, which led to her becoming one of the most well-known celebrity chefs. Toni Morrison wasn't a household name until she won the Nobel Prize for Literature at age 62. You can set yourself up for success by nurturing a growth mindset and being open to the possibilities as you set out to complete your undergraduate degree.

There are some advantages to being an adult student you should consider, too. Older students tend to be highly motivated and set reasonable expectations for themselves and what they want to get out of the degree program. Plus, their life and work experience translate into real-world skills and academic aptitudes that serve them well in class. Many older students feel more comfortable in the classroom than they did when they first attempted college because they can connect the material in the curriculum to their life experiences.

Will I Have Time for Schoolwork?

If you're going back to college later in life, chances are you're already a master juggler. Whether you're busy raising young kids, working full- or part-time, or caring for older parents, adding college to the mix is no easy feat. However, flexible online programs like UT's Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Programs let you decide how much time you can realistically spend on your studies without neglecting other areas of your life.

To determine how much time you need to carve out of your week for coursework and studying online, multiply the number of course credit hours you plan to take by three. For example, if your goal is to enroll in nine credit hours worth of classes in the fall semester, you'll probably need to devote about 27 hours each week to your studies.

If you're worried that you'll struggle to make time for schoolwork because you haven't been in a college classroom in so long, consider that older students in higher education usually have time management skills younger students don't have. According to a 2019 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, about 940,000 people flagged as students with "some college, no degree" five years ago have since earned undergraduate degrees. Be wary of the temptation to take a class here and there in hopes of finishing your degree someday. Research suggests the adult learners most likely to succeed are those who complete bachelor's degrees online or on campus in two years without stopping.

I Didn't Complete My Bachelor's Last Time I Tried. Why Will This Time Be Different?

Just because your college experience didn't go as planned early on doesn't mean you're not capable of earning an undergraduate degree. It's never too late to go back and finish what you started, whether that means going back to college at 30, 40, or later in life. You may discover that the workload feels more manageable this time around and that you have a stronger grasp of how what you're learning can help you in your career and in your life. You'll also have a much better understanding of what's expected of you as a student—especially if you have an associate’s degree or some college credits.

Past academic achievement is a good predictor of future college success. The National Clearinghouse Research Center report states that students who demonstrated earlier academic success were more likely to finish their undergraduate degrees after re-enrollment. The report also found the highest completion rates among liberal arts, general studies, and humanities majors, which are similar to the Areas of Emphasis offered in UT’s Bachelor of Arts Interdisciplinary Programs. Degree completion students at UT choose between two career-supporting Areas of Emphasis: Public Policy & Administration, which enhances their knowledge of the process of making decisions and policies within organizations, or Cultures & Societies, which provides a better understanding of the beliefs, practices, and behaviors of different groups of people.

Will Employers Respect My Online Degree?

Not only does distance learning accommodate busy schedules; it's also the preferred method of learning for countless new and nontraditional students, particularly post-COVID. The number of U.S. students studying partially or exclusively online at all levels increased from a little over 3 million in 2019 to 5.8 million in 2020—a jump of nearly 100 percent.

Research suggests employers don't differentiate between online degrees and degrees earned on campus. Many top-ranked universities now offer a wide range of online degrees, and it has become less common for institutions to provide substantially different content based on format alone. Programs offered by the same department or within the same major usually have the same admissions requirements, core courses, grading standards, and graduate requirements.

More importantly, online programs and programs delivered on campus tend to confer the same degrees. Prospective employers won't know whether you earned your bachelor's degree online or as part of an in-person degree program unless you choose to tell them.

Bachelor's Degree Completion Is Easier at Any Age at UT

The bachelor's completion program at UT sets working adults with transfer credits from eligible Tennessee Board of Regents system community colleges up for success with world-class instruction that is affordable, flexible, and designed to support career advancement. Students learn in-demand professional skills related to communication, critical thinking, leadership, and project management—all of which are necessary to excel in full-time jobs across industries.

As intimidating as the idea of going back to college at 30, 40, or 50+ can be, understand that an undergraduate degree can be the golden ticket that helps you advance on your current career path or launch an entirely new career in a different field. Pursuing bachelor's degree completion online can also help you achieve a new level of personal satisfaction. You'll never again have to wonder what you're capable of because at UT, you'll discover the true breadth of your potential.

Are you ready to complete your bachelor’s degree online? Read more about bachelor's degree completion for adults, or start your application today.

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