Going Back to School as an Adult

Jamie Carta admits she’s had a couple meltdowns since she decided to go back to school.

Many of the classmates in her cohort are a couple decades younger and have a good grasp of the high-tech tools that sometimes leave her frustrated. But Carta, 54, lets herself have those meltdowns. She’ll go on a drive or sneak out to her garage and listen to her angsty playlist when her fear and stress start to feel like too much.

“Eventually I say to myself, ‘I can do this,’” she says. “I rise above it.”

Carta has a bachelor’s degree in child development and a master’s degree in human development. She’s worked in childhood education for decades and currently serves as the director of Har Shalom Preschool in Fort Collins. She decided to go back to school to get her second master’s degree. This time around, she’s studying clinical mental health at the University of Northern Colorado’s Extended Campus in Loveland.

During the pandemic, Carta realized the need for mental health services that better serve children and their families. She hopes to help meet that need through play therapy while actively involving parents and caregivers when she’s a licensed therapist.

She’s the oldest of her classmates, with many students in their early 20s. Some came straight from their undergraduate studies, some are moms in their 40s looking to get back into the workforce and some are making big career shifts to different fields.

“I think there’s beauty in going back to school when we’re older,” Carta says. “We come in with experience and perspective we didn’t have before.”

Who goes back to school?

We often think of college students as recent high school grads leaving home for the first time to find themselves and lay the groundwork for their future.

But according to the National Center for Education Statistics, older students also make up a decent chunk of the classroom. As of fall 2019, about 10 percent of full-time students pursuing degrees were between ages 25 and 34. An additional 5 percent were 35 and older. This includes students at four-year and two-year public, private nonprofit and private for-profit schools.

Those percentages jump even more when looking at part-time students. About 23 percent of part-time students working toward an undergraduate degree are between ages 25 and 34, and an additional 18 percent are 35 and older.

Stephanie Erickson of Fort Collins finds herself in the latter category. Erickson first enrolled at Front Range Community College when she was 18, but she wasn’t ready for it. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, so she went into the workforce. Over the years, she focused on raising her kids, taking a couple classes here and there and working part-time as a massage therapist and as an administrator at a hearing center.

Erickson, now also 54, is getting her Associate of Applied Science in integrative health at Front Range. She attends class part-time and works part-time on campus.

“During the pandemic, I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do,” Erickson says.

She chose Front Range because of the flexibility. She could go at her own pace, get plugged into the community and enjoy smaller class sizes. She’s not sure yet whether she’ll get a bachelor’s degree after she earns her associate degree, but she does know she enjoys being back in the classroom.

Compared to undergraduate programs, graduate school, as you might expect, has the most diversity.

About 35 percent of full-time graduate students are between ages 25 and 29, 20 percent are between ages 30 and 39 and 11 percent are 40 and older. For part-time students, 26 percent are between ages 25 and 29, 33 percent are between ages 30 and 39 and 29 percent are 40 and older.

Adult learners often go back to school with a desire to either grow in their chosen field or change career paths entirely, according to the Education Advisory Board. Some also find themselves returning if other priorities, such as raising a family or military service, put a pause on their education.

Biggest challenges

Mark Harben, executive director of advising and student development at Aims Community College, says cost is one of the biggest concerns adults have about returning to school.

“Finances are a big fear; it’s a big unknown,” he says. “Not only does it cost money to go to school, but it also takes time away from working.”

He says community colleges like Aims try to make that cost more manageable by offering guaranteed credit transfers to other Colorado universities if students wish to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

There are a number of factors that impact the cost of tuition, but a big one is the cost per credit. At Aims, for example, in-state tuition costs $122 per credit hour for the 2023-2024 school year. At CSU, in-state tuition costs over $500 per credit hour for the 2023 fall semester.

However, there are scholarships and financial aid opportunities available for adult learners. Databases such as Scholarships.com and Fastweb can help them find various scholarships and grants.

Another big challenge is the time commitment.

Carta, for instance, spends every other weekend, including Fridays, in the classroom.

“It’s time-consuming at best,” she says. “I really rely on my family. I have to be organized, and I also have to be really gentle and kind to myself.”

That means letting go of some things, like teaching a class on Sundays at her church.

And while two of her three children are grown and out of the house, her husband and 15-year-old son still need attention. Carta’s husband has picked up the slack, she says, by doing more of the dishes and sweeping the floor. They’ve streamlined the grocery shopping by ordering online, and they even had a meal service for a while.

Consider remote learning

According to a report by Inside Higher Ed, remote and flexible learning opportunities are becoming increasingly popular, especially among community colleges, which tend to serve more older adults and working people.

The Colorado Community College System, for example, saw a jump in online enrollment this year. Compared to last year, the report shows that online enrollment for the fall term is up by nearly 10 percent while in-person enrollment is up by about 6 percent across the system.

But that increase isn’t limited to community colleges. Enrollment in online master’s programs has also been on the rise since 2000. An Inside Higher Ed report from 2018 shows that a flexible online education can work well for students in master’s programs who are self-directed and employed.

As an academic advisor, Harben says it’s important to acknowledge that returning to the classroom can be scary, even online, but there are plenty of resources available and people who want to see adult learners succeed.

“We understand that being a student is not necessarily their number one priority in life,” he says. “Being a student might be their third or fourth identity behind being a parent, a spouse and more. We work with students to keep them motivated and keep them making progress realistically.”

Carta was the first in her family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Now, with her second master’s degree almost under her belt, she says the sacrifice has been worth it.

“I’m going back at 54, and there are people who have done it who are older than me,” she says. “You are never too old to learn.”

Seeking Tuition Reimbursement

Employers generally like to have an educated workforce, and some might even give you a boost to help you get the credentials you want.

According to Investopedia, 12 of the biggest employers in the country offer various programs to help employees further their education, including Amazon, Boeing, Chipotle, Discover, Disney, Papa John’s, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Target, T-Mobile, Verizon and Walmart.

Your workplace might cover some of the costs, too, or have existing partnerships with local or online programs. If you’re considering going back to school, talk to your manager to learn what your workplace offers, whether that’s tuition reimbursement or flexible hours.

If your workplace doesn’t already offer tuition reimbursement, you can pitch the idea. Not only will your workplace benefit from your personal growth, but companies that offer these perks can get tax credits and special deductions if they meet guidelines from the Internal Revenue Service.

To create a solid pitch, Investopedia recommends convincing management of the benefits they stand to reap from your newfound education. To pitch this idea:

• Read your company benefits manual and chat with HR to see what is already available.

• Know the degree or certification you want to get and why.

• Identify the school you want to attend. Find out whether they have flexible online learning or if you must attend in person.

• List the specific ways your workplace will benefit.

Boost your skills with a certificate instead

Looking to level up without committing to years of school? Certificates and continuing education programs could be the way to go. Some examples include:

Professional certification. Some employers want prospective employees to have expert knowledge of software or skillsets specific to the industry. That may be Adobe for graphic design or QuickBooks for business. You can seek professional certification to build upon and prove your skills.

Continuing education courses. Many universities and community colleges—including Aims and Front Range—offer continuing education courses on specific subjects or skills. The courses won’t earn you college credit, but they will teach you about a wide range of subjects, including workforce development, accounting and finance, photography, art, OSHA regulations, real estate, basic life support and more.

Self-paced online courses. There are many self-paced online resources designed for busy professionals looking to develop new skills. One place to look is Coursera. Search for what you want to learn, whether it’s digital marketing, machine learning, video editing or something else. Some courses are free.

Trade programs. Trade programs at places like Aims can help learners gain skills in construction management, computer aided drafting, welding technology, industrial technology and more.

Apprenticeships. Apprenticeships combine work and learning on the job. Front Range Community College offers an apprenticeship program with partners in healthcare, manufacturing, IT, tree care and other industries to connect students and employers. Students get paid to learn—with a guaranteed wage increase as their skills grow—while benefiting from instruction, mentorship and earned credentials.