How to Go Back to School When You’re Not in Your 20s

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Connecticut resident Dina Petrosky was 42 when she decided to go back to school to get her master’s in communication.

“My job prospects had changed,” Petrosky tells MainStreet. “I was transitioning into owning my own business and my daughter was older. It just seemed like the right time to go back.”

Still, even with all signs pointing to yes, Petrosky started classes at the University of Rhode Island with a few trepidations.

“I was worried that I couldn’t do the work,” she says. “I was worried that the time involved would impact my family life. I was also worried about just fitting in because I was older.”

Petrosky soon discovered that these fears were unfounded, while other expectations missed the mark. MainStreet talked to adults who had already gone through the process and to education experts to find out what has changed and what the 30-plus set can expect when going back to school.

You’re not alone.

Many adult students, especially those heading back to school full-time, assume that they’ll be surrounded by 18- to 22-year-olds, but the truth is that classrooms have become increasingly diverse.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in recent years the increase in the number of students 25 and over has been larger than the increase in the number of younger students, and this pattern is expected to continue. NCES expects that by 2019 the rise in enrollments of students under 25 will increase by 9%, while enrollments of students 25 and over will increase by 23%

“In most schools, they are going to see lots of other adults in class with them,” Mike Doolin, author of The Success Manual for Adult College Students, says.

Moreover, he explains that the influx of older students has led many colleges and universities to set up organizations, clubs and advisement offices on campus specifically for their adult learners. Some even hold separate orientations for their older students that are meant to address their specific circumstances, which Doolin strongly encourages attending, adding that they can be instrumental in helping you learn how balance a busy work schedule with your new educational commitments.

However, whether or not your school has organizations specifically designated for your older demographic, “don’t be embarrassed about taking advantage of the resources on campus,” Marcia Cantarella, author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide, who also went back to school later in life, says.

The professors won’t go easy on you.

When New Jersey resident Len Saunders went back to school to get his master’s in exercise physiology in his 30s, he thought the professors at Montclair State University would take into consideration that he and the other adults in his night classes had other pressing obligations, such as a family or a full-time job. 

“I assumed the teacher would take it easy on us, since our lives were so busy,” Saunders tells MainStreet. “I was completely wrong.”

He explains that the expectation was squashed once the professor assigned 150 pages of reading, plus a paper, to be completed by the next class. Saunders, who took things slow and was close to 40 when he graduated, adds “as you go, it gets harder and harder.”

Canterella also says that while undergraduate degrees are less intensive than master’s programs, the amount of work required to obtain one can be disorienting to students who are only familiar with high school-level courses. 

“The amount of work is very different,” she says. “You can’t wait until the last minute to do a paper based on several months of reading."

As such, time management is of the utmost importance. Canterella says that adult students need to rely heavily on planners and should use the course syllabus to map out and complete coursework in stages. Saunders also advises that adult students involve their families in their plans. 

“It’s important to have a consistent schedule that your family gets used to,” he says. “You can come home and have a family dinner together, go out and play with the kids. Then they go off to do their homework and you go off to do yours.”

Saunders also coped by coming up with creative ways to study. This included recording his lecture notes onto cassettes tapes so that he could listen to them as he commuted to and from work each day.

But you’ll be a better student.

But what older students lack in free time they tend to make up for with an established work ethic and a focus that younger students have yet to refine.

“Adults students are the best students,” Doolin, who is also a professor at Monroe Community College, says. “They’re going back to school for a reason and generally know how to stay motivated.”

He adds that he has seen the performance and behavior bar go up in many of his classes that have an adult student on the roster. 

“They become examples for the other students,” he says. “You really are going to be a hero in that classroom and it’s not going to take very long.”

Technology has taken over.

That being said, adults who don’t consider themselves particularly tech-savvy should get someone who is to give them a crash course on using the Internet.

“I was surprised by how much the university functioned online,” Petrosky says. “You cannot be a Luddite if you’re going back to school.”

For instance, adult students should expect to see others using laptops, tablets or smartphones in class, they should also expect teachers to use overhead projectors, PowerPoint presentations and other digital methods of learning in lectures, and know that most schools have students register for classes, receive class syllabi and view grades on the school’s web portal.

Older students who consider themselves Web-savvy still need to make sure they embrace the school’s network.

“Make sure you check your college email address,” Canterella says, pointing out that teachers and administrators will send important updates to the email address they provide to you upon admission. They also might send notices about lectures or on-campus events that you also don’t want to miss out on. 

Classroom etiquette has changed.

Adult learners may also be surprised to encounter what Doolin says could be seen as a deterioration of behavior styles as young students today are less beholden to formalities. 

“Students will just get up to go to the bathroom,” he says. They also have a habit of using their cellphones to text back and forth in the middle of a lecture, depending on how strict a professor may be about classroom etiquette.

“If you don’t tell them specifically that they can’t use it, they are going to,” Doolin admits.

But Petrosky advises adult students to refrain from imparting the wisdom of their years to their younger counterparts if they hear or see something they believe is ill-advised.

“Keep an open mind,” she says, admitting that there were times she held her tongue despite her desire to volunteer life experience. “You’ll separate yourself as an adult fart.”

Instead, she says to consider others’ views and opinions as part of your own personal learning experience.

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