How to Survive (and Excel) as a Middle-Aged, Re-entry College Student


Coming Back to College as a Re-entry Student

College isn’t for everyone—or is it? In the twenty-first century, a college education is more important than ever when it comes to preparing for a successful life; however, many American men and women choose not to go on to college right after high school or attend college for a year or so, but then drop out. College can seem overwhelming when one is fresh out of high school, and there are often other reasons than psychological ones, such as economic adversity, a wish to experience the world rather than study, and family pressures including marriage and children.

Students who attempt college but drop out, then return to college later are called, “re-entry students.” Often these students are well into middle age, or even senior citizens, when they return to college. After dropping out at age nineteen at the end of my sophomore year in college, it was twenty-five years before I returned to earn my BA, MA, second BA, and Certificate to Teach Composition. While my experiences as an adult re-entry student were so rich and varied that they could fill a book, here I’ll focus simply on sharing a few tips for staying in college, as well as for excelling, as a middle-aged re-entry student. Of course, some of these tips might apply to any college student!

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Seven Strategies for Success

1. Stay on top of your finances and budget:

Choose a college that you can afford, or get financial aid such as scholarships and federal and state grants, including work-study. If you can pay for college without increasing your personal debt, that is preferable. No one wants debt, but in middle age, going into debt is a much greater liability than when one is young and has more years to pay it off.

Although working and going to college simultaneously is often seen as admirable, like “toughing it out,” in reality, that makes it very hard to do one’s best in either area of life, school or work. Working while going to school makes one constantly tired, limits the time and energy one can dedicate to one’s studies, and can frustrate one’s employer, which might negatively affect one’s job. However, often that is the only option. If you can find a way to work less or not work while in school without increasing your debt, take it. If you must work, it can be helpful to limit your units each semester, though that means it will take longer to graduate. However, if taking fewer units because you have to work means you will be able to give more to those few classes each semester, it is a winning solution.

Keep a clear budget and plan. Accept that sacrificing extras will help you accomplish your goal of earning your degree.

2. Have a clear goal for your education, even if it changes over time:

Think about what you like to do and what you care about. By middle age, most people know much more about themselves than when fresh out of high school. Make a list of your talents, interests, and passions. Which of those translate into fields of study at college? Do you love music, reading, flowers and plants, healing, or business? For each of those, there is a specific major and degree program at most universities. Choose the major and program that align with your talents and passions. Even if you are unsure of how you will make a living in that field, it’s wiser to follow your heart and explore your innate gifts in college, since using your sincere passions and personal strengths is a key to success in life.

3. Work with the support systems provided by your school:

Get to know your school’s academic counselor, financial aid department, mentoring services, health center, tutoring services, and any other student services offered. Most colleges and universities have formal re-entry centers that are central hubs of services for students coming back to college. The re-entry centers often include counseling, financial services, childcare referrals, tutoring services, and much more. Investigate work options on campus and the career center. Look into clubs and extracurricular activities. Within your limits, get involved.

Isolating yourself and telling yourself you are only there for a few years to get your degree and then you will get back to work in the world limits your experience and its potential to help you grow. Additionally, the student services described above can help you stay in school; when you do not know where to turn, get help from them; it’s available on your campus if you look for it and persevere in dealing with the services offered.

4. Realize that older students have much to give:

You and the other older students on campus have a wealth of experience and knowledge plus confidence and social skills that add real value to any situation you are in at college, be it a classroom, a club, or a student job. When the twenty-year-old students in your class are too shy or inexperienced to speak up in class, you can set the example. Your life and work experience will allow you to help and inspire others at college as well.

5. Stop limiting yourself based on your age:

Whether twenty or fifty, people are all people. At college, although dating and mating are constantly going on, people are also looking for friends. While you might meet a new love at college if you are unattached, if you are happily attached, there is no reason you should hesitate to engage with your fellow students and instructors; we are all people and should enjoy and appreciate what each person, regardless of age brings to any relationship or gathering. In college, often people are very open-minded regarding casual friendship and collegiality; open your heart and be free to meet new friends of all ages.

6. Take electives that broaden you:

If you are a business or math major, think about taking a P.E. class, ballroom dance, or Concert Band. If you are an English major, think about taking a computer class or an art class. Reach outside of your degree program occasionally to study additional topics of interest. That could lead you to discover an unknown gift or simply put another tool in your arsenal of knowledge, as well as providing variety in your life as you strive toward your degree goal.

7. Stay healthy physically and spiritually:

Get enough sleep—all nighters are unhealthy for anyone, but in middle age, they are truly dangerous. Taking naps is not being lazy; it can help. Don’t take early morning classes and then work or study until very late on a regular basis; it’s simply not worth it and will destroy your health. Get regular check-ups. Take vitamins and eat right: natural, whole foods, low fat, low sugar, high protein, and plenty of water. Limit alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. Limit stimulants—instead of living on coffee, use regular exercise, rest, and healthy food to keep yourself strong.

Remain close to your loved ones and appreciate their support of your school program. Keep your faith strong, whatever your faith might be. Counseling is available for registered students at most colleges and universities; there is no stigma attached and it can be very helpful to talk things over with a trained, objective, and caring counselor, so do not hesitate to seek counseling if you feel troubled or stressed.

Remember, you are to be commended for seeking to develop and better yourself at middle age. Your strengths are many, and there is much help available to you as you work hard to complete your college degree. You can do it! Good luck!


More by this Author

How to Survive (and Excel) as a Middle-Aged, Re-entry College Student 26 comments

Tami - Teacher Goes Back To School 5 years ago

Great tips for all students!

healingsword profile image

healingsword 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks, Tami! I'm happy you read my article!

cardelean profile image

cardelean 5 years ago from Michigan

Excellent tips for all college students, not just those that are re-entering the college scene. Your hub provides some important ideas for students to remember as they move their their educational process. Great first hub and welcome to Hubpages!

thebigbagblog profile image

thebigbagblog 5 years ago from CYBERSPACE

God, I am thinking about going back myself! I am glad to see that you are out there doing it! Very inspirational!!

L.L. Woodard profile image

L.L. Woodard 5 years ago from Oklahoma City

I hope your hub inspires people to take the leap. I returned to college in my mid-40's, nervous as heck that I might not succeed. It turned out to be a life-changing, positive experience. I think professors and instructors are very happy to see mature students in their classrooms.

Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

Very practical and inspiring advice. Middle-aged people who're contemplating going back to college should really read this. Thumbs up! :)

mary615 profile image

mary615 5 years ago from Florida

More and more people are entering college at an older age now I think. Interesting and informative Hub. Voted it UP ,etc.etc.

healingsword profile image

healingsword 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks everyone for reading and commenting on my Hub. This was my first Hub, and somehow, after replying to the first comment, I neglected to return and respond to later supportive comments! I am sorry, and have learned better manners in the few weeks since. Please forgive me!

Cardelean, Thank you! I appreciate your welcome to HubPages, as well.

The bigbagblog, I encourage you to do it. Of course, everyone's experience will be unique, but don't let anxiety stop you. Be clear about your funding so that you minimize debt (or don't accumulate it), and reach for your dreams.

L.L. Woodard, Thank you for your comment. I agree, most professors seemed to appreciate my focus, commitment, and work ethic, as well as willingness to speak up and participate in class.

Om, I appreciate your comment. I think many middle aged people would benefit from regular education--it could broaden their horizons, wake them up, give a new lease on life, etc. Even taking one class a year at community college would be a way to grow. Parents could take a class together, perhaps get a sitter. Of course, online classes open up the field much wider.

mary615, Thank you for your comment and support. Yes, many middle-aged and senior citizens are open to learning, if not a full degree program. Yet, there are also many who have shut down mentally and/or physically. It's very sad. In a stable society, why not work to create healthy, active living into old age? Of course, neither America nor the rest of the world is truly stable right now, economically or otherwise, which limits the opportunities for high quality living.

ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

I honor those who would re enter college in middle age years! Go for it!! Great tips healingsword!

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination! To read and vote and be merry, this link will take you there: Keep on growing beautifully!

healingsword profile image

healingsword 5 years ago from California Author

Hi ripplemaker,

Thank you for your kind comment and your congratulations!

SylviaSky profile image

SylviaSky 5 years ago from USA

I used to work for a university's night school serving mostly nontraditional students. I hope they take your advice, especially about taking advantage of academic and financial advising. We were there to help our students succeed. Midlife students are also often teacher favorites because they give of themselves and their wisdom.

healingsword profile image

healingsword 5 years ago from California Author

Hi Sylvia,

Thanks so much for reading this Hub. I agree; adult learners have much to offer in classes, and they have so very much to gain in school by opening their minds to new ideas, meeting new people, and growing and changing irregardless of aging. Education at its best is so much more than earning a degree at any age, though.

Thanks for commenting on my Hub!

StellaSee profile image

StellaSee 4 years ago from California

Hi healingsword, these are great tips! I especially agree about the finances one. I'd love to go back to school but the 'how am I going to afford this??' is the question hanging over my head..I wish there were more financial aid options for people who have bachelor's degrees going back to school..did you have to take out a lot of loans when you went back?

healingsword profile image

healingsword 4 years ago from California Author

Hi StellaSee, Thanks for reading and commenting on my Hub! Yes, I did take out loans. I returned to college in 1997, and finally graduated in 2010. (I say finally with reservation; I'd love to go for more education, actually). During the first part of those years, I got federal and state grants, and I did take out some loans. I worked only part-time, and took full- time units plus some each semester.

About half way though those 13 years, after completing my first BA and my MA, I decided No More Loans! because I hate being in debt. So during the second part, when I earned my Second BA in Music, I took half time units most semesters and worked multiple jobs simultaneously. It was very exhausting. I did keep up my grades, but did not have the energy for my schoolwork or time to practice that I would have had if I'd had more financial aid and worked less then. But, no more loans was wise, and I couldn't get grants or large scholarships then.

I recommend going half time and working for re-entry students, actually, in order to stay debt free. Perhaps a distance learning program or night classes will work with your schedule. At some point, it's not worth the debt. But I do not regret my education at all, just need to work hard to pay off the debt :-). It was so worth it for me, otherwise. Each person is different of course. I wish you the very best!

StellaSee profile image

StellaSee 4 years ago from California

Wow that's impressive! I've talked to people who were postbaccs in my classes and some of them were on loans and others had help from their parents (lucky them!) But I haven't heard of people who were part time students and worked to stay debt free..I think part of it is because of the type of program I'm interested in..if you're a part time student, even though it's because of financial reasons, it appears as though the student can't handle a full course load of classes, which doesn't look good for graduate school admissions.

I feel like I was just blabbering here but thanks again for your advice! Your story inspires me to fight for my education :)

healingsword profile image

healingsword 4 years ago from California Author

Hi StellaSee, Thanks for your comment, and I am glad that you are inspired by my story. I think at some point one shoud turn a bit of a blind eye to what others think, if possible. Taking on tons of loan debt is unwise, in my opinion. If I had it to do over, knowing what I do now, I'd have gone back to school part-time from day one and not taken any loans at all. Then, I'd have very little debt right now, not like the reality... Especially as an older, re-entry student, it's important to stay debt free since one has to plan and save for retirement, not add to one's debt. However, I did incur the debt.

There really are multiple variables to consider, too, such as motivation for going to school, course of study, type of work one is doing while in school and how important that is to one, one's health, and whether one has intense other commitments such as family or artistic performances, etc. In my case, majoring in English (Creative Writing/Poetry) and then a Second BA in Music right after that, both are understood to be reflective, artistic career paths, in which an individualized relationship with time is just fine, including in the eyes of grad school. A Business or Science Degree Program might have a very different expectation regarding appearances and career plans, however.

Again, each person's path is unique. Being a life-long learner, health willing, helps make each day bright and meaningful.

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM

Terrific advice and suggestions on becoming a re-entry student. This is so informative and interesting and full of great common sense. I always say it is never to late to get a college education and each person should do it when and how it is best for him/her. Each person should try to reach their potential in life and I'm glad to see it worked out and well for you. Kudos to you, because it is more difficult to study and complete a program later in life. And, then sometimes you have more time to put into your studies. This is quite an inspirational piece and I enjoyed reading it!

healingsword profile image

healingsword 4 years ago from California Author

Hi Suzettenaples, Thanks for reading and for your praise. This Hub is based on what I learned in my own journey as a re-entry student--though going to college later in life was hard in many ways, I benefited from it profoundly. It helped me open to the world, discover and train in artistic talents that now bring me so much joy, learn computer and writing skills and gain professional office experience as a student assistant, learn to tutor others and then to teach, and generally brightened my view of the world and humanity through interacting with smart/brilliant and idealistic people who were helping others learn and grow. I wish higher and continuing education were easily available to all people everywhere, and high quality. Developing one's potential brings meaning to life and gives people so much more to offer.

Bert 4 years ago

I'm back in school at 49 years for my first BA in Jazz Performance. Even though it is stressfull, exhausting, and terrifying it is also thrilling and quite literally saving my life. Finances are hard. I am working about 24 hours a week this semester (2nd) and even though I have a decent paying job, with living expenses taking most of my pay, I don't see being able to pay for college with my salary even though it is a fairly cheap state university. I am single and live modestly. Also if one makes any sort of decent salary, grants and the like are not really going to pop up. I am finally looking into scholarships and just really need to find the time and energy to apply. So I am doing it with loans at the moment. I know I shouldn't and I hate it. Luckily I was able to pay off my car loan and some other debt recently. That took a load off.

One problem I have is just having enough energy to do the work. I do not have the energy I did when I was 20 and like the author says adequate sleep is a must. I get by with decent grades but I feel like I am not able to practice my instrument as much or do the classwork as much as I should. They really pile it on.

healingsword profile image

healingsword 4 years ago from California Author

Hi Bert,

Thanks for visiting my Hub and commenting! Congratulations on returning to school, and I am inspired to read you are majoring in Music, Jazz Performance, no less! What is your instrument, or is it voice? I understand your post, and really feel as if I've walked in your shoes. Kudos to you for following your passion and dream, and for sharing your musical gift with others.

Maybe you can find extra work on campus? Perhaps you can choose work study in your financial aid package, as well, rather than loans? Summer camps often hire music counselors. Going part time some semesters helped me. Try talking with your advisers and financial aid counselors about how to manage with as little debt as possible.

I know what you mean about wanting to practice more, and how demanding the curriculum can be. You can do it! Even practicing 30-60 minutes a day will make a huge difference.

Are you thinking about going for a teaching credential in Music, or do you have another career plan for using your degree?

Good luck to you!

Bert 4 years ago

Hi thanks for the response. My instrument is the double bass.

Work study on campus is possible. Right now I go to my regular job before, between, and after class. I don't know what the benefits of work study are. My impression is that I am better off sticking to my cube job for the money. But I really have not looked into it other than checking the box on my FAFSA. For fall and spring my only option was loans because I made too much money in 2011, which was not really all that much, to get grants. I made considerably less money last year because I was in school so we'll see if that makes a difference this year. But your right I should go talk to financial aid and my advisor.

I have felt that piling on teaching credentials was a bit too much and all I want to do really is play and maybe grad school but I started to think more about that today. It is five extra classes I think for licensure and might help alleviate the cost of school. I'll have to ask some questions. Initially I was thinking that I had a decent job that I could continue with after I get my degree and just gig as much as possible and maybe teach privately. Fortunately the area I am in has a lively jazz scene and I have friends that get along quite well just playing and teaching.

I am doing this for the achievement as well as the immersion and learning as well to break the cycle of cubical drudgery. I do not have an undergrad degree either and want one.

As far as practice goes your right it is consistency that is important. Better 2 hours a day than trying to do a ton on Saturday. Same goes with class work too. As you know music majors have to practice as well as study. I have accepted that there are some things I just won't get to or won't be able to do as well because I have to prioritize.

Despite how hard it all is I am thoroughly enjoying it and the challenges and if I had to stop I would be very disappointed.

healingsword profile image

healingsword 4 years ago from California Author

Hi Bert,

Yes, it is wonderful; the immersion and the challenge, the music. Again, I wish you the very best. With your BM or perhaps even grad degree (s) in music, you can teach privately, at music stores, and with good references, even perhaps at community college.

The K-12 Music Credential is more complicated, and teaching K-12 Music is a whole lot more than giving lessons and gigging with friends--we're talking Band Trips! I think one really has to want to do that--otherwise, stick with private lessons or teaching adults, and definitely gigging.

You have a good cube job, so stick with that is my advice, and fit school in around it, for as long as it takes. Make lots of wonderful music friends for life. Good luck and have fun!

ytsenoh profile image

ytsenoh 3 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

I went to college right before I turned 40 and it took me seven long years to get my journalism degree. I absolutely agree that age should not be a determining factor on whether you go, or whether you're returning. There were all ages going when I went. In the last two years, I went full time and worked full time and it is rough, but it's also a challenge. You have offered some good advice in your hub. The benefit of going later in life is that you have life experience in your pocket and a different level of maturity, especially if you're also raising a family, the latter of which sets an example too. When you're older, too, you know why you're going; it's not just a family expectation. Thanks for a positive uplifting hub on your subject.

healingsword profile image

healingsword 3 years ago from California Author

Hi ytsenoh, Thank you for stopping by and for leaving a comment! You are so right that the wisdom and maturity an older student possesses make a big difference in his/her ability to succeed as a reentry student, despite whatever difficulties arise. Motivation is key, too; many return to qualify for a specific job, but there are other motivations, such as pursuing a dream or simply growing, experiencing something new. As you wrote, "when you're older, you know why you're going." I found I never missed a class as a re-entry student, but when I first went to college, my attendance was sporadic (and I missed so much simply by being absent frequently) because I was neither mature nor motivated.

Mo 3 years ago

Thanks for giving me a bit of hope. I never went to college and now I'm in my 40s and I regret it.

I've toyed with the idea because so many jobs require a degree these days. But the truth is that I just love learning. I have no idea what I'd take and I certainly can't afford it, but maybe there's still hope.

healingsword profile image

healingsword 3 years ago from California Author

Hi Mo,

You're welcome, and thank you for reading and commenting on my Hub. In your 40's, as long as your health and general situation in life permit, you are in a great position to take college classes, and perhaps earn a degree.

I'd advise looking into a local community college to get started, take your General Education requirements there, and work with an academic advisor to figure out the best major for you, as well as possible career applications. Of course, not all degrees will lead to a job or change in career; like you said, learning is a joy in itself. It might be fulfilling to you to take one class at a time without declaring a major, at a community college, just to explore your interests. The community colleges are so much cheaper, and are usually excellent quality.

Then, if you find school is working out for you and you decide to challenge earning a degree, you could transfer to a four year school on-ground or even online after earning your associate's degree at the community college. Starting at community college will help you get oriented and see if you like college without setting you back a huge amount of money.

You can also earn a four-year degree gradually, going part time and working, which saves money, too. Good luck to you, Mo!

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