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Older Adults Returning to College

Updated on January 29, 2021
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Kimberly is a self-professed bibliophile who has loves to teach and write.

Hit the Books Again


How Life Experience Works to Your Advantage

Are you nervous about returning to college as an adult? Fear not! Older students have the advantage over younger ones in three areas critical to higher learning. More life experience means greater capacity to see things in context, compare two ideas, and courageously face new challenges.


It is easier to retain classroom material if the student can place it within a context. Listening to a lecture on the physics of the internal combustion engine makes more sense to the student who has worked in an auto factory. Reading about organizational communication is more meaningful to the student who has already experienced the dynamics of a busy office environment. High school alone does not give young students a context for many of the subjects they will study in college. The older student’s life experience gives him an edge that makes up for the fact that it’s been years since he opened an algebra or English textbook.


Students fresh out of high school are often accustomed to simply accepting whatever material is dispensed to them by the instructor. Older students know that today’s hot idea or popular ideology can quickly become tomorrow’s obsolete technology or forgotten fad. The older student can compare new material to past experience. She has seen how and why some things change and why some things remain constant. She can ask intelligent questions and learn more because she already has a cognitive framework into which new material can be placed.


Older students have the potential to be better students in college than they ever were in high school. Why? Their life experience has taught them the wisdom of asking questions and trying new things, even when they fear failure. Many older students have lived long enough to try something, fail, try again, fail, try again and succeed. Having survived failures and learned from them, the older student is ready to proceed with courage into new academic material. This gives them an edge over the eighteen-year-old honor student who has never received a “B” and is terrified of falling short. Younger students may take easier courses out of fear while the older student boldly challenges himself. Older students know that there are worse things than failure, such as regret over things never tried.

Do not see age as a disadvantage when returning to school. In fact, it might be more appropriate to pity the young students who have to compete with your formidable advantages!

Tips for Older Students

Adults returning to college after many years may feel a bit out of place among younger students. More adults are returning to school than ever, though, so don't think you are the oddball. Here are some tips on relating to younger students-and perhaps making some new friends along the way.

Emphasize Common Interests

You are in a class because of interest in a particular subject. That common subject gives you an immediate link to other students, whatever their age. As you participate in class discussions, age will not be an issue. While children are grouped in schools by chronological age alone, adults are free to associate with others who share a common goal, regardless of date of birth.

Be Collegial, not Parental

Most college students already have parents. You are a classmate, a colleague. Keep interactions friendly and talk about your common interests and concerns. If a younger student asks for help or advice offer it as one adult friend to another. Talking down to younger students will only emphasize your age difference. Give them the respect you wanted when you were a young adult. In return, they may enjoy being taken seriously by an older student.

Act Your Age

Few things are more pathetic than an adult trying to act twenty years younger. Embracing extreme fashion trends or trying to use the latest slang will not help you relate to younger students; neither will criticizing those same things. Be yourself and accept them as they are. Part of a college education involves learning to deal with diversity. Your very presence is enhancing the diversity of the student body.

Give students a chance to get to know you. Make an effort to get to know them. What are their career goals? Do they have an interesting hobby or talent? Common interests and goals transcend age differences; clothing fads and slang do not.

Get Involved in the Community

The best way to feel like part of a community is by serving the community-or by doing service with the community. Colleges have blood drives, food drives, and other worthwhile community activities. Your age and experience could be a real asset to a group of students trying to organize a bone marrow registry event or recruit volunteers for Special Olympics. Working together on an important project is a great way to build relationships, regardless of age.

Not all learning takes place in the college lecture hall. Be open to making new friends of all ages as you pursue your college degree.


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