At age 28, I went back to school.
Actually, it’s more accurate to say that I go to school. Although I had tried college immediately after high school, I failed out after 3 semesters. None of my old grades were good enough to use for credit, so I started over from scratch.
My first semester began in January 2014. In May 2018, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Physics. I was 33 years old.
I won’t lie to you and say that it was a walk in the park. It was obviously doable, but it was remarkably difficult.
There were times where I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the rent. I even once had to borrow money from a friend. However, the personal professional growth I experienced during that 4 year period is worth 10 times the cost of a typical college degree.
Why do you, personally, want to sacrifice 4 years to college?
Seriously. Why do you want to go back to school?
More specifically, why do you want to go back to school at 30?
Some people are thinking of going back to school to pursue a new career, add to their skill set, or simply get more out of life. Others have hit a ceiling at their current job.
No matter what your career goals are, this article has something for you.
I detail my observations and experiences being an adult student in college. I can’t guarantee that all of my advice will work for your situation, but if you really want this and you’re willing to do the hard work, you’ll get something out of this article.
If you’re on the fence about going back to school later in life and being an older student, then I believe reading about my experiences will give you the confidence necessary to take on this challenge. Without further ado, I present to you…
My observations and experiences returning to school in my 30’s
1. Make sure you get a into a decent degree program
Enrolling in a college program as an adult is a serious decision.
You need to be sure that your intended course of study is worth the 4 years and 5-figure tuition that you’re about to invest. You need to be careful that you aren’t enrolling in a school that’s just a for-profit online degree mill.
Be practical. Don’t major in the latest fad or follow your passion (unless it fits the criteria listed below). You’re going to college as an adult to increase your income, grow your network, and get new opportunities; not to just get a degree for the sake of having it.
The time investment will be at least eight 12-16 week semesters. These semesters will not be cheap and they will be exhausting.
Here are a few ways to indicate whether your degree is worth the time and money investment:
- Does it have the word “studies”, “administration” or end with “-ology” in it? If yes, then it’s not rigorous enough to be of any economic value. You’ll be forced to get a master’s degree or higher to see a return on investment with this degree. Since you’re going back to school, I’m assuming that you don’t want to spend 4 more years there just to have a chance to break even. [Note: Do not get a business degree. Business degrees teach you nothing about running one. All they do is signal that you were smart enough to specialize or ambition enough to start a business of your own. Sorry if you have a business degree. If you have one, then you know this is a true.]
- Does it require you to at least study Calculus 1? If not, then it’s not rigorous enough to be of any economic value. It’s not that worthwhile career paths make daily use of calculus. It’s just that the degrees that lead to them tend to require at least the first level of calculus. There is one notable exception.
- Is it in the medical field? Nursing doesn’t require Calculus, but the medical profession has extremely high demand. Be careful though, as many of the health sciences has a high demand but a relatively low salary.
- Can you get a paid internship that is higher than minimum wage? If you ever have to work for free (or for a low wage), even as a student, they are–quite literally–telling you that your work is worthless. Don’t expect to suddenly be paid more when you graduate.
- Is it science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (S.T.E.M.)? Despite the recent national center for education statistics, S.T.E.M. is not a automatically guarantee of a high income or career demand. Avoid biology or anything that ends with “sciences”, and you’ll field that most S.T.E.M. programs have a direct career path or a derivative career path that generates a decent income.
There are many profitable paths that do not require a college education. You can learn a trade, become an auto mechanic, learn to code, or become a salesperson. Some of the best jobs out there don’t require college. But if you want to go to college, then you need to figure out what to study based on the metrics above.
Those student loans you’ll probably need to take out depend on you not messing this up.
By following the suggestions on this list, you’ll prevent yourself from needing even higher education (master’s degree, professional degree, certificate program, etc.) to make enough money to justify the time and money investment.
Now let’s talk more about the money.
2. Figure out how you’ll pay ahead of time
The absolute best-case scenario is that you get some type of scholarship.
As a nontraditional student, this is unlikely because many schools reserve their scholarships for high school graduates. However, there is always money to be found somewhere.
Specific programs often offer scholarships based on merit. Many medical and teaching fields have tuition reimbursement and loan forgiveness deals. A google search into “scholarships” and other related terms will expose you to everything out there.
Remember: any worthwhile scholarship will be based on merit. This means that you need to make sure that you’re putting everything into each semester and getting the best grades you can.
My transition from a two year to a four-year university was much easier because I got a merit scholarship as a result of my 3.9 community college GPA. The other thing that helped was that I had money from serving in the Army National Guard.
The military isn’t for everyone, but it’s a fantastic way to fund your education, gain useful skills, and have a potential job while you’re in school. How you’ll pay your bills and feed yourself while you’re in college is something else you need to consider.
You may be able to get away with borrowing enough money to cover your “cost of living” (official financial aid term) for the first two years of your journey in community college, but if your program is easy enough to where you can work a full-time job and go to school full-time without giving up sleep, then it’s too easy and is probably not worth the cost and time.
You’ll probably have to fill out a FAFSA for financial aid. This will go one of two ways, depending on your life: from a financial perspective, you’re a complete loser and your expected family contribution (financial aid office talk for how much you’re expected to pay) of your tuition is zero.
The other scenario is a bit of a nightmare. You’ve been paying a mortgage or had a respectable salary last tax year. Financial aid is based on your tax returns of the previous year. If either of these scenarios fits, you probably aren’t getting any government financial aid. At the very least, you aren’t getting as much as you need, and this will almost certainly be a challenging point when you go beyond a 2-year associate’s degree program at a community college.
Even in the best-case scenario, you’re still going to borrow money. The only difference is how much the school lets you borrow and under what conditions. Even with the money you borrow, it may not be enough to entirely finance your education beyond community college. You will need to acquire additional funding.
During the first two semesters of community college, I worked at a bank. Then I had to stop working and rely on boxing earnings to cover my cost of living. When I stopped boxing, I then started tutoring high school math and physics. During all of this, I was still drilling on the weekends and collecting that pay.
Even with all of this, there was still a point where I had to pay for about $1000 out of pocket. American education is not cheap, so it’s important that you go back to school for something that will make you employable.
You need to be reasonably sure that your degree program is going to lead down a career path where you’re going to make enough money to at least cover the cost of the monthly repayment for any financial aid that you do get. Everyone talks about forgiving student loan debt, but when I filled out the FAFSA paperwork for my financial aid, there was a lengthy section I had to go through about calculating what I was expected to make given my degree choice.
I don’t know if this is mandatory practice, but it’s something that all college students who plan on borrowing money–traditional or nontraditional–should have to do before taking out student loans. A great place to look for this information on the worth of the potential career path your degree program is preparing you for is the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If you follow the rules in the first section about degree selection, you shouldn’t have a problem.
3. Do as much coursework as cheaply as you can
It’s possible for you to do a relatively large chunk of your degree at either a severe cash or time discount. First-time college students who are right out of high school don’t typically think about the fastest or cheapest way to graduate.
They don’t think about the money because, at that age, most of them don’t have a reference point for borrowing that much money, let alone figuring out how to pay it back. They don’t worry about finishing college quickly because they’re too busy enjoying the “college experience.”
On the other hand, adult students aren’t worried about dorm living, campus events, and frat parties. Adult students are keenly aware of how much money it’s costing them.
Here is a collection of things I researched, attempted, and did to reduce the amount of time and money spent on my bachelor’s degree:
Use the College Level Exam Placement (CLEP) tests to cover as many prerequisite classes as possible
CLEP is run by Collegeboard.org and they provide a cheap way to get some credits out of the way. I spent a lot of time studying and building my knowledge up in other subjects so I could simply take a CLEP exam and get credit.
The exams aren’t free, but at $85, they’re still cheaper than even a community college credit. Plus, you won’t have to sit through the class. Just make sure that your potential institution accepts CLEP credits.
Do your best on math and reading placement exams
Almost all colleges have the option to take a placement exam. When you go back to school, make sure to take advantage of this.
Most kids gloss over these, but as an adult student, you need to take these exams seriously.
Testing out of basic English and placing into the highest level class available can save you thousands of dollars and an entire semester’s worth of classes.
Take advanced placement (AP) exams
When I was going back to school, I ran into an interesting challenge. Some of the schools I was interested in didn’t take CLEP. However, they would take AP credits. Even though I wasn’t in high school, I didn’t let this stop me from figuring out a way to take the exams.
I messaged every AP coordinator in my area that I could find after using this site to find them. I explained to them my age, situation, plan, and my level of preparation. I think I messaged maybe 10. I remember 2 got back to me: one to tell me that it wasn’t possible because I’m a man and they’re an all-girls school, and another to tell me that she would allow it.
I sat for the AP exam in both physics and calculus, after preparing for them extensively. I was a 27-year-old man, in army uniform (I had National Guard drills that afternoon), taking the test in a room full of high school students.
Unfortunately, I didn’t score high enough to grab credit for anything, but it did teach me a valuable lesson: most of the rules and limitations are only suggestions. I don’t know if I’m the only adult student who thought of taking the AP exams to get credit, but based on everything I read and research, I’m likely one of the only ones to ever go through with it.
See what credit is offered for SAT and SAT II scores
I came across some schools that offered credit if you achieved a certain score on the SAT or SAT II. There are no rules that say you can’t take these exams as an adult. As long as you pay Collegeboard.org their money, they don’t even care if you show up for the exam.
If your degree program offers credit for a certain score on any of the SAT exams, I strongly recommended picking up a study book and registering for the exam. You can save yourself a lot of money and time if you’re willing to do the work and take the tests.
Take classes online if you can
I once took a public speaking class online. I didn’t want to take the class, but it was the most insidious type of school requirement–the type that the school won’t accept any transfer credit for. So I had to take it. The good news is that online classes are notoriously easy for the most part.
You can find the answers online to many of the homework and test questions. Am I advocating you cheat? Yes, because in the real world, you look up answers to problems you can’t solve.
Also, challenging classes don’t exist online for this very reason. Or if they do, the exams are proctored in person. But seeing as how the university system is still making students pay for classes that aren’t relevant to their field of study, we need to get past these classes as quickly and painlessly as possible.
If you feel bad about approaching irrelevant online classes in this manner, just remember: were it not for these classes, you could finish your degree in half the time at likely a fourth of the price.
They’re basically robbing you. I hope that puts your conscience at ease.
Talking to professors at your school
During my return to school, I took a semester off to focus on boxing.
I was worried about falling behind on my graduation trajectory, so I talked to my professors about studying on my own, taking the final exam, and getting credit for the exam.
They told me that as long as I didn’t communicate with them about academic matters during the semester, then I’d be able to take the final exams and get credit for the class.
I got them to give me the Powerpoint slides for the semester (the classes were Thermal Dynamics and Quantum Mechanics) and they sent me on my merry way. Complications came up and I never followed through, but I got the ok (in writing). This was yet another sign to me that the rules are flexible IF you’re willing to work.
The main lesson from this section is that if you’re willing to ask questions, not make assumptions, and not take “rules” at face value, then you can save a lot of time and money. You may think of other things I didn’t mention on this list to help you get ahead and finish your degree program faster and cheaper than most students.
[Note: Every suggestion in this section works because, for the most part, grades don’t matter. Don’t kill yourself trying to be the best student or get the best grades. Just pass the class. As an adult, you should know by now that grades don’t matter. Only how you perform in the real world.]
4. The life experience and perspective advantage
When I first tried to get my degree, I was not emotionally ready. There is no way around it: I should not have gone to college.
I was an 18-year-old who’d never left home before and fell into the drinking and partying crowd. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized how typical this path is for a lot of high school graduates.
When you’re an adult college student with a little bit of life experience, you aren’t interested in many of the distractions that plague most students. As an 18 year old, I regularly missed class because of a hangover or didn’t study because I wanted to party. As a 30-year-old, it would just be weird if I was out drinking with my classmates.
Your reason for being in school is different than your classmates. Many of them are just there because they’re expected to immediately follow high school with college. You’re there with a definite purpose.
When I was in school, I was simultaneously a college student and:
- Boxing professionally
- Drilling for the Army National Guard
- Running my website, writing for my blog, and speaking
I was able to handle all of this because of my superior time management.
Despite being busier than most people (and definitely busier than most students), I was able to manage my time and energy because I didn’t waste them on anything that didn’t contribute to my goal.
If you’re worried about how you’ll manage all the work and your other responsibilities, then you’ll have to get creative. Lean on friends and family to help. Eliminate all distractions that do not contribute to your goal.
Once you do this, you’ll be surprised at not only how much help you’ll be able to find, but how much time you have once you get rid of everything that’s not helping you finish school.
A recap of things you should know before returning to school at 30 years old
- Make sure the degree program is worth it
- Figure out how you’ll pay for college
- Do coursework as quickly and cheaply as possible
- Use your life experience and life position to your advantage
A lot of going back to school is about hustle, grit, and seizing opportunities.
If you want it badly enough, you’ll get it. Everything on this list comes down to being motivated and working hard.
Remember: no one ever improved their life by approaching things with low intensity and just going through the motions. Good things come to those who hustle. Stagnation stays with those who wait.
As always, the rest is up to you.