Going Back To School When You're Over 40, 50 or 60

Are you considering going back to school? If you're over 40 it may have been years since you've studied anything in a formal classroom setting. Maybe you just want to keep your mind sharp. Perhaps with the shifting state of the economy you are considering ways to strengthen your resume to achieve greater financial security. Or, are you being drawn to the vibrant college environment with its variety of viewpoints and social opportunities?

Whatever your reasons for considering continuing your education, it can be a difficult, even intimidating step to take, but one that may well be worth it. How will you handle the cost of tuition? Is there financial aid out there for you? Do people over 40, 50 or 60 really belong in a setting dominated by undergraduate students in their late teens and early twenties? Fortunately the situation is far different from what you may imagine. It is becoming much more common for people who spend years in the workforce, or who take years off to raise children, to decide to go back to school.

What Type of School is Right for You?

The easiest, and often cheapest, back-to-school option for "non-traditional" students, which includes the over 40 crowd, is often to enroll in a community college. Anyone who lives in the community can enroll to take courses at a price much lower than a more traditional university. This can be an excellent way to take a few classes close to home. You'll get a feel for the college environment while earning college credits. Once you are comfortable with attending a community college, you may decide it is the right environment for you, or you may decide to continue your education at a larger university. To a great degree which school you attend will be based on your location and ties to the community, or on your interest in relocating. And now there is even the growing opportunity to get your degree or take continuing education classes at home on line.

Campus Life for Older Students

It's a good idea to look into the social environment of the schools you are considering. Some schools focus on full-time students, and schedule courses almost exclusively during daytime hours when older people may be unable to attend classes. Other colleges and universities run special programs to ensure their schools are viable options for older students. For example, Sweet Briar College in Virginia runs the "Turning Point" program which is only open to students over the age of 24 (it doesn't matter how far over) who have been out of higher education for at least four years. This includes a separate admissions process and access to financial aid.

There are also schools and programs that focus their attention almost entirely on less traditional students. Numerous small career training schools across the country design their schedules around making classes available at hours when adult workers are most likely to attend.

Two helpful blogs to check out if you are thinking of returning to school after a long time off are: The Non-Traditional Student Blog non-traditional-students.blogspot.com and the Older Non-Trad Student oldernontradstudent.blogspot.com.

The Enrollment Process

In most cases, if you are going back to the same school you attended as an undergraduate the enrollment process is fairly straightforward. They will have records of your grades. You will not need to deal with SAT or ACT scores or high school transcripts. If you are going to a different school you will need to have the former school transfer information. If you have not attended college and are starting off as an undergraduate freshman, you will need a high school transcript of your grades. Your previous grades are the primary consideration for acceptance. Regardless of how stellar your work experience may be it will not carry a great deal of weight in the enrollment process. It is best to speak with the administration office of the schools you are considering to determine their exact needs, particularly if you anticipate having difficulty securing the required documents.

Financial Aid for Mid-life Students

Student loans and state assistance: Older students are often able to get significantly reduced tuition for accredited classes if they are state residents and meet the age and income requirements. $15,000 annual income is a typical threshold for tuition discounts for accredited classes. Most student loans are available to all students, not requiring that you be young in order to qualify. They may be affected by other considerations, such as whether you already have a degree. Some schools only offer financial aid programs for the first bachelor's degree; others waive the restrictions if the student is an adult who is returning to school to earn a second degree in preparation for a career change. Your income will certainly be considered in the years leading up to when you enroll. A great resource for state-by-state information for senior education and costs is seniorresource.com/senioreducation.htm.

Federal aid programs: These do not have age restrictions. Pell Grants are often given to non-traditional students, more so than private scholarships. But a student who has already earned a bachelor's degree is no longer considered an undergraduate student, and is therefore ineligible for the Pell Grant.

Scholarship and fellowship programs: Most do not have age restrictions. Check out FastWeb.com for a scholarship database of over 50 awards that have a minimum age restriction of 30 years or older. There are more than 230 awards for those over 25 and nearly 2,000 awards with no age restrictions.

Additional resources: If you are currently working, you may have other resources to tap to help pay for continuing education. Ask your human resources department about the availability of tuition assistance. Seven out of eight large companies provide some sort of tuition assistance. To get financial aid you may have to agree to continue working for the company for a number of years. You may also be required to maintain a minimum grade point average.

Don't overlook the other financial benefits you can receive as an enrolled college student, including free or very low cost medical visits and dental care, free cultural events, childcare, mental health counseling and many more services. But don't expect discounts on other expenses, such as married student housing or family health insurance.

Tax Breaks: When you enroll in college you may be able to get a break on your income taxes. Programs such as the Hope Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and the American Opportunity Credit can potentially take thousands of dollars off of your tax bill if you qualify. Tuition and fees can also often be used to reduce your taxable income. The financial aid office of the school you want to attend should be able to give you guidance about these programs. If your tax situation is at all complicated it's always wise to consult a tax professional before making any irreversible decisions.

Take Advantage of the JobPlacementCenter

Schools know they are often judged on their ability to help their students find jobs after graduation. To improve the chances (and improve the statistics that they'll quote to prospective students), they run career centers to help students write resumes, coach for interviews and help identify job opportunities in individual fields. Every type of school typically does this, including community colleges and less traditional career training schools. Job placement centers also post available job listings to help you find work in your field of interest before or after classes, or during the summer. As you near graduation the listings for career opportunities can offer valuable leads for your job search, as can the staff and volunteers who work in the job placement center.

Learn for Free - Earn Credits without Breaking the Bank

Many state universities, and some private universities, have policies of either waiving tuition for senior citizens or offering greatly reduced rates. If you live in Virginia, for example, depending on your income you may qualify to have the tuition waived. Considering the amount of money that this can save you, it's well worth your time to check with the admissions office of the schools in your area to find out whether you qualify for this type of program.

There are also other free training programs available, some of which are supported by local and government programs designed to help displaced workers find a new career. For example, the BidwellTrainingCenter in Pennsylvaniabidwell-training.org offers training and career placement to people living in the area completely free of charge. Your local employment offices and libraries should be able to help you find out about free or discounted training and career placement opportunities in your community.

Learn for Free - Keep your Brain at the Top of its Game!

If your goal is to learn about a subject, without receiving college credit, you may be able to "audit" classes for free or at very reduced prices. For example, legislation in Ohio enacted in 1974 has mandated that state-supported colleges and universities permit people 60 and older to attend classes on a non-tuition, non-credit, space-available basis. People over 60 can sign up for "Ohio State Program 60" one or two days before the start of classes, to ensure there is ample room for enrolled undergraduates. While auditing a class, the student has the option to take, or not take exams, write papers or complete other class work. Depending on the state, the age threshold for free class auditing is typically 60, 62 or 65 years of age.Some schools also offer the choice of taking continuing education courses exclusively for "mature" adults (often 50 and older). They usually run four to eight weeks and may or may not offer credits. Both options offer the opportunity to get back into college life, build your knowledge and meet new friends with similar interests. Also see below for some mind-boggling free on-line programs.

Taking Classes On-Line

The web offers a wealth of college and university on-line bachelors and graduate degree programs, as well as enrichment classes. This can be an especially important option for homebound seniors or those who live a distance from a college or university. In many cases scholarships, grants, discounts, college loans or other financial aid may still apply. Make sure, however, before enrolling in an online degree program that you determine that the college or university is accredited.

Free On-Line Learning Opportunities

Some of America's most prestigious universities invite you to sit in on lectures on-line, free of charge. Open Yale Courses provides a wide variety of videos of actual course lectures, everything from psychology classes about dreams to lectures on astronomy, history and literature. Check out the free on-line course list at oyc.yale.edu/courselist.com. Another amazing resource for free college classes is AcademicEarth.org. On this site you can stream lectures from some of the country's top universities including Princeton, MIT, Harvard, UCLA, Columbia, Michigan, Northeastern, NYU, Oxford, Stanford and Berkeley. The eclectic course list truly offers something for everyone, and at the price (free) and the convenience (at home) this is one of the best learning opportunities you will find.

If you are looking to improve your computer skills there are also a number of courses you can take at no charge on-line. Education-portal.com offers free computer courses and web design, as well as finance, marketing, foreign languages, music lessons and more. Trainingcenter.com also offers free interactive training courses, where you can learn at your own pace. Microsoft offers free online training courses for Excel and Powerpoint at office.microsoft.com/en-us/training/CR100654571033.aspx.

YouTube youtube.com is also a resource to tap if you are interested in learning a certain skill or technique. Thousands of individual instructional videos walk you through the step-by-step process of nearly everything imaginable, from building a website to cooking a lobster to installing windows to playing bagpipes. The quality and content widely vary from absolute amateurish to professional, so it may take quite a bit of effort to find videos that will best serve your purpose. When you do, be sure to bookmark them for future reference and to pass on to friends.

Whatever your motivation or situation, continuing to learn is vital to keeping your mind sharp, while maintaining your ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way. Whether you choose to go back to school to advance your formal education, or decide to audit free classes to learn more about a specific topic, or choose to watch interesting on-line lectures, the key is to mentally challenge yourself every day in every way possible.