Lifelong Learning: Back to School After 50

Going Back to School Feature

It’s never too late to go back to school. In a recent year, nearly half a million people aged 50 and above enrolled in degree-granting post-secondary schools in the U.S. Almost 55,000 of those knowledge seekers were over the age of 64.

Woman Raising HandGoing back to school can be a powerful way to update your skills in your current job or prepare for a new career. Personal reasons also play a part for many older adult students. Some plan on going back to school to get a degree they were not able to get before. Many, whether working or retired, enjoy the mental stimulation of being exposed to new ideas or mastering new skills.

A lot of schools are actively reaching out to older students. Whether you want to earn a degree, get a certificate, take a few individual courses for credit, or take non-credit classes for fun, you can find a welcoming hand to help you get started and to support you along the way.

Earning a Degree After 50

If you are going back to school to get a degree for personal satisfaction, go for it. However, if you are thinking of getting a degree for career reasons, first do a little soul searching. You have various options. Getting a certificate or even taking non-credit courses might be a faster and less expensive way to reach your goal. Start by doing some reading and asking yourself some questions to help clarify the best way forward.

If you decide a degree is your best choice, consider schools that have programs for what they call “non-traditional students” — a category that includes anyone who is not attending college right after high school. Schools with these programs help adult learners make the transition back to school and create a schedule that will work for their busier lives.

Professional Certificates

If you want the rigor of high-quality college classes, but want to focus on specific professional goals rather than working towards a degree, consider going back to school for a professional certificate program. These are designed for working adults. Often there is an option to do them entirely online. Top universities around the country offer these programs. A few examples:

  • Going Back to SchoolUC Berkeley Extension offers professional certificates in dozens of fields. Requirements vary according to the program. The Aging and Mental Health program, for example, is aimed at professionals working in the field, consists of 55 hours of instruction, requires classroom attendance, costs about $2,000, and can be done at your own pace, as long as you finish within five years. A program in editing can be completed online, takes about two years, costs about $2,900, and is designed for people who want to become editors or who are already editors and want to advance their careers.
  • Have you ever wanted to take Harvard classes without having to compete to get into the school? The Harvard Extension School offers a wide array of certificate programs, and you don’t even have to apply. Simply start taking classes. Cost is $2,750 per course, and certificates require completing three to five courses with grades of B or higher. You can take classes online or on campus, and subjects range from museum studies to nanotechnology.

Making the Transition to a New Career

Schools around the country are offering Encore Transition Programs. These programs are designed for older adults who want to embark on a second act career in the public service or non-profit sectors. Participants, whether still working or retired, are often coming from professional or executive roles in the for-profit sector. The programs help you explore your options, network with peers who are on the same path, gain access to resources, and learn how to apply your existing skills to the non-profit world.

The programs vary by school. For example, the University of Connecticut offers a four-month program that includes 64 hours of classes and 30-hour-per-week fellowships working for local nonprofit organizations.

Auditing Classes

If you don’t need the formality of a degree or a professional certificate, but you want the stimulation and social interaction of being in a brick-and-mortar classroom, consider auditing college classes. Many communities offer older adults (usually over 55 or over 60) low-cost or free access to classes as non-credit auditors. This is a great option for casual learners, as you are not required to take tests or hand in papers.

Many people in these programs take classes that are recreational. Art History is a popular choice, as are language classes for people planning to travel. However, many colleges allow you to sign up for any class, as long as space is available after tuition-paying students register. You could take career-oriented classes, as long as you didn’t need the credit — or the rigor that comes with passing tests and completing graded assignments.

Massive Open Online Courses

Woman HighlightingMassive Open Online Courses (more commonly known by the acronym MOOCs) are exceptionally convenient if you are busy or don’t want to travel to a classroom. These classes take place entirely online. Much of the instruction is conducted via videos, which are cut into short pieces you can watch whenever you have a spare half hour or so. Some courses are entirely self-paced, while others give weekly assignments you can complete any time at your convenience before the deadline.

Most MOOCs can be taken for free as non-credit courses. You can also pay to get verified certificates of completion. These certificates are not college credit, but they are useful if you need to present proof you passed the course. Professional certificate programs are also available that consist entirely of MOOCs.

Costs for the certificates are often much lower than in-person programs. For example, edX, one of the major MOOC companies, offers more than 150 certificate programs. Offerings include a three-course program in Corporate Finance from Columbia University’s MOOC program for $450, and a certificate in building chatbots, taught by IBM, consisting of three courses for $267.30.

In addition to edX, Coursera, another large MOOC provider, and individual schools provide even more options for online courses.

Life-Long Learning is the New Reality

You don’t have to live by the old linear plan of school, then work, then total leisure in retirement. Education for people over 50 is more accessible than ever. A mind-expanding course can be found a few clicks away and cost absolutely nothing. Or you might want to invest more time and money in a professional certificate or an undergraduate or graduate degree that can open new doors in your present or future career.

Programs designed especially for seniors can help you take the next step towards a rewarding second act. This time, you’re in control. The resources are there. How you choose to use them is entirely up to you.


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