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10 Tips for Going Back to School at 50 

May 22, 2023

By the time a person reaches 50, they have accumulated decades of invaluable life experience—a major asset when returning to school to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree. As the saying goes, “It’s never too late to make a new start.” 

Adult learners may be surprised to learn that going back to school at 50 is not uncommon and that many older students earn their degrees for a variety of reasons. Whether you want to change careers, finish a degree program they may have started years ago, or pursue a lifelong love of learning, there’s no age limit for self-improvement. Through higher education, you can also hone the soft skills that benefit you in nearly all aspects of life. From technology and time management to research and improved communication, this type of personal development will remain with you long after you earn your degree.  

A person can choose to change the direction of their life at any age, and at 50, most people will have the determination and self-awareness to forge a new path. We’re always growing and learning, and if you’re in your 50s and planning a return to school, here are some useful suggestions to help you achieve academic success. 

1. Find the Right University

For adult learners, one of the first steps toward earning a college degree is finding the school to fit their needs. Identifying the right degree programs for non-traditional students, including those in their 50s, involves evaluating factors such as cost to attend, schedule flexibility, and resources available to older students. 

Enrolling at an accredited college or university is critical, as potential employers are likely to feel more confident about hiring a candidate with the right skills and knowledge for the role. Accreditation provides quality standards for an educational institution or program and boosts public trust and confidence about the degrees, programs, and coursework a school offers.  

Reach out to prospective schools to ask questions and share concerns if you’re undecided about which college or university to attend. Academic mentors can provide useful insight into a university’s programs and can help identify available resources and support services that meet your individual needs. 

2. Find the Right Program

If you’re in your 50s and giving thought to going back to school, knowing what area to study may seem daunting. With so many interesting disciplines and majors to consider it’s important to make a choice based on your defined goals and your own research about the options available. 

For older students, flexible class schedules can be important, especially if you have a family and plan to continue working while studying. Online programs may be a good fit, especially if a school is able to offer coursework that allows you to study at your own time and pace, and within a defined timeframe. 

Universities like WGU create programs with working professionals in mind and can be an ideal choice for busy older students looking to gain the skills and knowledge needed for career success. 

3. Online vs. In-Person Classes

Earning a college degree has never been easier, and most adult learners benefit from having the option to attend school online or in person. While not all universities offer online classes, there are a variety of degree programs available entirely online. The benefits of online classes include the ability to study around a flexible schedule, affordable tuition, and the ability to earn a degree much more quickly than a campus-based program will. This education model can be an ideal way to earn a degree for busy parents and workers. 

In-person classes, on the other hand, can be a better option for those who prefer more direct, hands-on, or face-to-face learning opportunities. Regardless of their preference, a student should decide based on factors such as their interests, goals, lifestyle, and what works best for their schedule.  

4. Seek Resources for Older Students

To advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in higher education, many accredited colleges now offer more resources for nontraditional students, including older students returning to school. Adult learners can make the transition back to school easier and less stressful by utilizing skills workshops, learning centers, counseling or tutoring services, transfer credit programs, peer groups, and more. 

 As you take steps toward returning to school, consider learning if the college you plan to attend provides preparatory courses or offers financial aid or tuition assistance programs for returning or older students. 

5. Start Your Admission Process Early

As with most things in life, preparation is key, and older students should begin the admission process as early as possible. Students in their 50s will need time to become familiar with admission procedures or may need to take additional time to ensure that college credits and previous test scores transfer to their new school and degree program. 

Prepare by having your transcripts available from previous undergraduate programs. Allow yourself enough time to gather important documentation for the registration or admission process. Speaking with a university admission counselor may eliminate some of the worry and uncertainty associated with returning to school.  

6. Research Grants and Scholarships

The high cost of tuition can be a concern many older students face as they embark upon the journey of earning their college degree. Fortunately, there are many local and national grants and scholarships available, often exclusively, to nontraditional students, including students in their 50s. 

Rather than spending their savings on a degree, students should explore financial aid programs that make going back to school more accessible. Contact your university’s financial aid office to complete a FAFSA application and ask about funding opportunities or research state-sponsored grants and scholarship programs for older adult learners.  

Examples of grants and scholarships for non-traditional and adult students include:

  • Alpha Sigma Lambda Scholarship: Adult undergraduate learners attending a school with an active Alpha Sigma Lambda chapter are eligible to apply. This scholarship is awarded annually in May, with award amounts of $2,500 or $3,000. Applicants must have completed at least 24 credits of coursework with a minimum 3.2 GPA. 
  • American Legion Auxiliary Nontraditional Student Scholarship: This scholarship is open to members of the American Legion, Auxiliary, or Sons of the American Legion. Applicants have a March deadline to apply each year and must attend a two-year or four-year school or be enrolled in a certified, trade, professional, or technical program. The award amount is $2,000. 
  • The Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education Scholarship Program (ANTSHE): Offering four annual scholarships to nontraditional students, ANTSHE applicants must be at least 23 years old and meet one additional requirement, such as having low-income status or military service experience. Application deadlines and award amounts vary. 
  • Osher Reentry Scholarship Program: Funded by the Bernard Osher Foundation, this scholarship program supports older students with a cumulative gap in their undergraduate education of five or more years. Applicants need to demonstrate financial need and the willingness to participate in the workforce upon graduation. Deadline and award amount vary. 
  • WGU Opportunity Grant: Created for individuals who are ineligible for traditional state and federal funding under FAFSA, WGU offers the Opportunity Grant for new students to earn a bachelor’s degree in any of the online university’s four colleges. Award amount $10,000. Application deadline is June 30. 
  • Back to School Scholarship: Funded by WGU, this scholarship is awarded to new students or returning graduates pursuing an eligible degree program (bachelor’s or master’s) in any of the online university’s four colleges. Application deadlines vary, must have applied for admission to WGU. The award amount is up to $2,500. 

7. Take Care of Yourself

Your physical and mental health can have a significant impact on your academic success, and prioritizing your well-being is critical to returning to school as an older student. Managing the demands of work, education, and family can be overwhelming for anyone, but students in their 50s should take extra care of themselves to adapt to changes and recover from potential setbacks while in school. 

Academic activities including attending classes, note taking, and studying require energy and stamina, and self-care is an effective way for older adult learners to reduce stress, avoid burnout, and maintain or enhance overall health and well-being. Some suggestions for taking care of yourself include:

  • Getting at least eight hours of quality sleep.
  • Creating a routine you enjoy. 
  • Preparing nutritious meals for yourself. 
  • Avoiding stressful situations.
  • Allocating enough time for activities that make you happy.
  • Staying in touch with trusted friends, family members, or a mental health professional.
  • Engage in social activities and have people to talk to. 

8. Be Aware of Time

Practicing effective time management is a critical skill for busy adult learners. Often, school can seem more challenging because of poor activity planning or assuming you can manage everything all at once. 

Setting aside enough time to study and complete schoolwork is just as important as making time to enjoy leisure activities by yourself or with friends and family. Establishing a balance between academics and daily life is not only important for your health and personal relationships, but it can also improve your productivity and help you feel more engaged while in school. 

Use exams as milestone markers or create smaller goals to tackle every month.  Doing so allows you to celebrate smaller victories that lead you to your goal of earning your degree. As you begin seeing the progress you make every day, don’t forget to celebrate the milestones or to remind yourself you’re doing great. 

9. Nurture Your Support System

Being realistic about the challenges of returning to school as a 50-year-old can be beneficial when creating a support system to help you cope with the demands of a full schedule. It’s important to rely on others for support to help you feel encouraged, motivated, or to receive advice as you pursue academic success.  

Ask for help from family members when it comes to tackling daily household chores. If you need support at work, ask a colleague to fill in if you have to take personal time to study or to take a test. Returning to school is an individual endeavor, but you shouldn’t go through the entire experience on your own without the help of the people who know and care about you.

10. Allow Yourself to Make Mistakes

Going back to school at 50 means reminding yourself that nobody is perfect, that making mistakes is to be expected when you find yourself in a new situation or are juggling family life, work, and school. Expecting perfection in your life can often lead to disappointment, but prioritizing the things that need to be done well, such as studying or taking notes, sets realistic expectations about your back-to-school journey. 

Remember, the idea that your life needs to be perfect not only distracts you from your goals, but can lead to other negative effects, including draining your energy, leaving you feeling irritated and not allowing you to celebrate the small but important victories.  

If you haven’t been a student in a while, then the idea of daily coursework, studying for tests, and even note-taking can seem daunting. Like nearly everything else in life, you’ll learn and grow from new experiences and challenges. Remembering to redirect your energy and focus on all the things you’re doing right will help you stay motivated and confident about your decision to return to school. 

The Bottom Line

Going back to school in your 50s proves you’re ready to take on any challenge that comes your way. Whether your goal is to finish something you started or to discover new and exciting career opportunities in a competitive job market, earning a college degree is an enriching experience that can help you get ahead.  WGU offers flexible and affordable online degree programs that give you opportunities to discover the career path that’s right for you. 

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