School is Back in Session
There's no age limit on education
Illustration by Emma Moreman
At this stage of the game, you probably consider yourself a summa cum laude graduate of the School of Life.
But maybe you’re regretful about never attending college, or not finishing your undergraduate degree, or stopping before you earned a post-graduate diploma. Perhaps you’re thinking about going back to earn a certificate or degree that catapults you into a second or even third career, one that satisfies an unfulfilled passion or answers a calling.
There has never been a better time to hit the books.
According to a 2017 report by AARP, hundreds of thousands of senior citizens aged 50-plus head back to the classroom every year. Whether you’re a new degree-seeker or a lifelong learner, there is a myriad of options available.
Many are right at your fingertips — literally. Open your laptop, open your mind.
Welcome to the age of online education.
Southern New Hampshire University, one of the 18 accredited colleges and universities based in the Granite State, offers more than 200 undergraduate and graduate online degree programs, and is considered the fastest-growing online university in the country (though it also provides the more traditional classroom setting at its Manchester headquarters and satellite locations).
In 2016, Granite State College, one of the four institutions in the University System of New Hampshire, was recognized by US News & World Report (the gold standard among ratings services) as having the 79th best online degree program in the country. Even better, a US Education Department study found it to be the least expensive college in New England based on tuition and fees.
Moreover, the college’s mandate is to expand access to public higher education to older adults across New Hampshire. Students are allowed to transfer up to 90 credit hours earned at another accredited institution, and you might be able to earn credits for what you’ve learned outside the classroom as well. It’s tailor-made for seniors.
“There is certainly something to be said for people of this age wanting to go back to school to finish their degree or acquire a post-graduate degree,” says Dr. Mark Rubinstein, president of Granite State College. He adds that 4.4 percent of the school’s undergraduates and 6.4 percent of graduate students are 55 or older. “We like to think we remove those barriers that are unnecessary. There is still the rigor of the coursework, but with the things that we can help facilitate for the students, we’re glad to do that,” he says.
If you’ve always dreamed of being an Ivy Leaguer, then Dartmouth College in Hanover does, on rare occasion, accept undergraduate transfers. But be forewarned: Admission standards are every bit as lofty for senior citizens as they are for high school seniors. This highly selective school, ranked the 11th best in the nation by US News & World Report, has a stingy acceptance rate of only around 10 percent.
“There are no age restrictions for undergraduates at Dartmouth, but it is not common to have anyone enroll after their 20s,” says Diana Lawrence, the associate vice president for communications. “Actual statistics are not available, but there are very few older adults enrolled right now at Dartmouth. It is more common for older adults to enroll in master’s programs, and it’s fairly uncommon for them to enroll in Ph.D. programs.”
To the contrary, Antioch University New England, which is a private, exclusively graduate school in Keene, has many older learners in its three doctoral and 34 master’s degree programs, plus 11 certificate programs across the in-demand disciplines of psychology, counseling therapies, education, leadership, business and management, and environmental studies and sustainability.
“We think of ourselves as New Hampshire’s best-kept secret,” says Jennifer Fritz, the director of admissions. “We definitely have students who are in the 50-plus range, and a handful of them are over 65.”
Antioch, which prides itself on providing progressive education, is often a perfect fit for older adults interested in higher learning.
“Typically, our students over 50 are motivated by a passion left unfulfilled, or they have a calling,” explains Fritz. “They may have always been a natural helper, where people have sought them ought for counseling or as an educator, so this now is a natural fit for them as they pursue a second or third career at this stage of their lives,” she says.
Maybe you weren’t an academic superstar as an undergraduate, but don’t fret. Antioch takes a holistic, individualized review of applications for admission and evaluates your strengths, talents, applied knowledge and life experiences.
But once you’ve reached the serious decision to go back to school and have been accepted and secured financing — whether it be at one of the seven campuses in New Hampshire’s community college system, at a four-year institution or in graduate school — it can still be a very scary proposition.
Experts advise meeting with an academic counselor and ramping up slowly instead of attempting to carry a full load in your first session.
Antioch even has the “Try Us Out” option, giving students the chance to explore one class as a non-matriculated student to see if the university is right for their goals. Even better, the cost for this three-credit course, which is transferrable to a master’s degree program there or at another institution, is relatively low at just $1,000.
“This is very popular with our older students. It’s a nice way for them to get their feet wet and see if graduate school will be a good fit,” says Fritz. “For people who are looking for a second career, it’s a good way for them to start.”
Even so, just the thought of being back in the classroom, keeping up academically and competing with tech-savvy younger students — who seem to have emerged from the womb with a smartphone in one hand and a tablet in the other — can cause anxiety.
“Apprehensions are not specific to age,” says Dr. Rubinstein. “I think that for any student who has been away from formal education for any period of time, there is always the challenge of overcoming the inertia and wondering what other students are bringing [to the class] that they might not have. I think what most students realize when they arrive is that what they have in common is an interest and a motivation to learn and overcome that barrier.
“I don’t think it’s any different, no matter their age. Once they have gotten engaged with their classes, fellow students, and faculty, they suddenly realize that they can ride that horse. They haven’t lost that gift.”
Log On for Learning
School is in session for seniors, who are going back to class in record numbers. In fact, students aged 18-22 are no longer the majority of undergraduates, reports the University Professional & Continuing Education Association in Washington, DC. But what if you’d prefer an exceptional education purely for the love of learning? MOOCs might be your answer.
- Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, provide more than 2,000 courses online and are taught by top instructors from the country’s best national research universities.
- Coursera has 149 partners, including Princeton, Yale, the University of Chicago, Columbia, Duke, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins, which are among the top 10 in US News & World Report’s 2017 rankings.
- edX is a joint venture between Harvard and MIT, also ranked in the top 10.
- The rigorous courses are just like those taught on exclusive campuses, but are open to everyone.
- Many courses are tuition-free. Others have a nominal cost of $29-$99.
- Courses are from 4-10 weeks, and include recorded video lectures, assignments, community discussion forums, quizzes and a final exam or final project.
- Upon completion, a shareable electronic certificate of accomplishment is granted. No college credit is earned as there is no way to monitor online cheating.
- MOOCs are an extraordinary learning resource, but require a firm academic commitment to keep up with the complex material.
- The completion rate for the courses is 7-9 percent, according to a recent Harvard Business School study, which about parallels the acceptance rate for those top 10 schools.
- Still, MOOCs are considered the next “big thing” on the educational landscape.
- If you prefer learning that is more low-key, then check out the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Granite State College, which is part of a nationwide network of OLLIs.
- There are more than 200 local, non-credit courses for the 50-plus set, with no tests, grades or college prerequisites. That’s learning for the fun of it.