Higher education sometimes categorizes those who enter college after their late teens and early 20s as nontraditional students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students between the ages of 30 and 34 pursuing postsecondary education is projected to grow 2% between 2020 and 2028; enrollment growth among students 35 and over is expected to rise 11% over the same period.
Those outside the traditional college age bracket might consider enrolling in a degree program for a number of reasons. For the most part, these reasons are goal-oriented. Students may want to pursue a specific position or salary range that requires a college degree, or they may decide to change careers to an industry that prioritizes formal education.
Returning to school as a thirtysomething can help you achieve these goals, but there are certain things you should consider first. Pursuing a degree in your 30s usually means balancing academics with job or family responsibilities. Additionally, many older students worry they will feel self-conscious, sticking out among students still in their teens.
If you’ve had any of these concerns, here are some tips for going back to school at 30.
Explore your options
Before enrolling in a college degree program, you should get a feel for the different options that are available.
Researching programs will help you evaluate how well they match your needs and career goals. Comparing several different programs can illuminate differences in important factors such as scheduling flexibility, career development opportunities, and areas of curriculum specialization or emphasis.
The time you spend familiarizing yourself with different programs will also give you a better sense of the schools that offer them and how their missions and values align with your own.
Consider virtual options
An alternative approach is to look into completely online degree programs. This option offers a number of benefits for those going back to school at 30:
Online degree programs tend to be more popular among older or nontraditional students; if you’re concerned about feeling out of place, online learning may be the solution.
Typically, online courses offer more flexibility, allowing you to log in and contribute to class discussions on your own time. This is especially valuable for those balancing school with family obligations or full-time work.
Online learning lets you learn at your own pace.
As an adult continuing their education, you may not be able to uproot your life to move to a another city or state. With online learning, you can choose the ideal program for you based on duration, tuition, and other key factors rather than location.
Virtual learning may open up some surprising avenues for earning your college degree.
Research your financial options
Returning to school can expand your professional opportunities and earning potential, but paying for a degree out of pocket can present immediate financial challenges. Thankfully, adult learners have a number of options to help fund their education:
Employer-provided tuition assistance programs. An increasing number of businesses offer educational benefit programs that provide funding to help their employees pursue new credentials.
Federal student aid. There is no age limit on eligibility for federal student aid, including student grants and loans. Make sure to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by the annual deadline to see if you qualify.
Scholarships. Many scholarships are open to nontraditional students or specifically target adult or returning students.
Adult learners can also find opportunities to use their work experience to reduce tuition costs . Some universities allow you to translate your years on the job into college credit. Others accept professional certifications in lieu of prerequisite courses. Both options can save you time and money in the long term.
Take a look at your schedule
Going back to school at 30 may require a significant time investment. Before deciding to apply, be sure to take a long, honest look at your schedule and form a plan to handle your academic responsibilities.
Specifically, consider your current work and family obligations, and then reflect on how you will find the time to read assigned materials, attend classes, log into class forums, write essays, and study for exams. Also take into account that your workload will be heavier with exams and final projects at the end of each semester, while summer and winter break may give you some time to catch your breath.
As you look for ways to develop a manageable schedule, here are some tips that may prove helpful.
Designate a study space
Finding time and a comfortable place to study can be a challenge when you return to school in your 30s. Find a quiet space that you can set apart for studying, whether that’s a home office, a desk in the attic, a peaceful back porch, or (COVID permitting) a favorite table at the local library or coffee shop.
If you do end up studying in your own home, be sure you keep the designated area as clean and clutter-free as possible, minimizing your study-time distractions.
Develop a support system
Have a few people in your corner to help — trusted family members, friends, or even former teachers and mentors. Being able to count on people to help you tackle household responsibilities, especially during exam time, can be a big plus. More than anything, though, you’ll need people to encourage you and remind you why you’re seeking a college education in the first place. These are the people you can turn to if you start second-guessing yourself.
Brush up on your study skills
If you’ve been out of the classroom for a few years, you may worry that your study skills are a little rusty.
This may not be the case, as many older students find that they are actually better equipped for the classroom after some time away. But if you’re worried about your study skills, you can take a few basic steps:
Get to know your professors. Even a few minutes talking with them may give you a better sense of their expectations.
Check out online tutorials. Many professors film free videos on YouTube and other digital content platforms with advice on essay writing, note-taking, and studying for exams.
Take a study skills class. Many colleges and public libraries offer seminars that help older students learn about the latest study tools and techniques available to them.
Learn more about how to achieve your personal and professional goals
It’s never too late to achieve your goals, even if that means going back to school at 30. A good way to get started is by comparing different options for advanced, career-focused learning. Take your first step with the Pearson Pathways recommendation engine to find the right program for you.