Over 50 and Back to School
by Alia Curtis
One of the most pressing questions often heard about returning to school after age 50 is one of practicality: is returning to school practical for someone who should be considering retirement? The truth is that today, the security of retiring with a substantial income, worry- free housing, and the good life deserved after being employed for a lifetime is non-existent for many. Instead you are often faced with forced early retirement, job replacement, unemployment, and a market requiring skills you simply don’t have. The question of age practicality becomes moot because age does not determine practicality and retirement does not guarantee financial security.
The decision has to be based on survival. Viewing your situation on the grounds of survival clarifies direction, and a more practical question can be considered, “How can I survive comfortably as I progress into my retirement age?” If survival involves brushing up old skills or relearning new ones, returning to school is a clear-cut, confusion free decision. So the next question is, “Where do I start?”
You start at the beginning.
1. Be prepared to do research. Specific information is mandatory. Research what is required on your present job that will enable you to compete with the new generation. For example, the public school system is changing dramatically. In some areas, teachers that have been on the job for years have
to reapply for their positions. The new trend is charter schools and the demand for future teachers is skills that will rescue the student that has fallen through the cracks. These skills require techniques that improve communication between student to student and teacher to student. New approaches to assist learning will be in demand. A long-term teacher could research the higher learning institutions for degrees or certifications that will make her/him more marketable. If you are not employed, research the job market; find out what the top jobs are and what skills the employers require. If you are not sure what direction you want to go in I would suggest reference books like Cool Careers for Dummies, by Nemko Edwards, or consult your local library or online bookstores.
2. Having assessed the required skills, research the institutions of higher learning that offer degrees or certifications that teach or enhance those skills. You can request a syllabus in many cases and compare the curriculum and prices to determine which is best in terms of your needs. Many institutions have Web pages that answer questions concerning curriculum, admissions, financial aid, location, housing, contact information and/or scheduling. You can choose between distance learning or physically attending a college or university. If you are not computer savvy, your local library will provide you with that information. 3. Having found the institution of your choice, research the admission requirements from their brochure or Web pages and familiarize yourself with application forms. Many downloadable forms are available online and to review or practice filling them out makes it easier to prepare for the paperwork that is required.
4. Many perspective students will need financial aid. After determining what the cost of your education will be find out if the institution offers financial aid in the forms of grants, scholarships and/ or loans. It is best to familiarize yourself with financial aid applications and their deadlines. You can review the downloadable forms on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Web site. Reading and practicing filling out the forms clears some of the confusion in the application process. Applying online is efficient and convenient and directions are given step by step. It cuts down time in the personal financial aid application process. It clearly defines deadlines and once you have applied, it files and records your application. If you need to reapply all of your past information is available accessed by a personal PIN number.
5. Besides federal and state student aid, there are monies available for both graduate and undergraduate school in the form of scholarships and fellowships according to your area of study. Time spent in gathering that information could contribute hundreds or thousands of dollars in reducing your education fees. Need-based grants and merit awards are also offered by the institution. Be prepared to take out loans. Remember that you are investing in skills and information that will enable you to compete in a fast moving, high paced, youth-oriented environment. The financial aid department of any institution or a student loan officer at your local bank will give you all the information you need about low interest loans and repayment.
6. Once you become a student, time management is a vital practice that will determine the ease or difficulty in approaching your studies. Make a schedule and stick to it. It is not impossible for the older adult to successfully juggle school with work. Some institutions have degree programs that require attendance only on weekends. This can be a very convenient schedule for those who choose to work while they are attending school. Others have
evening courses, or distant learning or online courses. The Web pages of the distant learning institutions state if the school is accredited and by whom. There are many types of program schedules that make it plausible for an older adult to re-enter school.
Set your goal for success, know that you can achieve, and above all enjoy the rejuvenation that results from the opportunity of starting over. This is by no means an easy task. Consider it an adventure. The peace of mind in knowing that you can compete in your present work situation or be marketable in a future work situation is so much easier than the task of accepting the myth of old age, dependency and defeat. Change can be frightening and full of challenges, but it is also necessary and rejuvenating. Go forward with the security of the wisdom of your years to discover the “you” at this point of your life.
Alia Curtis completed her undergraduate work in 1973 and thirty-one years later had to make the very difficult decision to go back to school. She recently completed her MA Degree in Writing, and has taught Grammar, Creative Writing, and English as a Second Language at the University of Pittsburgh, Dominican College, Sierra High School, and BAYCAT (a community based Arts and Technology School for underserved children and adults).