Some Thoughts on Goals and Adult Education

Last night, Kris and I had dinner with Craig and Lisa. Craig is an architect. Lisa is a technical writer who has spent the past few years as a stay-at-home mother. (Lisa contributed two articles to GRS last year: How to find great deals on eBay and Career advice for the college graduate.)

Now that their children are a little older, Lisa has the itch to return to the workplace, to find some non-motherly pursuit to fulfill her. (She’s a great mom, by the way, but she does have other aspirations.) She’s now in her second term at a local university, studying to obtain a degree in graphic arts. She’s taking just one evening class per term, but she loves it. This is something she’s wanted to do for a long time, and she’s juggled her life to make it happen.

After Lisa finished telling us about her classes — art history and Photoshop — I mentioned that I’d been thinking about going back to school, too. “One thing about making my living as a writer,” I said, “is that it allows me freedom of hours. I can work when I want. I’m not sure I’m ready to take on another responsibility, but if I wanted to, I feel like I could pursue any degree I wanted: finance, computers, history.”

We talked about how different it is to go back to school as an adult. The four of us all attended the same small college (Willamette University) during the late eighties and early nineties, and we’ve each had some post-college education. Craig went to architecture school. Kris obtained a masters in teaching, and then took some additional science courses. A decade ago, I spent about a year studying computer programming. And now Lisa is pursuing art. College is much different as an adult than it is just after high school.

“I remember having non-trads in class and thinking they were strange,” Lisa said. “They seemed like they were from another world.”

“Yeah,” said Kris. “I always felt like they were out of touch, like they didn’t have any reference point for my life.”

“Right,” said Lisa. “But now I look at the students in my class and I realize it’s they who don’t have a reference point for my life. Now I realize that the non-traditional students did know what it was like to be young, but it’s impossible to know what it’s like to be older until you’ve lived it. I’m sure I just seem like a housewife to a lot of my classmates — they don’t understand everything that’s led to where I am now.”

“I never understood why non-trads actually went to college,” I said. “I looked down on them. But I was an idiot. Now when I see somebody our age going back to school, I think it’s awesome. I realize how difficult it is to do that, the sacrifices a person has to make for career, for family, for leisure. If you decide to go back to school as an adult, it’s a huge commitment.”

“I always wonder how they can afford it,” Craig said, and we laughed. It’s true that the financial commitment can be daunting. When you’ve been in the workplace for ten or twenty years, you have a greater appreciation for what it means to spend $5,000 or $10,000 or $20,000 on an education.

I’ve thought a lot about our conversation this morning. I realize that what I admire so much about non-traditional students is that they set goals and they pursue them. When most young adults go to college, they don’t have a clear conception of what they’re doing, what the alternatives are, and what sort of career they’d like to pursue. But when a 37-year-old mother goes back to school, she has an aim in mind. She has a purpose. Her goals keep her focused.

It’s this focus that I admire in Lisa’s return to college. Lisa’s situation reminds me of Donna Freedman, one of my editors at MSN’s Smart Spending blog. Donna is making a similar transition. She’s surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year while returning to school as a “mature student”. She writes:

How am I doing? Better than I ever have, thanks, despite grammar nightmares caused by the Spanish subjunctive in adverbial clauses of interdependence. I never knew life could be this busy, this overscheduled — or this rewarding.

[…] I already have everything I need and some of what I want. Some people call that “voluntary simplicity.” I think of it as living mindfully, i.e. deciding what’s really important and working toward it. For me that means finishing the degree, saving for a home and helping the people I love.

In other words, Donna has focus. She has goals, and these goals keep her happy.

I love to watch people pursue self-improvement, which is exactly what Lisa and Donna are doing. Perhaps it’s because I spent so long — fifteen years! — without goals of my own, but now when I see other people striving toward a destination, I cannot help but cheer them on.

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There are 44 comments to "Some Thoughts on Goals and Adult Education".

  1. StackingPennies says 21 April 2008 at 13:36

    This is why you were named most inspiring money blog!

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. KC says 21 April 2008 at 14:03

    I was both a tradition and non-tradition Master’s student. I got my first Master’s at 23 and my second at 33. I was pretty focused on the first one, but I wasn’t paying for it. I did well and I didn’t party much but I don’t think I had a career goal in mind and I wasn’t married so I had a lot of free time.

    My second Master’s I was married and I was paying for it (the degree, not the marriage). I was also working full-time and I was much more focused…on everything I was doing. Fortunately my job and master’s were directly related and I could sometimes do both at the same time (experience giving me ideas for papers and such). But I was focused and hell-bent on achieving success. It wasn’t hard, but it certainly took dedication to get everything done. And honestly I don’t feel like I missed out on anything as a non-traditional student. I had many of the same experiences I had as a traditional one.

    As for the money – I got my degree from an in-state school and I think it cost me a total of $11,000 tuition (this was 2003-05). It has more than paid for itself quickly. I was able to get management level jobs I wasn’t previously qualified for and was making more money. I don’t regret it for a second.

  3. Drew says 21 April 2008 at 14:16

    My wife, 32, is going back to school. We have three young kids (8, 6, and 2) and are not having any more unless her eggs figure out how to traverse an inch of missing and cauterized fallopian tubes.

    She never went beyond high school, instead choosing to work. After I graduated college, we spent three years living on my grad school stipend and her part time paycheck until I got a real job. Now that we’re done having kids and I have a stable career, she’s finally free to pursue her own career.

    In her “intro to college” course this semester, she was freaking out that she wouldn’t be able to handle college, like there was something wrong with her.

    But her instructor pointed out how unique her situation was. The instructor asked how many people in the class worked. About a third raised their hands. (My wife works half time.) The instructor asked how many in the class were married. About three raised their hands. The instructor asked how many in the class had kids. Only my wife raised her hand.

    My wife and I split time watching the kids. I work a salaried job in science/engineering, so I can pretty much set my own hours as long as I get my work done. Since my wife works second shift, I usually leave for work by 5 am so that I can be home to watch the kids before she leaves for work. Then I’m usually in bed before she gets home. Not to mention that my wife rarely gets a full night’s sleep because the 2 year old likes to get up when I leave for work, meaning she has to be up to make sure he doesn’t destroy the house. Oh, he tries!

    It’s hectic. It’s difficult. It drives us crazy most of the time. But it’s what she wants. And she gave up the opportunity to go to school when we first got married so she could support my sorry butt while I went to school, so I’m all for it. I figure she’s earned it. She’s fighting so many barriers that her 19 and 20 year-old classmates have never even considered. I never had much appreciation for the thirtysomething people in my classes when I was an undergrad. I do now.

  4. Miranda says 21 April 2008 at 14:21

    I went back for my Master’s two years after getting my undergrad. Even though I wasn’t that much older than the others, I still felt odd. I was one of four in my program with a spouse, and the only one with a kid. It’s interesting how life experiences can change you.

  5. ben says 21 April 2008 at 14:29

    I’m 32. Married with one kid. I’m in my 11th year teaching, and I’m finally working on a masters degree after years of wanting to and putting it off because it “wasn’t the right time.” There never is a right time when you go back to school. You’ll always be juggling a career and possibly family.

    I wish I could go back and visit myself at age 18-22 and tell myself to be more goal oriented that first time through college. I’ve found that even though it’s a bit more challenging to balance the various things in my life, school is much easier now because I’m wiser and more driven on achieving.

    I was the guy as an undergrad who thought the non-trads were a bunch of suck-ups and brown nosers cuz they were always trying so hard. I wish I would’ve been smart enough to steal a page of experience from them.

  6. Jenny says 21 April 2008 at 14:41

    I spent the afternoon researching the required courses and costs of a masters. After seeing how much it would be and how long it would take I began to have doubts about whether I really wanted to do it. This article is just what I needed to keep me on track. I have to take these classes to have the career I want (school principal), but don’t want to part with the $10,000 it will cost. Just when I needed it it, some encouragment to keep me on track. Thanks for the post.

  7. Sarah says 21 April 2008 at 14:48

    I work in continuing education for adults at a large state school (and I absolutely adore my job, by the way, but that’s not my point here). You’re absolutely right, the courage and dedication required of nontraditional students is phenomenal, and it leaves me in awe every day. But I wanted to say that when you include part time students in counting enrollment (rather than just full time enrollments, which is what most accreditation agencies count), then nontraditional students make up more than 50% of college enrollments nationwide. And I think that’s pretty cool.

  8. leigh says 21 April 2008 at 14:58

    my husband is 29 and going to college for the first time. he’s so grateful for the opportunity and excited. he approaches things very differently than i did in college, because he already has some experience in the fields of some of his classes.

    i also feel like we have everything we need, it’s just a matter of keeping it up for another year or so. we have some of what we want, but what we want above all is to complete our education.

  9. Donna Freedman says 21 April 2008 at 15:04

    I’ve been back in school since autumn 2005, and thus far have been older than the instructors in all but three of my classes.
    You get used to it.
    A number of my young classmates do work, and struggle to balance job, studying and sleep. However, they don’t have to work family into the equation, the way some of the other commenters do.
    When the students who DON’T work moan about how tired they are, I just give them that look that says, “You don’t want to have this argument with me, because I will win.” Dude, I go to school full-time, make a 50-minute bus commute in each direction, manage an apartment building, write the Smart Spending blog for MSN Money and help a chronically ill relative as needed. My daughter is getting married in less than three weeks (a frugal, homegrown celebration because she’s broke, too). The week after the wedding I’m part of the Undergraduate Research Symposium, presenting research with my group from the Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities. Finally, I’m struggling with menopause-related fatigue and what I can only describe as “brain fog.”
    But as J.D. noted in the article, I’m busy AND happy. I’m very aware of how blessed I am. I wouldn’t be getting nearly as much out of the university as I would have back when I was 18.
    Old people rule! We also make funny noises when we get up after sitting in lecture for an hour.
    — Donna Freedman

  10. Megan says 21 April 2008 at 15:39


    I’m intrigued by one of your closing comments. You mention that you went for 15 years without any real goals, did that stress you out?

    I’m still fairly young, mid twenties, and I don’t have any real solid goals. Sometimes I just feel like I’m wandering aimlessly, and it drives me nuts. I’m working as an engineer, which has helped me realize that I don’t want to be an engineer, but it doesn’t much help me figure out what my true passion is.

    I was just wondering if you felt anything similar to this and how you dealt with it.

    Sorry, kind of an off topic comment!

    • Megan says 23 June 2011 at 14:35

      Megan, I know exactly what you mean about feeling sort of lost and aimless in your mid-twenties. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to “do with my life,” and the only real goal I had was to move to Colorado to be closer to my family.

      Now that my husband and I have moved to Colorado (a year ago this week), we’ve managed to set some long-term goals, I *finally* have a “real” job (full-time, doing something I love, something that could turn into a career) and am feeling like I’m moving purposefully in a right direction, instead of just floating in limbo.

  11. SavetotheFuture says 21 April 2008 at 17:30

    Very inspiring. I’m in my early twenties and I am looking for my true calling in life. Seeing that people who have much more on their plate than I do have the courage to pursuit what they love, makes me want to do it as well. Blogs like yours JD, have inspired me to follow my heart.

  12. Kent Thune says 21 April 2008 at 17:47


    I highly recommend pursuing your Masters in Business. You’ll need to take the GMAT to enter but you can study for it and pass… Here are my reasons, based on personal experience, why you should pursue the MBA:

    1. Surround yourself with knowledge. According to studies, the average MBA student has an IQ of 110 to 120. The professors can be quite impressive, as well.

    2. An MBA will give you a well-rounded knowledge of business. My MBA gave me the skills and confidence to start my own business.

    3. The other students are inspiring and typically range in age from low 20’s to mid 40’s and beyond.

    4. Most grad-level professors are highly critical of communication skills, which will enhance your writing.

    5. Most classes require a large amount of reading, which will also enhance your writing. You will also find a treasure chest of blog post ideas.

    6. You will likely qualify for the Lifetime Learning credit, which is worth up to $2,000 per year, per student, every year.

  13. Mike D says 21 April 2008 at 18:06
    Thanks so much for this inspiring post. In 2006 I went decided to go back to university to finish my degree. Unfortunately the last time I was in school was 1997, so the College Secretary told me to apply to a smaller school and just transfer back after 2 terms.

    In my new school I was required to start from scratch since only subjects taken no more than 5 years ago would be credited. So there I was, practically a freshman again at the age of 29.

    3 terms and 84 units later I’m still in that ‘small college’, my original plan of tranferring back to my university set aside in favor of my present course (BS Info Tech majoring in Network Administration now as opposed to BA Art Studies before.)

    It certainly was strange to find myself back in school and the culture shock has yet to completely wear off. I keep getting mistaken for a 20 something, which helps, but I’m always quick to fess up to being 31. And it always gets me curious looks from the new friends I make.

    But so far there is a world of difference between the student I am now and the ‘student’ I was before. Sometimes I get self-conscious when I catch myself doing better than everyone else…I imagine my 18 year old self in the back of the classroom rolling his eyes at the out-of-place guy who actually has to exert ‘effort’. What I guess I understand now is that effort is necessary to make the most out of this experience and it was ridiculous of me before to take pride in being able to pass with the least amount of work possible. It was really just putting a positive spin into going through school half-heartedly and taking for granted all the resources being invested in me that never saw any kind of return.

  14. Wesley says 21 April 2008 at 18:45

    Hi JD, I’m in the same boat with Megan (sorta). I’m about to be 30, but I’ve already paid off all debts (including the mortgage, which is cool). Previously, all my goals were related to finance…this site helps immensely with that 🙂

    Now, I’m pretty much sans goals, and I’m feeling like the lack of motivation is hurting me…any suggestions for Megan and me? Arbitrary goals at this point seem useless to me, and prepping in excess for an unknown future seems like building the ark…daunting and unsure (and I haven’t heard any booming voices commanding me to do so yet).


  15. Liz says 21 April 2008 at 19:37

    It took me ten years and three children to get my BS. I encourage anyone who thinks about going back to school to do so. Learning enriches life in a way that money never can.

  16. KC says 21 April 2008 at 19:39

    Jenny – Definitely go back to get that degree so you can be a school principal. I suspect you’ll make that $10k back very quickly if not within a year. Besides being a principal would be so much more rewarding. You get to mold an entire school and lead teachers. When you are near retirement you’ll look back and laugh at that $10k tuition – it’ll be practially nothing compared to what you’ll be making then. Good Luck!

  17. Corey says 21 April 2008 at 19:53


    I’m in with Megan & Wesley. I’m turning 25 this year, work as a computer tech and know i don’t want to do that anymore. But i don’t know what i do want to do. Currently trying to Study after work but am finding it very hard and not 100% sure now that its what i want to study.

    Any advice?

  18. Frugal Dad says 21 April 2008 at 20:01

    I returned to school after my wife and I had our first child. It inspired me to better myself and get on a brighter career path than the one I was on. It was both the hardest, and most rewarding, thing I’ve ever done in my life. Yes, I felt like the non-traditional weirdo in class, but I wasn’t there to “fit in.”

  19. Mrs. Micah says 21 April 2008 at 20:11

    I’ve only been out of college for 11 months and I can already think of things I wish I’d done and reasons I might want to go back some day. It all makes so much sense, now.

    I think I started understanding it in my senior year when I’d finished registering for spring classes (including PF). I looked at them all and thought “Next semester, I’d like to take X and Y” and it suddenly hit me that there wasn’t going to be a next semester.

    In retrospect, I wish I’d taken a couple business courses, journalism (except the only prof who taught it was awful, so I made the right choice), sign language, and web design. There’s a course at the local community college on CSS, which I’m looking into. I just don’t know if it’d be WordPress-oriented enough, which is where I am right now.

    I think it’s great when older people go, either for the first time or to broaden their education. But I definitely didn’t used to understand.

    My 63-year-old Mom takes Latin classes so she can stay sharp as a teacher. She’s definitely the oldest person in her class, but the kids are all nice to her and the whole thing keeps her so positive despite everything.

  20. Dru Pagliassotti says 21 April 2008 at 20:44

    I’m a university professor, and I *love* having adult students in my traditional undergrad classes. Older students usually raise the bar for the rest of the class because they have more life experience and variety to draw on in class discussions, they’re attentive to homework and group project demands, and they really *want* to be there. Adult students have a great opportunity to show younger students that it’s never too late to pursue a goal.

  21. Funny about Money says 21 April 2008 at 21:46

    Having taught adult students for almost 10 years — until our campus started accepting freshmen and sophomores, our students’ average age was 32 — I can say that grown-ups ARE students. They want to be there, and because they’re paying to be there, they value what they’re doing.

    Traditional “students” are just plodding along on a treadmill, often because Dad & Mom said they have to, biding their time and working the system until they finally get out. Whatever that is, it ain’t what learning is about.

    Adult students are a joy to meet and a joy to teach. I wish all college students could be grown men and women. It would make higher education a lot more meaningful for everyone and a lot more valuable for businesses who hire college graduates.

    When my campus morphed into a four-year school and was overrun with 19-year-olds, I found another line of work. Kids are great and they’re enjoyable in a different way…but if I wanted to teach high school, I would have gotten a teaching certificate, not a Ph.D.

  22. J.D. says 21 April 2008 at 21:51

    Megan, Wesley, etc.

    Your question is perfect for a future post. Give me time (i.e. a few weeks) to formulate a response! 🙂

  23. Paul says 21 April 2008 at 23:38

    I am a full-time student, and work full-time in order to attain my undergrade with little to no student loan debt.

    It is definitely a challenge when I see so many of my peers going out partying and spending their student loan checks like it is nothing. However, I take solace in knowing where I will be financially when I’m in my 30’s and 40’s.

    Although, I’m only 24 with several years remaining before I complete my undergrad, I was wondering what people that have been going at for several years do to motivate them knowing that the outcome is 3-4 years in the future.

    I think that starting college, even at 21, has made me a more focused student because I realize that working a retail/hotel job is not where I want to be when I’m in my 40’s!!!

  24. Brandt Smith says 22 April 2008 at 06:52

    JD, thanks for another great post!

    My wife and I both have been non-traditional students. My wife went back to finish her BS in business. I have gotten both a BS in business and a BS in Elect. Eng. Technology.

    You are right that you are a bit of an outsider. That is good. You are there to learn. You are paying out of your own pocket and your family’s free time. You don’t have time to play and party. Also, if you are paying your own way good grades are critical. Most of the kids don’t understand that.

    Don’t get me wrong. I did make friends. The funny thing is that two out of three times it was with my instructor. The rest were with non-traditional students.

    The best thing is that I excelled. I would have flunked out if I attended right after high school. A decade later and I graduated with honors.

    My advice to any looking at going back to school is to do some sole searching first. Ask yourself:
    -What do I want out of life?
    -How will it help you achieve it? An MBA looks great on paper, but will it really help? Ivy League is cool, but is the added cost worth it? My experience is that HR is looking for the lack of a diploma so they can eliminate your resume. If you play the game right you bypass HR (but that is another topic).
    -Will your family support this? College costs $$$, but the biggest stress for us was on our time. Will your family accept losing you two nights a week and all day Saturday?
    -How much will it cost? Be honest, and be sure to include books, tuition, fees, lab and fees. Also look at the side expenses. You have less free time and will spend more money on eating out, dry cleaners, etc…
    -Can you afford it without taking on more debt? Do not borrow to go to college!
    -Go part time and keep working. Several years without an income during your prime earning years will be hard to overcome.
    -Look at alternative schools. Phoenix, Excelsior, etc…They cost much less. They are flexible, and you can often take classes when your have the free time. They understand non-traditional learners.

    I hope this helps. I’ve gone through this several times and hope I can make it easier for someone else!

  25. JimiSlew says 22 April 2008 at 07:03

    I taught “non-tradition” students once I got my master’s (when I was ~ 24) and what an experience. Those students were by far the most determined group of students ever. Sure, some didn’t always have specific goals but they wanted their degree.

    I would just like to add that most of my adult students were not driven or worried by the monetary cost of their education as much as I expected, in fact most were on a stipend from their employers, but the biggest cost to them was time. Time away from families, friends, etc. was the thing they missed and complained about the most. That was sacrifice.

    They sure taught that 24 year old professor a thing or two about dedication. Thanks guys.

  26. HollyP says 22 April 2008 at 07:12

    I know this is off-topic, but it makes me sad that you feel the need to state that your friend is a great mom, even though she wants to have a professional life too. When my husband was a stay at home dad training for a new career, everyone cooed over how wonderful it was that he was home with our children. And when he went back to work, no one felt the need to make a statement that “even though he’s working outside the home, he’s still a great dad.”

    Otherwise, a great post. When I was in grad school I realized that being older with life experience helped me get more out of my education. Even now, 15 years later, I want to go back and repeat the program because I am sure I’d get even more now!

  27. JH says 22 April 2008 at 07:45

    As a motivated young person who is less than a year out of university with an honours degree in applied science (aka engineering) I’m a bit annoyed by the patronizing tone this blog article presents when speaking about “traditional” students.

    In my experience, my classmates were indeed focused, and did indeed know what we were getting into and going after (who else sticks through four years of extra-loaded semesters and unforgiving exams).

    We had a few “non-traditional” students in some of my classes, and in general we didn’t give them a second thought… until some of them opened their mouths and spewed forth their “real-world wise” opinions and experiences as it related to the course (construction planning and management comes to mind), which at most times were flawed, and at the worst times a waste of our class time as these older students attempted to show off their real-world knowledge.

    I also take some offense to your musing that kids these days don’t appreciate what spending $5000, $10,000, etc on a post-secondary education means. I paid for my entire university education, and when you have only worked part time (excluding summer months) to save up for university, you bet that a student knows the true cost of tuition and living expenses.

    Sure, there are immature students in the college and university environment who go into post-secondary education just because it’s the assumed thing to do, and who have no direction. But as an exclusion to this stereotype, I felt it was necessary to speak up about the misconceptions in this article.

    That said, I say good for people who want to go back and get more education. I’m not trying to stop them, I encourage it. But I feel that both sides of this issue have their stereotypes about the other, and that is what I find unfair.

  28. The Restaurant Blogger says 22 April 2008 at 08:08

    I had a classmate who was 50 years old and it was his first time going to university. Everyone else was over half his age, but he didn’t care. Students were curious to why he would want to go to university when he was a highly successful restauranteur co-owning three fine dining restaurants in the city. The answer was he felt something was missing in his career and he needed to complete it and that was earning a Hospitality and Management degree. We saw how hard it was for him juggling work, school and family. At times his two young daughters would attend class because he could not get a babysitter. At the end it all paid off and he graduated with everyone else.

  29. Lauri says 22 April 2008 at 09:05

    Great post and really resonates with some life changes I’m planning right now.

    I’m 35 and about to have my first child in July (also, I’m a single mother by choice so on my own, though I have great extended family support). My career in city planning (in which I have an M.A.) has stalled out and right now I don’t see much advancement in what basically has become a career in office administration.

    I’m also itching to do more, be of more direct help with people.

    So I’m working on a plan to go to nursing school starting in fall of 2009. I had a meeting with an advisor at our local community college and she seemed very enthusiastic about this opportunity. I live in an area with a lot of retirees and the medical field is booming here.

    She reviewed my coursework from ages ago and we determined that many of my basic classes and social science courses would transfer, leaving me with a few biology courses and the core nursing curriculum. I’m planning to knock out a a few of the needed life sciences this coming school year (either taking a night course or online) and working my current job, while doing my best to save up as much money as possible.

    When I leave my job in a year my son will be a year old. I plan to pursue all financial aid possibilities, work part-time (I’m building up an at-home business currently to supplement) and my folks are very supportive and offering help those two years I will be taking nursing courses and doing clinicals.

    It’s a scary jump at this point with a small child, but I’m confident that I can do this — both for my future and his.

  30. mhb says 22 April 2008 at 10:07

    As both an “adult” grad student (OK, I’m only 25… I know I still have a lot to learn) and an aspiring adult-ed teacher (thanks to an experience similar to poster JimiSlew above), this is close to my heart.

    I did go straight to college out of high school, and I can sympathize with poster JH that some of the general statements being made about younger college students are unfair. When I was 19, I had two crappy paying part-time jobs and racked up a stack of college loans that I’ll be paying off for several years yet(part of the reason I read this blog). However, I still had free time and considerably less daily obligations than I now have, and I agree with many of the posters here that it is the issue of TIME, more than money, that makes a difference with older students. I work full-time and I’m married. My employer pays for most of my tuition costs, but taking the time away from family, friends and home has been a tough adjustment because that time was already limited by my work schedule.

    That having been said, it is so worth it. I am working my way toward a degree that will help me do my dream job, and I’m hoping to finish my master’s before we start having kids.

    All of you who are older than me and managing this with kids are really inspiring. Great post!

  31. JJ says 22 April 2008 at 10:33

    We had a few “non-traditional” students in some of my classes, and in general we didn’t give them a second thought… until some of them opened their mouths and spewed forth their “real-world wise” opinions and experiences as it related to the course (construction planning and management comes to mind), which at most times were flawed, and at the worst times a waste of our class time as these older students attempted to show off their real-world knowledge.

    As a callow undergrad, I, too, was sneeringly dismissive of the “real world knowledge” of my non-traditional classmates… until I got into the real world.

    From my current perspective, if I went back to school, I would most certainly not open my mouth unless I had something interesting and relevant to say. If the younger folk there did not appreciate the relevance of my remarks or find them interesting… oh well, their loss.

  32. Lisa says 22 April 2008 at 10:36
    JH, you’re right–some of the comments are a little hard on the motivation of the traditional college students. But I think if you look back into J.D.’s original post, you’ll see that our conversation doesn’t include anything derogatory about traditional students (yes, I’m the Lisa who had dinner with J.D. and Kris).

    Though it didn’t come up in our conversation, I’m incredibly relieved to be attending classes without the complications that come with being a younger student. I was recently talking with a traditional freshman woman who was debating about her major, trying to figure out how to graduate in four years, and juggling other personal commitments. College as a traditional student stereotypically comes with all of the extracurricular challenges of friendships, dating, living on your own for the first time, and possibly your first serious job (I freely acknowledge that there are exceptions to all of these).

    All that going on outside of class provides a different kind of stress; although my college years were fabulous ones, I’m quite glad to be taking a class purely for the sake of learning without the rest of the mix. Sure, I’m juggling a babysitter, homework, family free time, and such, but I have a stable, emotionally supportive environment that is far more comfortable than those “growing up” years.

    Everything has its challenges–and rewards. For now, it’s a pleasure to be back in school as an older student.

  33. Heidi says 22 April 2008 at 11:13

    I agree with “Funny” – my best students are the non-trads. It’s possible that I feel that way because I was a non-trad, too. Took me 10 years to get my BA and only two to get my MBA (I found that once I was an adult and took school seriously – ie: had goals – I really enjoyed it).

    I second the motion for an MBA – it was one of those change-my-life things. As soon as I pay off that debt, I’m thinking about a JD…

  34. JH says 22 April 2008 at 12:26

    As a callow undergrad, I, too, was sneeringly dismissive of the “real world knowledge” of my non-traditional classmates… until I got into the real world.

    From my current perspective, if I went back to school, I would most certainly not open my mouth unless I had something interesting and relevant to say. If the younger folk there did not appreciate the relevance of my remarks or find them interesting… oh well, their loss.

    Hi JJ,

    I don’t feel that I was callow in considering students who wasted my class time with useless input as an annoyance.

    I would like to mention (perhaps clarify) that those who had something meaningful to contribute to the learning environment in regards to real-world knowledge and experience were appreciated in my classes; I was addressing those individuals who liked to trumpet their worldliness with inane chatter that wasted our time. I felt that I made this clear when I said “…which at most times were flawed, and at the worst times a waste of our class time as these older students attempted to show off their real-world knowledge.” but perhaps this didn’t come across clearly.

    Lisa, perhaps the tone of this article did not mean to come off as patronizing, and perhaps I have become over-sensitive to the time-old habit of other generations looking down on the younger up-and-coming generations, but I felt that I should address how it came across to me. Thank you though.

  35. Gayle says 22 April 2008 at 13:26

    For Lauri, comment 29

    I went back to school for nursing at 37, and it has been very good to me. I made back every dollar I spent on tuition within 8 weeks after graduation.

    I am considering going back for my NP at the old age of 58. This is to prepare for transitioning into my “retirement career” of third world medical missions, which I have already started. I get frustrated by my lack of skills in certain areas. I would invite comments on this plan.

  36. Lauri says 22 April 2008 at 13:51


    You said…

    >This is to prepare for transitioning into my “retirement career” of third world medical missions, which I have already started.

    That’s exactly what I have in mind a few decades from now when the nugget I’m carrying is out on his own!

    And I’ve definitely got my eyes set on NP over time, too.

  37. Beth@Paydaytree says 22 April 2008 at 14:44

    I’m getting ready to graduate in May and I already have plans to return as an adult many years down the line.

    I often find myself envying the drive that adult students have. In fact, I sit next to a group of them in one of my classes this semester.

    I really am looking forward to going back.

  38. Serendipity says 22 April 2008 at 20:59

    If I went back to school (which I’d love to later in life), I think I’d experience the opposite of a lot of posters. I worked my tail off–way more than I had to–as an undergrad, because I felt that the course of my entire life hung in the balance. Now, I’d work hard, but I’d have a much better school-life balance, because I realize that while quality learning is essential, getting straight A’s is just not that important in my field.

  39. JP says 23 April 2008 at 06:48

    Great post!

    I received my Associates degree in 1984. I turned 50 this past February. For the last two years I’ve been working on completing my BS, and tonight I attend my final class. Next Friday I graduate Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science. Now you’ve got me thinking Executive MBA. Thanks!

  40. Debra says 23 April 2008 at 15:29

    It took me 26 years to complete my degree. So, I was a non-traditional student for most of my college career. The coolest thing that I noticed was that there was a large enough population of us re-entry students that I never felt like the old fossil out of place. I probably will take some classes in the Fall; just need two more to finish an A.A. in Spanish.

    Lisa’s story is very inspiring, and I wish her the best of luck with her pursuit. Being a full-time stay-at-home mother can be very rewarding, but there is nothing wrong with wanting to develop other skills. I don’t think that attending school or getting an outside job will diminish her desire to be a great mother.

    I have grilled J.D. in the past about what I considered to be biased comments, but in this case I don’t think that he was trying to infer that Lisa’s parenting skills should be judged negatively, because she wants to possibly work outside of the home away from the kids. I honestly believe he was used the adjective to describe how she feels about being a mother, and she also has other aspirations aside from being a homemaker.

    When it comes to gender role-fulfillment men get similar treatment in regards to familial responsibilities, too. I have often heard that “Bob is still a great dad or husband even thought he works many hours at the job.” Or they encounter gender discrimination if they decide to be homemakers instead of working outside of the home.

  41. Traditional says 24 April 2008 at 08:34

    The reason trads don’t like non-trads is that they tend to condescend to us. Don’t do that, and you’ll earn a lot more of our respect.

    Everyone’s life is hard at times. Don’t make yourself a martyr.

  42. Donna Freedman says 24 April 2008 at 18:04

    Since I did have one year of college 32 years ago and am now back in, I prefer to think of myself as a “re-trad.” 😉
    Traditional: I’m sorry that you’ve been condescended to, but believe me when I say that condescension flows in the other direction, too, e.g. younger students who assume that I wouldn’t know anything about a subject and are flabbergasted when I do.
    Frankly, I don’t really care whether I have your “respect.” While I have learned a lot from my younger classmates, and I’m grateful for that, my main focus is on academics rather than socialization.
    Finally, brace yourself for what you will no doubt consider another piece of condescension: Your comment that “everyone’s life is hard at times” is the kind of thing that you will likely blush about 20 years from now. A traditional student may be working part- or full-time and studying and, yes, worrying about college loans. But there’s NO COMPARISON between that and the much more hectic juggling act that non-traditional students with families must manage. It’s not just the sheer number of responsibilities, it’s the *quality* of the responsibilities: People with kids are not only raising the next generation, they are always, always, always on call. If you get home from work or school absolutely exhausted and are one day away from a final-project deadline, well, too bad: You still have to fix dinner, check homework, pay bills and all the rest of it. And you WANT to spend time with your kids. They’re wonderful! So you steal an extra hour from your studies, and pay for it by getting only four hours of sleep instead of five — for the sixth night in a row.
    And if your kid is throwing up all night just before midterms or finals? Not only do you not get to study, you also don’t get to sleep — and you’re sick, too, i.e. sick with worry about your child.
    I’ll give you a real-life example: A woman in one of my math classes had two kids (one of whom was in and out of the hospital with a congenital ailment), worked 25 hours a week as a pharmacy tech (busy every single second), and was struggling with a nasty divorce. She didn’t have the luxury of letting any of it go, even for a minute — but she still had to study, do homework and take tests.
    There are exceptions, I know. A traditional (20-year-old) student I knew had taken in and was “raising” her 14-year-old sister. She was also working part-time as a translator. An amazing young woman.
    Everyone’s life IS hard at at times. But by and large, non-traditional students are facing a very different set of challenges.

  43. Megan says 24 June 2011 at 10:52

    I recently, at 27, figured out what I “want to do with my life,” or at least the next part of it. I just started studying to take the GMAT and go back to school in January to get an MS in accounting at the local public university. I want to be a CPA.

    When I graduated from college in 2006 with a BA in Philosophy, I had been going to school since Kindergarten and was so *done* with the whole project. But as I got out in the “real” world and determined that I have a love of numbers, and finances, and helping people manage their money, I decided that going back to school, now that I knew what I wanted to study, was a good idea.

    If I spread the 36 credit hours out over 2 1/2 years and start saving now, I think I can even do it without accumulating more debt, which would be great because I still have $25,000 of undergrad debt.

    This post is very motivational, especially since I’ve been worrying about juggling my new full-time job, going to school in the evenings, and homework with my familial obligations. If people can do this whole “back to school” thing with kids at home (wow do I admire you folks!) then I hope I can make it work, too.

    Thank you for writing this post.

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