Many people today look at higher education with some skepticism. Recent graduates who clamor for jobs, for-profit universities that give degrees but lack accreditation, and other “diploma factory” scams denigrate the legitimacy of all the work and hard-earned money it takes to get a degree. Has higher education lost its luster?
Not even close.
With improved loan structures, more people than ever are getting access to programs without being saddled with debt. And high-quality, inexpensive options (accredited online university programs, for example) have led students of all ages to see how a new educational track can improve their lives.
Higher education is no longer just a ritualistic four years that allows 18-21-year-olds to find themselves. Representatives from all age groups are finding themselves back in the classroom, from those who never had access to higher education to senior-level professionals who simply want to expand their opportunities.
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Get a Job: Traditional Students
In the early stages, higher education’s role in career development is shifting from a consideration to a requirement. It’s an attitude that can be summed up with Obama’s now relatively famous quote from 2012: “Higher education is not a luxury—it is an economic necessity.”
This is now a fact of life for every level of the workforce, with terminal degrees becoming an increasingly large determining factor for a paycheck (or ability to get a job in the first place).
This chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses employment projection data to show metrics on approximate salary averages based on degree level and unemployment percentages.
The results are pretty staggering, showing a drop from a 6 percent to 3.5 percent unemployment rate between those with a high school diploma and those who have graduated from a four-year college.
Not only is college a place for young people to learn to understand themselves better and to find their calling in life, it’s professionally critical.
Going Back to Get Ahead: Nontraditional Students
Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that the majority of undergraduates are now classified as nontraditional, which can mean that students are financially independent, attending school part-time, delaying postsecondary enrollment, supporting one or more dependents, working full-time or one of several other factors.
Many of these “nontraditional students” are already professionals who find themselves in industries that are not as viable without further education. Many employers recognize that access to high-quality training improves their workforce, and they’re open to the idea of allowing their employees time (and perhaps even some financial support) to go back to school.
But perhaps the biggest reason to look into a secondary degree is for the networking. A full 50 percent of what you pay for as part of a graduate degree relates to the people you meet and the alumni network that you join. These like-minded spirits, including your peers and driven faculty members, will help you advance your career path immeasurably.
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Shockingly, some older people go to school just because they would like to learn new things! I know that with a constant focus on resume-builders and how to leverage practical experience toward a viable career, it may be difficult for some to fathom, but academia can keep people connected to modern theories and contemporary understanding in topics that are fascinating.
That being said, there are other reasons to return to school, even after decades in the workforce.
A 2013 survey by PNC Financial Services found that 58 percent of retirees aged 70 and older retired before they planned to do so, leaving some of their later career aspirations unfulfilled. It’s never too late—or too early—to sharpen the relevant skills and land that new job.
For example, one recent retiree I spoke to reengaged with education because after decades of work in the healthcare industry, he wanted to be in a research position. He invested in classes at Northwestern University and now is working with a prestigious research arm there on groundbreaking pharma for HIV/AIDS prevention.
The researchers are glad to have him because he brings a great deal of expertise, and he’s excited to be working at the forefront of medical technology as a second career
Whether you’re looking to begin your career, to advance it, or to chase a dream after years in another field, there is always a way for higher education to help you. The fact is, there is never a bad time to increase your knowledge and skill set through the power of academia.