Written and provided by our Family Advocate Jenna Harvey-Reed

I recently graduated with a Master’s degree from a local university.  I made great connections with mentors, maintained high honors, and was involved with both research and honor society activities. I also worked as an academic advisor and instructor for undergraduate students, giving me a very broad view of the typical student experience. Completing my Master’s degree marked the end of an entire decade as a student. During the same decade, I was also working, raising first two children as a single mom, and later two more with my husband.  What I learned along with my studies was that there were a great many successful students who were earning degrees while raising families.

 As a family advocate, I’ve heard parents dismiss their ability to return to school for many reasons. While the non-traditional student faces a different set of challenges than their younger, more “on-time” classmates, these are not impossible odds.

Below are a set of myths surrounding adults in higher education that I’d like to debunk with the experiences of myself and other non-traditional students I’ve known.

1. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

This myth may have a slight basis in reality, as the prime time for learning new information is in the earlier years of development, but on the whole age gives students little disadvantage in college classrooms. While technology is now essential to how lecturers present their information and communicate with students, the study methods that you may have relied on in the past are still as relevant today. In fact, your  “old school” hand-written notes may be more effective than clicking away on keyboards, and your knowledge of how a standard letter is written will only make you stand out in your professor’s inbox of text-speech messages. Having good study habits and seeking out campus learning center assistance will help you to overcome any age-related disadvantages.

2. “You won’t fit in.”

While it’s true that many of your classmates at the undergraduate level may be from a younger generation, there’s no hard fast rule that you’ll be a social outcast. In fact, where you may feel out of touch with your classmates, it could be that you bring a bit of wisdom or experience to friendships you develop. You may also find that you have plenty in common with your professors. Given that you have a full life outside of your classes, fitting in socially is less important to your experience than networking professionally. In this case, being the mature face in a sea of babes may help more than hurt. Still, seek out activities and groups that fit your interests, and like any other aspect of social interaction, it’s exposure to others that leads to lasting relationships.

3. “You won’t be able to keep up.”

At my recent commencement, I saw numerous mature adults receive their degrees with honors, even 4.0 GPAs (with much applause from the crowd). Many in higher education and on the outside have come to question whether public universities are truly as rigorous as they should be.   This could be debated, but in all you may find that from semester to semester the demands on your time and efforts may vary. Your experiences with the ebbs and flows of life will help you to handle this. Aside from the coursework itself, in my experience I’ve met many students of all backgrounds and it seems to me that students who are also employees and parents tend to do very well. There’s a saying that goes, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”.

As far as the job market after graduation, there is something to be said for maturity. While younger job candidates may have whole careers to devote to an organization, you will have years of experiences to bring paired with the same current knowledge of your classmates. Consider how much professionalism and likability can factor into hiring decisions, and don’t worry too much about age alone.

4. “You’re kids will suffer if you go back to school.”

This is the myth that may be the hardest for parents in college to get past. There will be times when you have to say no to throwing a birthday party because it’s finals week, or you’ll sit the kids in front of their third hour of television with happy meals so you can finish a term paper. In those moments, this idea may be hard to dismiss. Dismiss it anyway.

As you work to expand your knowledge and improve your career prospects, you are also teaching your children the value of education, and the rewards of sticking with a long-term goal. The knowledge you gain in your studies will change how you view the world you share with your children, or your approach to your children themselves (this was my experience as a psychology major). These are great benefits to your children, not to mention that research has demonstrated that there are positive associations between a parent’s education level and income on children’s own life outcomes.

Good time management practices and clear boundaries are essential to protecting the time you spend with your children, but that’s true of whether you work, stay home, or return to college.
If you are interested in furthering your education, consider reaching out to your local community college or state university to learn more about the programs offered, part time vs. full time schedules, and financial aid that may be available. A family advocate may also be able to help by providing resources and encouragement throughout your decision process and future days balancing education with family and career.