College Degree After 50
There is a lot of conversation about whether higher education is worth the money.
Make sure and read the many comments on this post below. The comment portion of this post is longer than the original post.
This post was originally published in March of 2015 and was updated in February of 2020.
Robert Reich wrote a piece for Salon.com titled:
The Author writes:
This is the time of year when high school seniors apply to college, and when I get lots of mail about whether college is worth the cost.
The answer is unequivocal yes, but with one big qualification.
A college degree no longer guarantees a good job. The main reason it pays better than the job of someone without a degree is the latter’s wages are dropping.
If this applies to a high school senior, what about a 50+-year-old who has seen their industry or profession disappear? We have seen in study after study that staying employed after the age of 50 can be quite difficult. The Urban Institute study stated:
We find that about one-half of full-time, full-year workers ages 51 to 54 experience an employer-related involuntary job separation after age 50 that substantially reduces earnings for years or leads to long-term unemployment.
Should you go back to college to have a better shot at staying employed? The answer is maybe as it all comes down to what you expect to gain from attaining the degree.
Preservation or Reinvention?
Are you trying to preserve or re-invent your career? These are very different targets for going back to school.
Preservation of Your Current Career
I have heard of many going back to school and getting a master’s degree in their chosen profession. As long as their current employer supports and/or funds the degree program, it usually proves to be successful. A good example is getting a Masters in Education, for those in the K-12 education field.
It is used to be that attaining an MBA was a sure-fire way to spark and hopefully preserve your career. I am not sure that is true anymore. Especially, if you are going to invest $100K of your own money. I have one client who received her MBA from a prestigious executive MBA program, and it has done nothing for her. Of course, she received it during the great recession.
In updating this post, that same former client has found that getting the MBA was professionally beneficial in that it made her more competitive. On the other hand, she has seen no financial benefit other than helping her stay employed. Her former employer paid the bulk of the $100K of tuition and she has no student loan debt from getting the degree. If she had paid the tuition she would be part of the group age 60 to 69 who owe $85.4 billion in student debt altogether.
In my research for writing this post, I have found nothing that says getting an MBA after 50 makes sense financially.
If you think differently, please comment below.
Reinvention is most commonly done in incremental steps or pivots. For most of us in the 2nd half of life, we have these things called obligations like mortgages, funding our children’s education and growing our retirement nest eggs.
I spent 30 plus years as a computer engineer and if I decided to become a pastry chef, I am certainly not going to be able that transition in a single step.
I might be able to get hired as an engineer for a food product company. Maybe I could then shift to working directly in food production. At the same time, I could be acquiring training and possibly certifications that get me closer to my goal.
If you are reinventing your career, my experience is that getting a bachelor’s or master’s degree after 50 is not a good investment, especially, if you are taking out student loans!
I have talked to dozens of individuals over the last couple of years who obtained their college degree after 50. Almost all of them told me it did not give them the competitive edge they needed.
If you are entering a new field after 50 years of age, you will be competing with others much younger than you. The same issues of age discrimination that you found in your old field will likely apply in the new one.
It does not make sense (most of the time) to get a college degree after 50 in order to reinvent your career.
However, getting a college degree after 50 can work for preserving your career, if – and it is a big if – you plan carefully.
You must do your research. Find others who have successfully forged the trail before you embark on getting your college degree after 50.
For More: Career Reinvention – A Model for Change
Free Tuition After 65 and Possibly Younger
In the last few years, every state in the U.S. has started to offer either free or reduced-cost higher education to seniors. The definition of “senior” varies from state to state. Some start as early as age 60.
These courses are offered at state universities and community colleges.
Take a moment to check out these resources:
- Senior Citizens Can Go to College for Free or Cheap in All 50 States – The Penny Hoarder
- Free & Cheap College Classes for Senior Citizens (By State & University) – MoneyCrashers
Certificate programs offered at many community colleges are much less expensive and time-consuming. For example, Austin Community College offers certificate programs in non-profit management. If you want to make the leap from for-profit to non-profit, this a cost-effective means of gaining skills and will give you some street cred in your new field.
If you are interested in learning more about whether getting a certificate makes sense check out my post Certification – Is It Worth It? It Depends! [Updated]
There are now many online educational resources that are low cost or free.
Online training resources include:
- General Assembly
- Lynda.com now LinkedIn Learning
These online courses are a very good value, take far less time than a college degree and extremely relevant to the job market today.
Christine is now a freelance writer. She is considering going to her local community college for a photography certificate. It is affordable and she can pick and choose what to take. She may not even pursue a certificate if she obtains the skills she needs without completing the program.
I just reached back out to Christine to see what she ended up doing. She wrote me back saying:
Five years ago, I was at the start of a major transition period. I did take a photography class at the local community college and enjoyed it very much. I also worked a series of short-term contract jobs for companies such as The Grossman Group and Wells Fargo.
One of those short-term gigs—teaching at Iowa State University—turned into a longer-term position. Today I am an assistant teaching professor at ISU in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. My teaching assignments for the past four years have focused on public relations, which allow me to share my 30 years of experience with aspiring professionals. I have thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of the ISU faculty and the opportunity to interact regularly with young adults.
Now I find myself entering a new transition period. At my request, my teaching load this year was reduced to just one class each semester. This change allows me to spend more time on creative pursuits, volunteer work, and my grandchildren.
For the foreseeable future, I hope to continue teaching and to do more freelance writing.
She made the transition without getting an advanced degree.
It all comes down to – doing your research!
Have you pursued your college degree after 50? Was it worth it?