To Enroll or Not to Enroll

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

When I first graduated high school, I spent a little over a year in college and then — can you guess? — I met a boy, fell in love, dropped out of college, got married, and started having babies. I always sort of imagined going back to school, but I put it pretty firmly on the back burner and never really pursued it when I was younger.

Now, I am 54. The babies are grown and living their own lives, and the thoughts of school are tugging at me more and more. It would be a bit of a tight struggle financially since we don’t really have any savings, and my husband is recovering from quadruple-bypass surgery so I have other serious demands that I can’t neglect. Should I put the pipe dream of getting a college degree to bed? Or is there hope for me that I can get there some day?

Not a Co-Ed


Dear Co-Ed

P: I think it’s time, since you’ve gotten your babies raised and your life organized to stop defining yourself by what you’re not. I would argue that it’s time for everyone to stop defining by what they’re not, but we’re talking to you.

I’m sorry your husband has had quadruple bypass surgery. That’s serious. But you heal from it. Pretty soon, he’s going to have a full time job on his hands getting himself back in shape. And that job, with a lot of loving encouragement, is his job. Because if he doesn’t embrace it, he’s not going to thrive.

And Terri and I are encouragers, but we’re not a Magic 8 Ball. You tell me. Do you want to get this done? If so, there’s hope. If not, there’s probably not a lot.

B: Ahhh, the dilemma of the non-traditionally-aged student.

One of the many allures of college is that it is always there. It is always a possibility. Schools don’t go away, they don’t discriminate according to age. All you need to do is get in, right?

Provided your life evens out, the doors on your time are thrown wide open, and it’s easily affordable, right? Because that’s how it is with every major life event, especially things like home ownership, or babies. You can only embark on these new adventures when everything is perfect, and easy, and not messy. Right?

P: You’ve done what women do. You’ve put your family at the center of your life. My guess is you don’t really resent that; there’s nothing you say that sounds that way.

But you are aware that you’ve deferred your dream. You’re only 54. You’ve got time to get your degree and do something you’ve always wanted to do. Something else you’ve always wanted to do, because I get it, you wanted your family.

B: The thing is, there’s never going to be one perfect time to hie yourself back to college and hit the books. You saw that; even when it was theoretically the “perfect” time for you to be in college (right after high school), it wasn’t the perfect time for you, as your personal priorities at the time ended up falling elsewhere. And that’s OK. For my own reasons, I didn’t set foot inside a college classroom until I was 26, so right after high school wasn’t right for me, either. It is what it is.

P: School is an investment, both in your future employment and in your self-esteem. Both of those are worth a lot. And it is not a great thing to defer your dreams forever. You don’t want to resent these people you love, to whom you have given important time in your life, because “they’re” holding you back. So far, I don’t know that they are. But your children aren’t any more important that you are. They don’t need a college degree at your expense. And you’ve raised children, so you don’t need to sit home and wait for more to raise.

And then there’s a final sobering truth. Your husband had serious heart surgery. Hopefully he’ll step up to the responsibility of caring for himself and live a lot more years.

You’re 54. What if something happens to him today? What are you prepared to do. Isn’t it better if you have that degree in hand and get some work experience under your belt for all involved?

Hopefully, you’ll work because you like your field. But if you have to work, whether for finances or for sanity, you’re going to be a lot happier to have a job you worked for and an education you’re proud of.

I’ve got to hope that a man you’ve loved enough to defer your dreams loves you enough to now make them happen…

So you tell us. Are you a co-ed, or not? I confess, I hope you are. Terri?

B: Ann has covered the feel-good end, so I am going to talk about practical concerns here.

Ann is right; we are encouragers. Should you go back to school? Thirty-plus years is a long time to harbor a wish. It’s never left you. You should, absolutely, go. Ann has covered all the (excellent) reasons you should go, including the positive effect it will have on your self-esteem and that it can help you safeguard your future, particularly if your husband doesn’t have an easy recovery from his surgery. But I will offer up a few caveats.

Start slow. Can you take a class or two, part time? That way you can ease into the budgeting of your time, and get used to having to make time to study, or read, or write, instead of having a full class load and a household to manage. Why make yourself drown if you’ve got a part-time lifeline?

Look into financial assistance. You’ll surely be able to get loans. Look into scholarship eligibility. There’s a lot of college assistance money floating around out there that goes unclaimed. You can start by looking at the Federal Student Loan website, which also has a page about scholarship searches. Go here for that information. State universities are generally less expensive for their in-state residents, so look into your state system. And, some schools do offer need-blind admission, so if you can get in and can’t afford it, the school will pick up some, perhaps even all, of the bill, depending on the policy in place at the individual college. Those schools tend to be highly competitive (think Stanford/Wellesley/Princeton), so you’d better be ready to run hard if you go that route.

And for heaven’s sake, buy used textbooks whenever possible. You’ll save yourself thousands of dollars if you don’t think you need to be the first to crack the binding.

Particularly when you’re in your first few classes, expect everything to take longer than you think it will. You may be perfectly smart and capable to handle the class work, but you need to re-learn how to study. How to take relevant notes. Your learning style may have shifted, too. I used to be a much more visual learner; if you told me something, it often went in one ear and out the other but if I read it, it stuck. Now, I am much more adept at auditory learning. Things may have shifted for you. Be open to that.

And I bet it’s been decades since you’ve had to write a persuasive paper, complete with documentation. Give yourself the room to have to re-learn how to write. Every college has a writing center/tutoring system of some sort. Take advantage of it.

Non-traditional learners are an increasing presence on campuses across the country, and many schools have put support programs in place for older students, like yourself. These are students who have outside demands and external responsibilities…like a husband who’s recovering from bypass surgery. Older students, quite simply, have different needs. You may want to look at schools that embrace their non-traditionals. Not that going to a party school wouldn’t be a hoot, but you may find that you’d fare better in a place with more age-consistent peers.

Dive in deep into the classes you don’t love. You’re not a math person? That’s fine, as long as you take down your walls before you enter the class. You may take lessons away from those classes that you could never have anticipated (I’ll tell you about my astronomy class, one day). And if you’re going to go to college and get a degree, you’ll have to take classes you won’t love. So choose to get the most out of them that you can. You’re paying for it, so why not?

Study what you love. You’ve waited more than thirty years for this. Don’t stifle your interests now. Be the co-ed you’ve always wanted to be.


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