When Is It Time to Go Back to School?

Alayna Buckner

When Is It Time to Go Back to School?

Forty percent of American college students, almost 6 million people, are 25 or older. Some people return to school to advance or change their career. Others go back to fulfill a personal goal or learn something new. Here are the stories of four students who went back to school to study everything from law to Spanish.

Advancing Your Career

Lisa Thomas graduated in 2001, got a research job for two years, and then returned for a master's degree. "I had always intended to return," she says. The time off helped her clarify her interests. Instead of a public policy degree, as she had planned, Lisa says, "I found my real passion was in international development." She narrowed her focus, earned her degree, and got a field position in Nigeria shortly after graduating.

Like Lisa, many students return to school to advance their careers. College graduates earn 50% more than high school graduates, and in many fields, graduate degrees are needed to advance. Lisa says, "People return to be more competitive in their fields. In many sectors, including development, having a graduate degree has become 'standard' for career advancement."

Changing Your Career

Americans change jobs an average of 10 times, and students often return to school to learn the skills they need to jumpstart new careers.

Hana Veselka works full-time and recently began a part-time law program. After college, she worked 5 jobs in 3 years. Her LSAT was going to become outdated; her job was mediocre; and she wanted more job opportunities. She says, "I didn't want to have to rely on spotty jobs because there's lots of times of unemployment." She accepted an evening law program and says, "I am very glad I did it, it's already changing how I think about what I can do after this."

Pursuing Your Interests

Taking individual classes allows people to explore a hobby, pursue an interest, or learn a foreign language. Some students want to set a good precedent for their children, meet new people, or finish something they started years ago. James Golden is a full-time engineer at the U.S. Patent Office who takes a Spanish class once a week. He says, "I missed taking classes. I felt like I hadn't concentrated on language classes in the past because I didn't have enough time." He hopes to live in a Spanish-speaking country in the future and is looking into going to Argentina next year.

A Lifetime of Learning

Most students do not return for just one reason, but a collection of career and personal reasons. Jane Tavenner is a good example of how many people build education into their lives. A mother of three, Jane returned to school three different times, to earn her associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing.

Early on, Jane finished one year of college before getting married and having children. After her youngest entered pre-school, she wanted to go back because she says, "education meant a lot to me." She found a program that let her take classes while raising her family. She graduated with an associate's degree and started her nursing career.

After attending a weeklong seminar in holistic medicine, she decided to go back to get her bachelor's degree, so she could earn a certification for holistic practice. When her doctor's office closed a few years later, she started teaching a nursing skills class at the local high school and loved it. Two years ago, she was offered the chance to teach a class for college credit to her high school students, but she needed a master's degree to be able to do so. That led to her third education venture, and she graduated last year with her master's degree in nursing.

The Right Decision

These four students returned to school for different reasons and at different stages in their lives, but they all agree: it was the right decision. Lisa says she "made the best decision" for her "professional and personal development." Jane says, "It was absolutely the right decision. I loved school; I loved to learn; and I enjoy having great conversations with people who are learning." If you are thinking about returning to school, the good news is that education can fulfill both your career and your personal desires.

With the right training, you'll be off the beach and heading into the deep blue yourself.


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Alayna Buckner graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Public Policy and Philosophy and now lives and works in Washington DC.