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Adult learning: Why going back to school is best when you’re older

Working adults with commitments and mature students are at a different stage in their life, thus having a set of different needs compared to fresh school-leavers entering university. Source: Reuters/Edgar Su

My third-year university lecturer Robert Fannin, an author and teacher of creative writing, was a mature student at the The University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, United Kingdom.

Shortly after completing this degree, he began teaching there and had this to say, “…I dropped out of school when I was 16, earned a lot of money till I was 20, made a lot of mistakes until I was 40 and then decided I should probably go back and finish school…”.

The age of the student is changing; more than ever, people are making the decision to either go back to school or start education at a later stage in their lives. These students are classed as “mature” or “adult learners”, and long gone are the days being in this category meant you’re failing in life.

Fannin, who was born in Dublin, but has lived in Amsterdam, the US and the Caribbean, before settling in Bristol to study and subsequently work, understands his youth and his experiences are vital to his personality and define his truth of the world.

He said he got to see the world, the stories in it and was even a part of it – it’s how he became an author. He went on to add, “… but mostly I just wanted to be there, I was motivated, I was a lot older, I had friends but I mostly just focused on the work… I got close with the lecturers… I was older than some of them!”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012, students aged 25 and older accounted for roughly 40 percent of all college and graduate students in the US. By today’s standards, a person in the lowly age of just 21 is classed as an adult learner (that’s when I started my degree! How old do I feel?). Just recently, UK-based Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) discovered 40 percent of mature students are over 30 and often have responsibilities outside of study such as work or family.

Fannin suggests his time out gave him a fresh perspective and a stronger desire for self-improvement. And it’s easy to see why. Compared to a teenager straight out of secondary education, an adult is realistically more likely to have a greater life experience.

Mature students tend to be more dogged in their education pursuits: they’re there because they want to learn. Source: Shutterstock

With this deeper understanding of self, adults are better equipped to consume and deconstruct new information comfortably and will approach challenges with maturity.

Most importantly, like Fannin, mature students tend to be more dogged in their education pursuits: they’re there because they want to learn.

Point is, if you’re coming back to education after any amount of time, it’s on your terms. You want to be there. From my experience, I can say wholeheartedly, the couple of years I took out from education gave me greater purpose and motivation upon returning. And that was only two years, imagine at 30!

This chart on education resource website Educators Technology hit the nail on the head in its comparison of pedagogy (child-focused teaching) versus andragogy (adult learning).

But like anything in life, adult learning has challenges. And no big surprise, it’s often about time and money. Adult learners often spend longer completing their education (usually on a part-time basis) and on top of that, the expense of returning to education can be high – the adult learner may need to take time off work to pursue their studies and won’t have the option of studying on their parents’ dime.

Still, knowledge is king and it’s important to note the options for adult learning are now greater than ever. Many schools and colleges now offer programmes specifically-tailored for the adult learner while in some countries, those interested could even choose to re-enter public higher education tuition-free. There’s also the Open University route, where adult learners have the option of enrolling in flexible part-time study programmes, as well as supported distance and open learning for undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

With technology disrupting lives and industries everywhere, it’s important to understand education is the key to survival in the digital workforce and the pursuit of knowledge is, or should be at least, a lifelong process. You’re never too old to learn!

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