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Making the leap back to school can feel nerve wracking - but it doesn’t have to. You may not look or live like the typical college student from the movies, but if you are driven to advance your career or set out on a new path you are the perfect candidate for higher education. Lucky for you, online education offers seemingly infinite options for programs that won’t derail your current job, family or lifestyle.
Older adults who decide to return to school are often referred to as "non-traditional" studentsbecause they don't fit society's typical description: the 18-24 year old, unmarried student, living on or near campus. However, today over 50 percent of students enrolled in higher education don't fit this narrow definition. So many students fall into this category that some are ditching the term "non-traditional" for the updated label of "contemporary students." The new contemporarystudent is typically over the age of 30, works full-time and has kids, all the while working to complete their degree. Fortunately for these students, there are a number of options for college that fit their schedule. The need for flexible education options is likely the reason for the growing interest in online programs among adult students.
The incredible flexibility of online courses and degree programs is a draw to all online-enrolled students, but for older adults, it can be the difference between pursuing higher education and not. Online programs offer adult students the opportunity to complete a degree previously started, or start a new career path entirely, without major interruptions to lifestyle. Since there are no set class times in online programs, students can move at their own pace. For older adults, this flexibility means they can study when it works for them and avoid disruptions to their regular schedules. This is particularly helpful for parents, who are increasingly making the decision to go back to school. Additionally, online programs open the possibility to attend a vast number of institutions across the country without having to relocate the family or live far from home.
According to Forbes, one-third of America's 21 million enrolled students are taking some or all of their instruction online. So, much like the traditional student demographic is changing, the traditional classroom is evolving as well. While the physical classroom isn't going anywhere, decades of research from the U.S. Department of Education finds no significant difference in learning outcomes between online and classroom programs. This increased confidence in online learning has boosted the reputation of many online programs and attracted more people, including more adult students.
The options available to adult students are also expanding. While traditional degree programs, like nursing, criminal justice and business administration, are increasingly being moved entirely online, so are less time intensive certificate programs that can help professionals advance their existing careers. While often not associated with a degree program, certificates can offer adult students a leg up in a competitive job market with specialized skills to set them apart from the competition.
If you are an older adult thinking about enrolling in an online degree program, you are in luck. Columbia's Teachers College found that older adult learners are ideal candidates for online education – finding better outcomes among older adults in online programs than those in classroom settings. While younger students benefit greatly from the accountability and real-world lessons gained in a campus-based program, adult learners often thrive with more flexibility and the ability to maintain their jobs and families while completing a degree.
As more older adults pursue higher education, an increase in demand for online education programs will ensue. Increased flexibility, improved tools and platforms for online learners, and more programs focused on potential employment opportunities, will continue to be in high demand. Whether returning to a previously started degree, starting out on a fresh new career path or seeking to be more competitive in the job market, now could be the perfect time for older adults to seek out educational pursuits.