These are some of the anxieties that keep adult learners from returning to school. As silly, serious or certain as they seem to be, they deserve to be addressed. And they can be overcome.
First, there is the dread of walking into a classroom full of younger, hotter, more fashionably-dressed students. We would all like to believe that looks don’t matter, that older people can be attractive, and that style doesn’t go away with youth. However, few of us enjoy being the oldest person in the room, and the fear of being the ugliest can keep us from entering. It can even interfere with our ability to learn.
But it doesn’t have to. Those younger bodies do not necessarily hold sharper minds. Adult learners have lived through layers of experience that give meaning to many of the lessons. Some of what last year’s high school seniors experience as a history lesson is more like review to adult learners, even if they are only a few years away from the prom, but even more so if it’s been a decade or two. Poems that seem obscure or grandiose to 18-year-olds make sense to those who have seen the start and end of wars, marriages or governments. And it’s easier to write an essay about tragedy if you’ve actually lived one.
Further, many campuses have as many students over the age of thirty as under. Some have more. And many offer online courses or even degrees. So adult learners do not have to let their age interfere with their opportunities.
It is true that family members do have to give up something when an adult learner returns to school. Sometimes this may mean a cut in the household income. It may mean added stress, especially around the time of final exams or presentations. It almost always means less time together.
When children feel hurt that a parent is studying instead of playing with them, the adult learner may feel guilty. However, other adults in the home may also resent the loss of attention they experience when significant other returns to school, which also creates anxiety. This anxiety can also interfere with learning.
School is not more important than family, so adult learners may have to make difficult choices at times. Few people can test well when a spouse is in the hospital, for example, and leaving a crying child to attend a boring lecture is hard. Therefore, adult learners and their families need to be realistic about the challenges they will face. They will need to communicate their fears and desires. Most importantly, they will need to take a long-term view.
School does cost money and it does take time. Adult learners can deal with the anxiety this causes their family members by remembering that in the long-term, school pays. A degree will bring more money, more respect and a better standard of living to all family members. Adults who finish school are role models for their children, who have a much better chance of academic success than do the children of drop-outs. Spouses who resent the strain of a few years of school may eventually realize that they, too, are free to pursue their own goals, and may even enjoy having a successful, exciting, well-paid adult as a life-partner. Overcoming temporary financial anxiety may be well worth the cost in the end.
Adult learners may have left school in the first place because they weren’t succeeding academically. As teenagers, they may have spent more time partying than they did studying, or they may have had difficulties in their family of origin that prevented them from attending regularly. The fear of failing again may keep them from trying again.
Some adult learners may overcome this anxiety by starting with the subjects they like, even if it means taking a course they don’t need. An early success can bring confidence, which leads to more success. Others may find it necessary to enroll in developmental courses that do not earn degree credits but help students the skills they need to succeed. A few may overcome this anxiety by focusing on all the ways they have changed since the last time they were a student.
Any approach that helps reduce anxiety is worth consideration. Adult learners have the right to return to school and the ability to succeed once they get there. Most colleges are willing to provide the encouragement, resources and flexibility they need.