Whether your goal is to get a degree to accomplish a goal like career advancement, a career change, increasing your earning potential, or personal fulfillment, going back to school at 30 or beyond can seem daunting.
Adults in their 30s likely have taken on more responsibilities in life since their last time in school, which can make it seem as though they have little or no time to spare.
Adult students will have to balance their online classes with the demands of a busy full-time job or caring for a family. They might even be planning for a new phase of life, a different career path, starting a family, leaving the military, or more.
The good news is that returning to school at this age is totally possible, and many people have done this before.
Read about adult learners at Penn State World Campus who made the decision to go back to school in their 30s.
Advancing your career
Many adult learners who have a bachelor’s degree may feel they need a master’s degree to take the next step in their career path, which could mean moving into management, taking on more responsibilities, or commanding a higher salary or earning potential. For instance, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, workers ages 25–34 with a master's degree earn about $10,000 more than those with a bachelor's degree.
When Marcus Rauhut decided to go to grad school, he was in his mid-30s and working in digital marketing with a nonprofit health system in central Pennsylvania.
“I just started looking at my career and asking myself what is next,” Rauhut said. “In order to get to what is next, I needed a master’s degree.”
He researched his options, and in 2018, he enrolled in the Master of Professional Studies in Strategic Communications, which is offered online through Penn State World Campus and the Penn State Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. He completed the program while balancing his job with his young family, and he said he did much of his course work after his daughters went to bed.
When Rauhut graduated in 2020, he said his immediate goal was to continue growing in his role.
“This degree has given me more confidence, and it’s allowed me to take on greater responsibility and feel more comfortable leading projects in this organization,” Rauhut said.
A degree creates new possibilities
A college degree can open new doors that previously were closed. That is what motivated Adalice Burgos to return to school to get a degree.
Burgos worked in a salon for eight years before getting a certificate that enabled her to enter the IT field. She eventually found work in IT for a hospital and was excited to contend for a job that came with better working hours.
Burgos said she put everything she had into that interview, but the hiring manager said she didn’t have the education.
“I never wanted to feel inadequate in sharing my thoughts and opinions within a job, and I wanted to feel confident about my education,” Burgos said.
Burgos began taking courses toward an Associate in Science in Information Sciences and Technology and graduated in 2019.
“It was the most challenging part of my life I felt like I needed to conquer,” said Burgos. “But once I conquered it, I knew I could accomplish whatever came my way.”
The next goals for Burgos: a bachelor’s degree and then a law degree.
A college degree is certainly a professional goal for many. For others who missed the chance to go to college after high school, earning a degree means fulfilling a personal mission as much as it does fulfilling a professional one.
For Ashish Kohli, a 2019 Penn State World Campus graduate, it did.
When he left India for the United States at age 17, he hadn’t finished high school and wasn’t sure what the future held for him. He said Indian culture prioritizes higher education, and a college degree was always a goal for him.
Kohli credited his wife for directing him back to his original goal after holding unfulfilling jobs. He got his GED in 2013, and then he went on to complete an associate degree at a community college in Delaware.
In 2017, he enrolled in Penn State World Campus, taking two to three courses at a time to finish his next goal, a bachelor’s degree. He graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Finance.
“I never thought I would be able to go to college. I was lucky enough to be accepted, and now I’m graduating,” he said in 2019.
A college degree can help make a career change
A bachelor’s degree could be just what some people need to take a big step and change their careers.
For the past 15 years, David Bacino has served as a firefighter paramedic in the suburbs of Chicago. Early in his career as a firefighter, Bacino earned an associate degree in fire science technology.
He said that when he decided to go back to school in 2019, he wanted a degree that would teach him skills that could be useful in an administrative role at the fire department or in another career.
This prompted him to enroll in the bachelor’s in finance program offered online.
“If I end up moving up the chain at the fire department and become a chief, understanding finance and accounting will be very beneficial,” said Bacino, who serves on the department’s pension board. “If I want to get a second job or when I retire, a degree in finance is useful and there's plenty of job opportunities.”
Bacino’s time at Word Campus also gave him the skills and confidence to start his own business: Coffee Medley, an online coffee distributor that partners with small and sustainable roasters from all over the country and donates 1% of profits to charity. When creating Coffee Medley, Bacino said, he relied on various resources Penn State provides for student entrepreneurs to get his business license, write contracts and press releases, and more.
Bacino expects to graduate in 2024 and said his finance degree will help him run Coffee Medley and open doors for career opportunities in the future.
The flexibility of learning online
Time management for adult learners is very different from how traditional-age college students allocate their time to their classes. Adult students have to balance other responsibilities — such as their jobs and families — and fit in completing their assignments when they have free time, such as in the evenings or on the weekends.
That's why an online, asynchronous college education can be perfect for busy adult learners.
Rachel Azzaam is one of those students. She couldn't balance commuting to her local community college, working a full-time job, and raising her growing family. She knew she needed a change and applied after seeing Penn State World Campus ads at the Philadelphia International Airport, where she worked.
“It felt like a door had been opened for me, and I felt like it was possible,” Azzaam said of being accepted. “All the obstacles that I had to endure for the past 10 years and held me back for 10 years are finally no longer an issue.”
Azzaam said that no longer having to choose between her education, work, and raising her family is the best part of online learning. Connecting with other students who are also balancing their personal lives and education reminds her that she’s not alone.
After Azzaam graduates with a Bachelor of Arts in Strategic Communications, she would like to own her own online business.
When learning online is the only option
For many working adults, the thought of going back to school on a college campus is a non-starter. They don't have the time to commute to campus and spend hours attending lectures during the day or in the evening. Their busy work or family schedules are their top priorities.
That was the case for Gale Hauck, who wanted to move into leadership roles in her career in the nuclear engineering sector.
She enrolled in Penn State's Online Master of Business Administration in 2017. The Online MBA was the only option for her because of her demanding work schedule.
“An online program gives me the flexibility I need to pursue my education while also pursuing my career goals,” she said.
It was also the right fit for her because of the nature of the work she did. In her previous roles, Hauck traveled to more than 30 countries and even lived in the United Arab Emirates for three years, which would have made getting her degree on a campus impossible.
She graduated with her MBA in 2021 and works as a senior research and development staff member at a national research laboratory in Tennessee.
Transitioning out of the military
After a 22-year career in the U.S. Army, James Bacon is about to retire as a First Sergeant. Bacon serves as a military police officer and teaches law enforcement training for Army and ROTC programs, and he said that going back to school expanded his career options both in and outside of the military.
In 2016, Bacon enrolled in Penn State World Campus through the Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security and the Master of Public Administration program using the Post-9/11 GI Bill® and Medal of Honor Scholarship. Bacon was planning on retiring when he completed the certificate program in 2017, but instead, Bacon said, the certificate earned him an immediate promotion. When he completed the master’s degree in 2018, he said even more doors had been opened.
Bacon is still on track to retire from the Army and has taken a job in the renewable energy sector in his home state of Arkansas. He said he’s excited about transitioning to a field he’s passionate about.
“The knowledge that I've gained from the MPA program, in nonprofit management, policy analysis, finance management, or in a wide variety of government administrations, has allowed me to be able to speak intelligently and operate in a number of sectors that I never thought I'd find myself,” said Bacon.
Finishing what they started
More than 30 million Americans have some college credits but left school before they were able to finish their degrees.
When Samantha Tuttle enrolled in Penn State World Campus, she brought with her credits she had earned from other universities. To finish her bachelor’s degree, she needed an online program, which would allow her to work full-time as the talent branding manager for a private equity real estate firm in Florida.
Tuttle started her courses in the summer of 2019 and is in the Bachelor of Design in Digital Multimedia Design program. She said she is excited to finish her degree online.
“One of the things that locked Penn State in for me was when I read that the instructors in the online programs are the same ones instructing on campus,” said Tuttle. “From instructors to advisers to alumni, every individual I've encountered is passionate about providing a quality education paired with a superior experience.”
Tuttle said another benefit to returning to school in her 30s is that she had more time to figure out exactly what she wanted to study. She’s progressed in her career learning things hands-on.
“Since I have the work experience, my degree will help back up that experience while providing me with an advanced understanding of my field and allow me to apply what I'm learning in my program to my current position,” Tuttle said. “I've become a stronger, more confident employee and member of my community, and finishing what I started years ago will be something I'll never regret.”
It’s not too late
Whether you want to advance your career, make a career change, or fulfill a personal goal, there is no question about it — going back to school is a big decision.
You'll want to make some other considerations as you weigh this decision:
- What kind of financial aid may you be eligible to receive? Be sure to check into scholarships and other financial aid options opportunities to see how you can reduce the cost of tuition.
- How good are you at managing your time? In your 30s, you likely have a lot of responsibilities, and you will need to balance them with your courses. Time management will be key.
- Is an online college degree program the right fit for you? You just need a laptop and an internet connection, and when you couple this with good time-management skills, you can complete your course work when it's convenient for you.
It's not too late to take this big step. Hopefully these students' stories show that this goal can be within your reach, too.
Find out more about going back to school in one of the more than 175 degree programs offered online through Penn State World Campus.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.