How to Start College at 50: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Deciding to start college at 50 can represent one of the biggest challenges of your adult life. At the same time, it can be a fascinating and stimulating experience. In either case, the process of going to college is a delicate one, and you should face one step at a time.

Here are the 16 steps to take to start college at 50:

  • Identify your motivations 
  • Identify your goals
  • Make sure college is right for you
  • Pick your major
  • Find adult-students-friendly colleges
  • Choose between online or on-campus
  • Check the facilities
  • Plan your finances
  • Find support
  • Get in touch 
  • Join an Open Day
  • Enroll
  • Network
  • Create a routine
  • Participate
  • Enjoy 

Below, you can find a detailed step-by-step guide that you can use to make your journey of going to college smoother and less intimidating. Read on.

Step 1: Identify your motivations to start college

First, you should understand what the motives that have driven you to go to college are. These reasons can vary widely from one person to another, and identifying them is essential to ensure you are making all the right choices. 

Here are the primary motivations behind the decision of going back to school:

Career Advancement

Career advancement, progression, and achievement are by far the most common reasons for adults going to college. Indeed, often the job they have been in for many years might not offer the opportunities for progression that they had hoped to see. Going to college, in this case, is an excellent choice to move to a better job position or change careers entirely.

To Increase Career Options

Independently on whether you are determined to keep working in the same field, or you have opted for a drastic career shift, going to college can open up valid alternatives. Indeed, a job that you have never believed you could access can become the next logical career move.

To Improve Financial Prospects

At 50, the milestone of retirement is approaching fast. Over 25% of people believe that they need over $1 million to retire safely, yet a thin percentage of those actually can afford this cost at 50. That is why improving your finances 15 years before retirement can offer you the option to increase your life quality during your golden years.

To Set an Example For Family

While you might not have had the occasion to go to college while younger, returning to school now can set your family onto the right path. At the same time, this step can be a unique source of personal satisfaction, which you might not want the rest of your family to miss out on, whether now or later in life.

To Follow A Passion

It is not uncommon for many older professionals to find themselves in job positions that they don’t particularly like. Yet, they keep working because it is profitable. However, once the kids are older, and there is less family responsibility to attend to, you can finally have the chance to study the major that genuinely interests you and start a career in it.

Of course, all these reasons can seem very diverse, yet they all lead to the same choice of going to college. While it might seem irrelevant, understanding what is the predominant motivation that has pushed you, in particular, to go to school after 50 is essential to complete the next steps.

Step 2: Understand your goals and objectives

How to Start College at 50: A Step-by-Step Guide

Now you should have a deeper understanding of the motivations behind your choice. So, it is time to look at what you would like to achieve through this experience. Setting your career goals is essential to have a better idea of what to expect from your university journey.

Some of the most common goals that many adult students have in mind when entering college are:

A functional career change

A functional career switch happens when you decide to change department or job position within the same company. This change might require you to learn new skills and abilities, yet it might offer you the comfort of a familiar environment. Older professionals who desire a functional career change return to college to acquire the necessary qualifications.

An industry switch

Changing industry means that you are either practicing the same skills in another company, or you have to learn a new job. In both cases, this step can require you to have high adaptability skills and a willingness to learn. Going to college, in this case, can be highly beneficial to start fresh and breathe new life into your career.

A more rewarding job position

Regardless of whether you are after a functional change or an industry switch, you might be after a specific job position that seems currently unachievable. Indeed, in some cases, the experience is not enough to gain a promotion. Therefore, going back to college to study a specific subject allows you to close the skill gap and candidate for the occupation you want.

Increased income

Along the lines of career advancement, increasing personal finances is also an essential goal for going back to school. Moreover, there will be a necessary investment to sustain when returning to college. The job position achieved afterward should be rewarding enough to make an effort worthwhile.

More flexibility

You might still be quite pleased with your job, but the tight deadlines or schedules are making it impossible for you to spend time with your family or dedicate yourself to your hobbies. If this is the case, returning to school allows you to pursue a better occupation that benefits from a more flexible schedule.

Better work-life balance

While you might still benefit from high productivity and energy levels, some tasks that were easier a few years ago might result in quite demanding and stressful tasks today. Of course, this is normal, yet it is a sign that you should look after your health. To do so, going to college might equip you to cover a more low-stress position than the one you are in now.

Step 3: Make sure starting college is the right decision

Now that you understand better why you have decided to go to college, you should take a little step back and know whether a university degree is the right choice. Indeed, there are many benefits associated with going to school as an older, more mature student, yet these might not apply in your specific situation.

Undertaking a college degree can represent financial sacrifices and a huge time commitment for up to 4 years for a bachelor’s degree. You should also take into consideration other expenses, such as student debt, childcare, commuting, transports, and study materials. And, if you had been thinking about an industry change, you can expect to reenter the workforce at an entry-level salary.  

If you are not sure whether you can cope with such drastic changes in your life, you should consider other options as well. This step is essential to avoid signing up for a course just to find out that it was not the right choice. And, if this happens after you have paid and quit your job, you could be regretting your decision.

Other valid options to traditional college degrees include trade schools and technical schools. These courses prepare you to reenter the workforce perfectly equipped to face any obstacle related to the workplace. Moreover, often these institutions are more easily affordable, flexible, and only necessitate shorter timeframes to complete the courses.

Step 4: Pick your field of study

If you have decided that, after all, going to college makes sense for your situation and can help you achieve your career goals, you are ready to pick your field of study. While several preconceptions can stop you from signing up for the major you want, you will need to keep some factors into consideration.

First of all, if you are clear on the kind of career change that you would like to achieve through college, you should know what is the best major to work in that field. If you are not sure, one of the best strategies to adopt is to ask your bosses and other professionals in the job position you are after. You can even learn more about this through LinkedIn profiles. 

Moreover, you can take into consideration alternative majors if these results have more profitable or enjoyable career prospects. In any case, it is vital to understand the implications of each option, including industry trends, and job growth.

Step 5: Find out if your college is accessible by non-traditional students

Now that you have picked your major and courses, you will need to consider whether the college you had in mind is accessible by older students. Indeed, not all institutions are designed to understand the needs and requirements of non-traditional students. 

As you know, this category of learners might require additional facilities such as flexible classes, evening courses, and on-campus childcare. While the majority of the universities are developing to become more inclusive of demographics such as more mature students, some are still better choices than others.

To find out whether the college you have picked can be a viable option for your needs, start by analyzing their website. If they are advertising evening courses or study programs for older learners, it means that the college is equipped to adapt to your needs.

Step 6: On-Campus VS Online Courses

Another major decision that you have to make is whether to opt for a fully-online course or attend an on-campus degree. These two learning styles have opposite characteristics that make them both attractive choices. 


  • Perfect if you would like to find yourself in a more traditional college setting.
  • Access to facilities such as libraries, recreational buildings, study rooms, and fitness spaces.
  • Allows you to get in touch with fellow students as you need.
  • Perfect if you prefer to socialize and build personal relationships.
  • On-campus education will enable you to find support from professors and assistants at any time you need.
  • Working in such an atmosphere can be highly inspirational.

Online Courses

  • You can cut down on commuting times and make the most out of your time.
  • You can follow the classes from the comfort of your home.
  • Most online courses are based on self-learning strategies.
  • In some cases, you will also be able to set your deadlines and payments.
  • You can receive online support 24/7.
  • You can have access to the most international university, no matter your geographical location.
  • Such courses represent a more affordable, but just as valid, option to traditional degrees.

Step 7: Find out the facilities that the university offers for older students

As we have seen, not all universities are as equipped to include more mature and non-traditional students. However, once you have picked your college, it is time to find out what are the services that you should make the most out of while enrolled. These can range from grants to evening classes and support groups. Below you can find the features that should be unmissable.

High acceptance rate

Unlike younger students, more mature learners might not be able to prepare to attend college just to find out that they have not been admitted. Indeed, the application process, financial preparation, and time commitment can require a considerable effort that you might not be willing to repeat.

Even more importantly, you will need to make the most out of every year to be able to get ready in advance for retirement. Therefore, missing a whole year because you were not able to access the faculty you desired can represent a significant obstacle. 

However, you can easily avoid this obstacle by finding out the acceptance rate of the university. Generally, colleges that are equipped for older students have higher acceptance rates precisely for this reason. Anything above 85% to 90% allows you to get ready for your college experience in all safety.

Find out about grants and financial aids

One of the biggest obstacles that adult students have to face when deciding to go to college is the financial burden that can come with such an experience. However, the universities and schools that are welcoming non-traditional learners often help these individuals make it through the educational path without having to face debts

Start to find out which grants, scholarships, and financial aids you can benefit from. Moreover, you should research your college’s website to discover the percentage of students that have been able to take advantage of them.

Transfer credits

In the eventuality that you had already started college when you were younger and never finished, you might be able to redeem your credits and transfer them to your current college. This option is another form of financial relief that many older students take advantage of.

However, there are some other options that you could use to earn credits. These include credits…

  • …for life and work experience
  • …through pre-assessment essays
  • …for military service

While not all universities offer these options, the ones that cater to older students’ demographics generally do.

Step 8: Plan your finances

How to Start College at 50: A Step-by-Step Guide

Now that you know what the possibilities in front of you are, you can plan your finances and create a budget in all safety. While doing so, there are some aspects of studying that need to be included to avoid surprises later on.

While calculating expenditures and incomes, you should consider:

  • Transportation and commuting costs
  • Tuition fees
  • Rent (if applicable)
  • Childcare cost (if applicable)
  • Cost of books, printing, and other study materials
  • Reduction in income

Step 9: Ensure you have adequate support at home

Your decision about going to college might not affect only you. Indeed, your family might have to adapt expenditures and costs to the limitations that having only one salary can bring. 

Additionally, if you have decided to attend an on-campus course, family members might have to look after the house and play a significant part in redistributing responsibilities and duties.

Therefore, it is essential for any older student returning to college the kind of support you can expect at home. If you believe the rest of your family might struggle without your help, you could also consider employing a housekeeper or nanny to look after your children.

While this type of help can seem insignificant at first, it can make a difference in whether you will be able to keep up with your commitments, workload, and goals.

Step 10: Get in touch with the administrators

Once you have decided on your major, planning your budget and expenditures, and you have made up your mind on the college you are going to attend, you can get in touch with the administrators. 

This step can seem unnecessary if you have already researched all of your options. However, explaining your situations, requirements, and specific needs to the personnel in charge can be of great help. Indeed, they might be able to help you devise an effective study plan to work around your pre-existent responsibility and give you options that you had not considered before. Make sure you get in touch before signing up for the course. 

Step 11: Visit on an Open Day

Many students don’t take advantage of Open Days, yet these are essential to understand what to expect from your experience, meet other students and professors, and ask the questions that are still not answered. Visiting various colleges during their Open Days is an excellent way to find out whether you are compatible with such an environment.

Open Days happen throughout the year on different weekends. This feature allows you to attend as many as possible throughout the year before your application. Thinking in advance about your options helps you gain a better understanding of the differences between the institutions.

Step 12: Enroll in the course 

Enrolling in the course is an essential step that you should complete after you have analyzed your options and alternatives. Each university has different enrolling times, and applications are often open several months before the beginning of the course. 

You might be required to complete the first stage of the application and submit all the relevant information. Alongside this data, you should send a personal statement that describes your personality, motivations, reasons for applying, and achievements. As an older student, you can also include your work experience and future career goals. 

The final step includes tracking the application process and – if your university requires one – finding out the dates of the admission exams to undertake. 

In any case, remember that applications can become competitive, especially if the university is only accepting a limited amount of students per cohort. If so, you can increase your chances by submitting your application as early as possible.

Step 13: Networking

It’s done, you are in! However, the chances are that your course will not start for several months. Yet, you should truly make the most of this precious time frame. Aside from getting ready to attend college, start networking with fellow students and alumni.

This strategy allows you to build personal relationships that can turn out to be essential during your university journey. As we have seen, you can start to get in touch by accessing the student’s profile on LinkedIn. Generally, alumni and ex-students will be excited to pass on the knowledge they have about the campus, facilities, study materials, and exams. 

This easy task can allow you to gather valuable insights regarding life in college, which can help you prepare better for the obstacles you might face.

Step 14: Create a routine 

As the course’s starting day is approaching, begin to design the timetable to follow during the next months. This timetable should include study time, as well as revision windows, breaks, commuting times, and off time. Indeed, spending time with your family and friends, as well as looking after yourself, is essential.

It is not uncommon for more mature and non-traditional students to feel the pressure of stress and responsibilities. These, added to deadlines, exams, and presentations, can cause you to drop out of your course before finishing.

Even if you have now designed the perfect routine that allows you to stay on track with the many responsibilities you will have to deal with, remember to leave space for trial and error. Indeed, things can change, and your routine might need adjusting multiple times before perfectly fitting your preferences.

Changing your schedule based on the current workload, time of the year, and approaching deadlines is essential. However, you should never forget to include breaks and days off.

Step 15: Participate fully and take it seriously

After many years in a stable job position, it might be challenging to adapt to this sudden shift in the environment around you. You will meet several different people, and you will have to start building relationships from scratch.

If you have decided to undertake an online degree, you might have to learn how to make the best out of online resources, virtual support, and remote classes. Instead, if you are commuting to a campus, you will have to deal with increased time in your car.

However, one of the most critical factors for you to understand is your learning style. While during the first weeks this new experience can be stimulating, you are facing the challenge of having to study again after many years.

Failing to recognize what is the best way for you to retain information can quickly cause you to fall behind schedule and struggle to keep up. Instead, understanding what methods to use to make sure you are making the most out of your time at university is essential.

Step 16: Enjoy your experience!

While intimidating, the experience of going to college is unique and exciting. Undoubtedly, you will have the chance to build personal and professional relationships that will last throughout your life. Moreover, you can discover a little more about yourself and come up with a better career plan than the one you initially had.

While at university, however, it is vital not to underestimate the effort and commitment that this choice requires, as well as the level of perseverance that you will need to exhibit. 

Certain obstacles cannot be avoided, yet being ready to face them can make all the difference. If you are happy to adapt to a new environment, commit to study, and take each job seriously, you will be able to experience college at its fullest.


Deciding to go to college during your 50s can be one of the most intimidating choices to take. However, if you know how to approach the selection and application process, the journey can be much smoother. First of all, ensure you are clear on the motivations behind your choice and the objectives you would like to achieve through this effort.

Then, proceed to select the best university for your taste, needs, and preferences, whether this includes online or on-campus courses. Before applying, ensure to visit the university on an Open Day and get in touch with students and alumni beforehand. Once you are in, take it seriously and have fun!



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