Boomer U. – Older Adults Go Back to School
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By Reyna Gobel,
The Fiscal Times
March 8, 2012

When 53-year-old Rochelle Van Driel returned to school after twenty years at the age of 45, she was intimidated. A stay-at-home mom who was raising two kids, now ages 30 and 21, she hadn’t looked at a math problem in over two decades. None of her credits from her short stint in college were transferable, so  she’d have to start as a freshman.

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Van Driel enrolled in a program at American Rivers College in Sacramento, Calif., to study Gerontology, and quickly excelled. Today, she’s an assistant to the chair of Gerontology at American Rivers College and pursuing her master’s in the subject. Her goal is to become a professor.

Van Driel is one of many baby boomers across the country who are returning to school to gain the skills necessary to stay competitive in today’s difficult job market. With lower 401(k) balances and reduced home values, more older workers are looking to extend their working years – but many they feel they need retraining to do so. According to a January 2011 paper by the Urban Institute, when older workers – particularly men – lose their jobs, they have a much harder time finding work than their younger counterparts: Laid-off  men ages 50 to 61 were 39 percent less likely to become reemployed, while men ages 61 or older were 51 percent less likely.

Classes geared towards workforce training for the over-50 crowd grew from just over 50 to over 1,000 courses form 2008 to 2011, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. After the economy tanked, “the community colleges saw plus-50 students coming back to [school] for workforce training/retraining,” says Mary Sue Vicker, the director of the American Association of Community Colleges Plus 50 Initiative, a program created in 2008 to assist older students. To stay competitive in the labor market, those who are older need both new skills and skill updating,  particularly with computers, says Vicker.

Health Care Tops the List
In the first year of the Plus 50 Initiative program, about 3,500 students completed workforce training courses. Of those, more than 600 completed courses to improve their computer skills. Classes included everything from social media and email to Microsoft Office and desktop publishing. While local employment markets tend to dictate the careers older students pursue, nationally health care tops the list.

The problem is, boomers generally come in burdened with more obligations than a traditional twenty-something student. There are families to support and mortgages to pay. Often, they have kids in college and parents who need help.

Sharon Freeman, coordinator of the Clover Park Technical College Plus 50 Program near Tacoma, Wash.,  recalls a 55-year-old student who came in after being laid off from a six-figure job as manager of  an electronic store. With a sick wife at home, he needed a new career to support his family. He enrolled in a two-and-a-half-month  nurse’s assistant program at Clover Park, but did so well that he extended it to a one-year program to become a licensed nurse practitioner.

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Others choose to take courses to expand their knowledge base to become entrepreneurs. “There are a lot of accidental entrepreneurs during recessions, as people have a choice [of] finding another job they don’t like or finally doing what they have always dreamed of doing,” says David John Marotta, a financial planner in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Though grants and tuition waivers are available in some states for older students, many boomers turn to student loans to finance their education, which can put a dent in retirement plans. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of over-40 undergraduate and graduate students who borrowed to pay for their education increased over 250 percent between 1995 and 2007. 

“Baby boomers don’t necessarily feel that their age is the most important factor leading to the time to retire,” says Freeman. “Other factors surface, such as liking their jobs and being able to perform the tasks. In light of living longer, [they] want something meaningful to do. There is something to that old saying ‘age is nothing but a number.’”

5 Tips for Boomers Returning to School:

  • Use Available Resources
    At Clover Park Technical College, , employees guide students through the process of picking a program and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. If the school you want to attend does not have Plus 50 program personnel, most colleges have career services, admissions, and financial aid departments to help in the process of returning to school.
  • Research Tuition Waiver Programs
    Contact your state’s department of education for information on programs for older students. Age limits vary from state to state and can start in the 50s.  In other states, senior programs begin at age 65.
  • Claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit
    If you meet income requirements, the American Opportunity Tax Credit is equivalent to a scholarship of up to $2,500 per year for tuition and other eligible expenses.
  • Fill Out the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA)
    Schools use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for financial aid. Even if your income rules out federal grants, you may qualify for state or university grants as well as scholarships.
  • Consider Converting Part of an IRA to a Roth IRA
    If your income is low while you’re in college, this is the perfect time to pay income tax on your retirement funds, says Roger Streit, a certified financial planner in New Jersey, so you can withdraw money tax-free later. To figure out if converting some retirement funds to a Roth makes sense, Streit says to have a tax pro review this year’s tax return or plug in “what-if” scenarios to your tax software program.