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Can a College Degree Make a Difference at Age 51?

by Tanya Lee, studioD

The challenges of going back to college – or starting your college career – as a mature adult can seem daunting. Will you be able to keep up? Will you feel out of place among much younger students? How will you pay for a college degree? In the end, will it be worth it? But all the evidence shows that the benefits of getting a college degree are worth meeting the challenges. Not only will benefits accrue to you as the student, but there are resources available to you to support your effort.


College graduates earn more than workers who do not have college degrees. This idea has been repeated so often that it may seem trivial, but when you look at the dollars involved, it is an important consideration. The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey showed in 2011 that, on average, college graduates earned $1 million more over their lifetimes than did high school graduates. On average, a worker with a bachelor's degree will earn $2.4 million over the course of his lifetime. If you complete your degree in your mid-50s, the total you earn will likely be less than that, but since workers are retiring later these days, the earnings advantage would still be significant.


College graduates are more likely to have and keep jobs than those who do not have a degree, especially during a recession. A study from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 69 percent of young college graduates had jobs at the beginning of the 2008-2009 recession. That percentage fell to 65 percent during the recession. These numbers compare favorably with the 55 percent of people with a high school diploma who had jobs at the beginning of the recession and the fact that the number dropped to 47 percent during the recession.

Personal Benefits

Going back to college gives adults an opportunity to realize their lifelong goals and career dreams. As a mature student, you are likely to know what you want to study and be willing to put in the time to make good grades. Also, your life and work experiences will give you the confidence and knowledge to be able to contribute to class discussions.

Financial Advantages for Older Students

Older students have resources for paying for a college degree that younger students may not have. Sometimes employers are willing to pick up part of the college tuition tab for their employees and/or to give them paid time off for classes. Those who have served in the military may have GI benefits to help pay for college. And the federal tax code offers breaks that you may be able to take advantage of, including the up-to-$2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit; the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit tax credit of up to $2,000; and the Tuition and Fees Tax Deduction, which allows you to deduct up to $4,000 in tuition and fees.

About the Author

Tanya Lee is a professional writer with more than 30 years experience. She has published extensively in the field of education and as a journalist, the latter in such publications as "High Country News" and "News from Indian Country." Lee holds a M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Photo Credits

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