It's never too late to follow your dreams
Adult learners, typically defined as over the age of 25, have comprised close to 40% of the college-going population for the last two decades, according to the American Council on Education.
Once upon a time, people worked for one company for the duration of their career and then retired. But in the 21st century, not only do most people hold several jobs during their lifetimes, but they also undergo complete career changes. Gone are the days of suffering through a job you hate—today, you can find your passion, go back to school at any age, and create a life you love. Plenty of older, professional and retired workers are returning to school and reaping huge rewards. It can feel like a daunting process, though, so we'll break it down into a manageable plan so you can end up in your dream job with minimal headaches and maximum happiness. The first step, appropriately, is to do your homework.
Why Make the Switch?
A career change is typically driven by one of two things, according to Jerry Heilpern, career services director at the Art Institute of Atlanta (AIA). The first reason is that the person has been stuck in a career they dislike while longing to do something that actually excites them. The second reason is that some workers have seen the effects of the economic shifts and realize their industry is either unstable or could even become obsolete.
David Dixon, assistant director of admissions at Oglethorpe University, also sees students he calls "career advancers," who have hit a ceiling at work and need a higher degree to break through it. "We've really come into an age where the bachelor's degree is the new high school diploma," he says.
Before you dive into researching educational opportunities, you should first investigate the profession to be certain that your dream is in line with the reality of the job you want. "If you're going to make that major life-changing decision, first you need to do some soul searching and find out what you are passionate about," Heilpern says. "Do serious research on that industry and what the career path looks like for that industry." He recommends learning about where you would start out in the profession, and if you would have to start at the bottom, how long should you expect to stay there? Get to know what an actual day in the life is like in that profession. Once you are certain that you have selected the right career, you are ready to find the educational program that will best prepare you.
New degrees? Yes, please!
Adult degree programs are so varied that you're almost guaranteed to find a program that's perfect for you and your career switch. Dixon explains that Oglethorpe's most popular programs for adult learners are business, psychology and communications. At AIA, students flock to the culinary arts program, with audio production coming in second, followed by graphic design, fashion retail management and video production.
Kennesaw State University's College of Continuing and Professional Education offers 45 professional certificate programs, according to Dean Barbara C. Calhoun. "Our offerings represent a variety of industries, including culinary, web design, paralegal, human resources, healthcare, languages, computers and technology," she says. This college alone serves more than 20,000 people annually.
Kennesaw State University also houses the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), which offers educational and social opportunities specifically for adults age 50 and older. OLLI students, about 2,800 of them a year, enjoy classes in art, history, fitness and music appreciation. Students can even receive a certificate upon completion of computer courses, where they'll learn everything from the basics to advanced programming.
If health and wellness is something you are interested in, Life University offers a variety of degrees including chiropractic health, exercise science and nutrition. They also offer masters of science degrees in sport health science, exercise sport science and sport injury management. For adults over the age of 55, Life University has the LIFE Center for Seniors which gives adults the option to continue learning, working on self-improvement, health enhancement and connecting with fellow students. Class offerings include fitness, computer literacy, wellness, nutrition, cooking, tennis and more. Life College was established in 1975 as a college of chiropractic, and by 1990, it had grown to become the largest chiropractic college in the world. In 1996 Life College expanded its degree offerings to include an undergraduate school and became Life University.
Now that you've researched your new field and identified some possible educational programs, it's time to figure out payment. Some schools have special programs for adult learners; for example, Oglethorpe offers these students a type of flat rate per-class fee rather than a per-hour fee. AIA is aggressive with internal scholarships and grants that can be received in addition to federal aid. Belhaven University Adult Continuing Education Program includes the use of textbooks in their tuition fees, so you don't have to plan for that added expense. Military benefits can also offset financial burdens, and the Workforce Investment Act provides funds for workers who have been displaced.
For adult learners, readjusting to the life of a student can be difficult, and some fear the idea of being the old person in the classroom or being embarrassed. Study habits and note-taking skills must be redeveloped. For students who have been out of school for a decade or more, working with technology may seem daunting. But don't worry—good schools and programs will make sure that you fit right in and have plenty of support. Oglethorpe's adult degree program offers classes during the evening that cater to older and working students, and the Academic Success Center helps students get the support they need.
Back to Work
Once a student completes the educational portion of a career change, the reality of re-entering the workforce comes with its own difficulties. "It's really like starting all over again," Heilpern says. In some industries, it will not matter what you used to do, how high up the ladder you had climbed or how successful you were. You will still have to pay your dues in the new profession, and starting with a completely clean slate will "change your life in a dramatic way," Heilpern says.
Although balancing school, life and expenses can be tough, the reward is "being happier with yourself and your life overall," Dixon says. A new degree or certification can move you into a career with a long-term trajectory. Putting some time and thought into planning your career realignment up front will help lead to a positive lifelong transition. Just keep your eye on the prize—waking up every day and doing a job that really feeds your soul. Eventually, Heilpern says, you'll be able to say, "It's the best decision I ever made."
Real Success Stories
Cindy Kaufman was 41 years old when she left her position as a marketing director in the beverage industry. "I realized more and more how much I wanted to extricate myself from 'Corporate America,'" she says. "I also grew resentful of the fact that I was working 90 hours a week and making someone else rich. There was little personal satisfaction left in what I was doing. I was just a number on a corporate cost center spreadsheet."
She left her job to attend the interior design program at Savannah College of Art & Design in Atlanta full time. She found herself surrounded by young students, where her life experience turned out to be an advantage. "There is no way I could have done this program as my original undergraduate degree at age 18 and been successful at it," she says. Currently, she's living her dream working for a small independent design firm called Holt Interiors. Though the career shift was a little scary, Kaufman says, "It's worth it. Life is really beautiful when you see it through an unclouded vision of how you wish to live."
For Karen Carr, finding a program that fit with her lifestyle enabled her to complete the degree she had started after high school. "I went to Oglethorpe because they had an evening program," she says. She entered with lots of transfer credit and completed a bachelor's degree in communications with a minor in art in two years while working full time.
While Carr is still searching for the right job in her new profession, she already has a sense of accomplishment for completing what she started. "I know having that degree is going to be helpful," she says. "No one can take your education away from you." Addtionally, people should try to avoid accruing heavy debt. "Have a solid plan on how you are going to pay for it or pay it back."
When she was laid off from her job, Tammie Gruhn benefited from the Workforce Investment Act by receiving funds to earn training in a different field. Entering KSU's paralegal program at 44, Gruhn attended full time and doubled up on classes to finish in one year instead of two. While in school, she made a point of networking and interning continuously, which she credits with her success at finding a position when she graduated. For someone considering a career change, she recommends the same type of dedication. "I would find somebody that does the job you think you want to go to school for and do an internship or shadow that person. You really need to know what the job is and what it's like." While it was the economy that pushed Gruhn into her current field, working in family law has given her a sense of purpose. "I like to think that with my job, I can make a difference in somebody's life. I was just a grandmother who decided to go to school in her 40s," she says. Today she is a senior paralegal at The Gunn Firm and president of the Cobb Legal Professional Association.
Average Job Wages: How do they stack up?
Chef/head cook: $42,480
Graphic designer: $44,150
Computer programmer: $74,280
- Courtesy of the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics' report on occupational employment and wages, May 2012
Barbara C. Calhoun, Kennesaw State University College of Continuing and Professional Education – www.ccpe.kennesaw.edu
Belhaven University – www.atlanta.belhaven.edu
David Dixon, Oglethorpe University – www.adults.oglethorpe.edu
Jerry Heilpern, Art Institute of Atlanta – www.artinstitutes.edu
Life University – www.life.edu
Where to go in Atlanta
Belhaven University (404) 425-5590 www.atlanta.belhaven.edu See ad p. 49
International School of Skin, Nail Care & Massage Therapy (ISSN) (404) 843-1005 www.issnschoolspa.com See ad p. 47
Life University (770) 426-2884 www.life.edu See ad p. 2