Going Back to School to Change Careers

May 2, 2013

There is no average college student, but the number of adults in higher education has been on the rise.

Over the last two decades, adult learners have made up nearly 40 percent of college students, according to the American Council on Education.

And many of these students, over the age of 25, are not going to college for the first time.

"You'll find more and more students are coming back, more adult students are coming back," said Mary Lee Walsh, dean of student services at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Walsh has been working with students for 20 years. She says, over the years, she has seen in increase in planning for the future.

Americans are working in the workforce a lot longer. In the mid-1990's, the average age of retirement was 60. Now, it's 67.

"We have many more options, and I think adults are responding to that," said Walsh.

And they're responding for a number of reasons. Some adults are simply following a dream. Many are heading back to college because of layoffs. For others, it's corporate downsizing.

"Sometimes what looks like misfortune can turn into a really good opportunity," said Walsh.

It was an unexpected turn in the housing market that sent Ryan McDonald back to college 20 years after he began pursuing his first degree.

McDonald has a Master's degree in architecture and spent a decade at a Charlottesville firm. After the housing bubble burst in 2008, his job became unstable. Not long after, he made the difficult decision to completely change his career path.

"If I was 18, it'd be a different story, but I'm 38 and have two kids and a wife and a house, so getting back into a career and starting to establish myself again is important," said McDonald.

He is doing that by taking classes part time at PVCC to study nursing, an area of study growing in popularity for students with degrees in other areas, according to Walsh.

"They've seen the labor statistics on health care and they know it's a field where they can stay in this area or move and they're excited about it," she said.

McDonald is on track to complete his nursing education in two years. He may be switching careers, but he says he doesn't view it as losing architecture, just gaining even more experience.

"I will always leave that door open. Maybe sometime down the road I can get into health care design consulting," he said. "It was an education and it's something I'll never lose."

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