The Psychological Challenges of Returning to Education as an Adult

Many who return to education in later life find the transition from work to study a difficult one. For some, the demands are mostly practical: money worries, ageing parents, resentful partners, and a lack of time. For others, however, it is the psychological strain that holds them back. While most are well-prepared for the practical stresses, the psychological and emotional ones often take them by surprise.

No Longer Young

Those who return to college in their 30s or 40s will be forced to confront an unpleasant fact, one they may have denied until now – they are no longer young! Lots of people leave college at 21 and move into the workplace. They then begin a career in, for example, banking or marketing, and work in an office environment with stressed adults weighed down by mortgages, children, and shaky marriages. The years fly by, they turn 30 and decide on a change. So they go back to their old college to re-take a degree they never finished. Suddenly, they find themselves surrounded by beautiful, noisy, excited 18 and 19-year-olds. This can be a shock. Some even find it upsetting. Most will laugh of course, even making jokes about it to their friends, but deep down it can hurt. Going from the youngest in the office to the oldest in the seminar room isn’t as fun as it sounds.


Self-doubt can be another major hurdle. This is especially true for those who dropped out of formal education at a young age, or were made to feel stupid by teachers and parents. Others, who have been out of the education system for several decades, may worry that modern teachers and examiners are looking for something different. Some fear that their mind has slowed and rusted and that they will fail to keep up. Another common reason for self-doubt is technology. And this is not a groundless fear. Technology does seem to progress at a dizzying pace, and those born since the late 1980s can seem at times to speak a language of their own.


Then of course there is stress. Most 18-year-olds know little about the real world. Their course fees are often paid for by parents, they rarely have children to worry about, and they usually have the carefree energy and confidence of youth. Mature students, by contrast, know what an unforgiving place the world can be. Many will have taken out an expensive loan to cover the fees or to pay their mortgage while they study. And for some, a great deal may depend on the successful completion of their course.

For most mature students, stress is caused by a lack of time. Having a supportive family, partner, and friends will be vital. There will be times when you cannot get home to fix dinner or pick up the children, when you have to let people down, or when you simply need a bit of love and encouragement.

How to Cope

1) Realize that what you are doing is common. First, it is important to understand that returning to college is perfectly normal. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 40% of college students are now aged 25 or over. It can be comforting to remember that the worries and concerns you have, from looking foolish in a room packed with teenagers to placing your marriage under strain, are shared by millions of others. If they can get through it, so can you. People are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, and the barriers between generations are collapsing. You won’t look out of place in a lecture on Dickens or pre-Raphaelite paintings just because you are 55.

2) Combat self-doubt with hard work. Get stuck into your work and have faith. As soon as your first essay is returned with a decent grade, those self-doubts will evaporate and you will feel entitled to be there. Many students, both young and old, feel like imposters until they get some positive feedback from a teacher or professor. No amount of reassurance and support from family and friends will have quite the same effect.

3) Get organized. Stress is usually caused by poor time management. Mature students are often stretched to breaking point by ageing parents, resentful partners, demanding children, part-time jobs, and coursework. The key is to get organized. Plan each day like a military operation. If possible, buy a wall chart or diary and work out a daily study time. It is also very important to explain things to your partner. He or she may wish to support you but simply not understand the time and effort involved. You need to explain in as much detail as possible exactly what the course will involve and what you need from them.

4) Take care of your body. Nothing will aggravate stress more than a poor diet and lack of sleep. Many students allow themselves to become trapped in a vicious circle: they get so stressed that they cannot sleep, which in turn makes it harder to keep up with the work, leading to more stress and thus even worse sleep patterns and so on. On top of that, many will claim that they simply haven’t the time to eat healthily and so are sustained by caffeine, nicotine and sugary snacks instead, all of which fuel stress and weaken concentration. To compensate, they then work late into the night, leaving them burnt out and unable to concentrate the following day, which causes more stress! You must find the time to eat a healthy, balanced diet and take a little exercise.

5) Take care of your mind. Most universities and colleges now have counselors and therapists. No one understands the demands and needs of a student better, so don’t hesitate to take full advantage of this. The benefits of yoga and meditation cannot be exaggerated either. Finally, try and do something pointless and fun each day. Find the time to watch your favorite comedy show, play tennis, or simply walk in the park.

6) Make sure that those you love understand what is involved. This is absolutely crucial. If your children are very young, you must explain to them that you will have less time and that you need them to be quiet. If your children are older, it is best to speak to them as you would another adult. Explain how much this means to you – maybe even ask their advice (teenagers love this). If you have ageing parents, you will also need to make it clear that you will have less time to visit and run errands. Above all, make things clear to your partner. If you get stressed, you may find yourself snapping at them. The person doing the studying will often complain that their partner isn’t supporting them and that they are being selfish. The partner will usually reply that they feel ignored, unwanted, or taken for granted and that their partner only cares about his or her course.

Make no mistake, returning to education as an adult can be a challenge and should be considered carefully. It can also be immensely rewarding however. When you receive that longed for degree or certificate, all the stress, tears and hard work will be forgotten.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

Recommended Articles