Why it’s never too late to return for your MBA

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If you’ve ever expressed interest in getting a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree years after your undergraduate experience, you’re not alone. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of college students over 25 years old increased 18 percent between 2004 and 2014. The NCES predicts that same rate of increase will occur between 2014 and 2025.

There are numerous reasons why people consider going back to school as adults. Some have a few years of work experience and believe continuing their education will help them move up the career ladder. Others want a complete change in career but don’t want to start their education from scratch, preferring to capitalize on their undergraduate experience with a versatile MBA. No matter how far along they get in the process – whether they’ve submitted an application, reviewed programs online or simply mentioned the idea to a friend – at some point, all of these people feel a sense of anxiety. Getting a master’s degree later in life presents its own set of challenges, and the idea can be unnerving. Many people give up on this dream, convincing themselves they’re too old or have too many responsibilities to return to school.

If you’re thinking about returning for an MBA after being out of college for years, no doubt you’ve had some similar thoughts. Thankfully, regardless of your personal circumstances, there’s a program out there that’s perfect for you.

What you need to know about going back to school

Returning for your MBA won’t be the same experience as undergrad, even from a logistical standpoint. If you had relevant work experience to pad your undergraduate education, you were the exception. Now, you’ll likely have a few years – if not decades – worth of professional history under your belt. You might be afraid that this could compromise your candidacy, assuming the admissions office will put your application aside in favor of a younger student who needs help breaking into the professional world.

On the contrary, real-world experience helps rather than hinders your application. In fact, the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park, highly recommends you have at least two years of work experience detailed on your résumé. A history of employment proves to both admissions staff and your future professors that you already have self-discipline and can stick to a schedule. It also proves you have critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. All of these traits are essential for handling the workload of a graduate student.

In addition, a successful job history means you’ll have no shortage of peers to write a letter of recommendation. You don’t have to worry about contacting a teacher you had years ago in undergrad, hoping they remember you and your grades. Instead, you have many people with relevant experience who can vouch for your dedication and intelligence.
Of course, there is the matter of tuition to settle. Luckily, there is no age limit for receiving federal aid. Students of all backgrounds can apply for free at fafsa.gov. You don’t need to pass a credit check to receive federal loans, so there’s no cause for worry if you have credit issues.

It’s also a good idea to apply for as many scholarships as you can – there are plenty available for older students, just keep in mind any variances in minimum age requirements as you search for one. Some are available to any student over 19, while others are geared only toward those who are at least 25, 35 or even 60.

You can also apply for a federal income tax credit designed to help people who are saving or paying for college. These credits don’t go toward your tuition directly – rather, they reduce the amount of income tax you’re required to pay to the IRS. While there are two credits available, the American Opportunity Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit, most graduate students are only eligible for the latter. Only students who have yet to complete four years of post-secondary education and are enrolled at least part-time are eligible for the American opportunity credit. However, you can apply for the lifetime learning credit regardless of your prior educational experience or your course load. IRS Publication 970 explains these credits in detail.

While you can’t claim both credits for a single person in one year, you can claim both for different members of your family. Therefore, if you’re planning on returning to school at the same time your child is entering college, you can claim the American opportunity credit for your child and the lifetime learning credit for yourself.

If you’re satisfied with your current career and are pursuing a degree to help you advance, consider asking your employer to help fund your tuition. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, 72 percent of full-time, two-year degree programs believe their students will get their tuition reimbursed, at least in part, by their employer. What’s more, 21 percent believe the number of students benefiting from employer-based tuition reimbursement will increase.

Traits to excel in your classes

Make no mistake, earning an MBA as an adult will be hard. You’ll study difficult subjects, including data models, corporate finance, accounting and information systems, all while juggling your professional and personal obligations. When things get tough – and they most certainly will at times – it’s very tempting to pack up your books and leave.

If you ever consider dropping out, remind yourself why you decided to pursue an MBA in the first place. It could be an increase in salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while people with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $56,000, those with a master’s earn about $68,000. The earning potential of MBA-holders is even higher. Securities, commodities and financial services sales agents with an MBA earn almost 90 percent more than those with just a bachelor’s. Other degree-seekers just want to accelerate their climb up the professional ladder or obtain skills to make them more employable. Whatever the reason, few can doubt the positive impact an MBA can yield for your future. Keep that in mind at all times.

Motivation is especially important when earning your degree online. This option is perfect for a more experienced student as it allows flexibility to incorporate coursework into your busy schedule. At the same time, this also means no one is holding you accountable, so a healthy dash of motivation and self-discipline are very important for staying on track.

This trait isn’t just helpful; it’s the only way for students to succeed in their pursuit of an MBA. You already have numerous other obligations, including work, family, friends and bills. Some of these will have to take a back seat, but others will always remain a priority.

The best way to juggle all of your commitments is to remain organized. If you’re a working adult with a family, you’re likely already used to waking up, heading to the office and picking up children on time, so you’re ahead of most younger students in that regard. Adding classes to the mix means your life will shift dramatically, so you need to create a schedule. Plan out when you need to be at work, in class, completing homework and taking care of your personal life, then stick to it.

Also, don’t expect to breeze through your tests and assignments without rigorous study. Block out time on your schedule to review lectures and past assignments, not just complete what’s due tomorrow. Getting a solid grasp on the material early on will provide the foundation you need once you start learning more complex concepts, and you’ll find yourself swimming instead of sinking.

Critical thinking
Business isn’t all formulas and analytics. That type of data is important, but it’s what a leader does with the information that determines a company’s success or failure. Throughout your studies and in your personal life, you’ll have to determine the most effective, efficient way to reach a particular goal. You’ll have to compromise, negotiate and think outside the box to reach your objective. Thinking critically allows you to make the best decisions possible.

A collaborative spirit
A business can’t succeed on the strength of one person alone. This is important to keep in mind when you return to school. You’ll be surrounded by like-minded students, experienced teachers and successful alumni, all of whom can be great resources to learn from.

Don’t be afraid of approaching younger students for projects or study groups. You’ll work with people of all ages once you graduate, if you haven’t already, and standing side by side with your younger peers provides unique insights to their generation. Most likely, you both will have a lot to learn from each other.
Luckily, many of these traits come naturally to the average adult simply by virtue of existing as an independent taxpayer, who goes to work, pays bills and taxes and maintains personal commitments. The decision to obtain an MBA isn’t made lightly, but you likely already have all the qualities needed to succeed.