Return to study

4 Minute Read | Author: Hannah Tattersall

Student life is not so simple when you’re 30-plus. But a few small adjustments to your routine will help get you through.


Going to uni for the first time can be nerve wracking for all anyone. But what if you’ve enrolled for the first time in your twenties – or worked for a decade before deciding to enrol at 30? Being a mature age student comes with its own set of challenges, yet more and more of us are making the choice to study later in life. In 2013, 41 per cent of students were aged 25-64 years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

As organisations place ever greater stress on technology, many of us are returning to university to re-train and up-skill. One high profile Aussie who recently donned a mortarboard is comedian Corinne Grant, who graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Juris Doctor law degree in early 2017.

While she found studying at 40 a challenge (not least because she felt she was closer in age to her fellow students’ parents), she told The Daily Telegraph she felt lucky to be able to have two careers in her lifetime. “I’m still pinching myself. It’s only now I look back on it and think, ‘Wow, that actually kind of is a big achievement – for anyone,’” she said.

Benefit from greater focus

A study by Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach, a lecturer with the University of Melbourne's Graduate School of Education, looked at how mature age students transition into their first tertiary degrees. She interviewed students at the University of Melbourne aged between 23 and 75 and found older students were highly motivated and diligent when it came to course work. But around 82 per cent of mature age students said they had no close ties at university and were dissatisfied with social activities.

James Donaldson, who studied business logistics and supply chain management via Open University, says at 27 he was definitely more focused on study and less easily distracted than he was at 18. “The greater responsibilities you have when you are older, such as paying the bills, saving for a deposit or fully supporting yourself, mean that you are more focused on a successful outcome,” he says, adding that as a mature student he didn't feel the need to be surrounded by peers.

“I was prepared to go it alone and get the job done. I think the greatest challenge was balancing my time for study with work and other life commitments. I believe older people tend to have more to juggle, whether it be family, financial commitments or a busy work life. With this in mind I feel there is more pressure on mature age students to succeed.”

Consider flexible program options

Many courses these days are online, which makes returning to study a lot easier. That’s particularly the case if you have children or other commitments. There are also weekend or summer intensive programs, or units that offer evening classes. And most universities will allow you to study part time.

Gloria*, now in her sixties, went back to university when she was in her thirties and had a small child. She says she was grateful for the opportunity to further her study and improve her career chances, and she met two nice groups of friends. But juggling study and child care was difficult. “I was dependent on my husband to mind my child when I was studying and I had a nanny for when I went to lectures. It was hard to leave my baby but I felt very grateful that the establishment let me take leave to further my study,” she says.

For Rowena Ryan, a communications graduate who made the decision to return to uni to study nursing at 30, the experience was a turning point in her life when she felt at a crossroads. But it also brought new challenges, she says, including some pretty serious financial ones.

“I went from earning a reasonable income to working weekends in hospitality and had to move back in with my parents,” she explains. “I had to knock back invitations to go to dinners with my group of friends who were all in their 30s and earning 6-figure salaries. I couldn’t afford $150 nights out every week.”

Then, when she had time off mid-week and wanted to see her friends, they were working or didn’t want a late night. “It was a strange time,” she says.

Set realistic expectations

One of the golden rules to being a student is that you only get out what you put in, but some mature age students struggle with the change to their lifestyle if all they’ve known is working 9-5. If it all begins to feel too overwhelming, you should consider whether to look into tutoring, ask for academic support or just speak with your lecturer or tutor about the things you are juggling.

Secure support from friends and family

According to The Good Education Group, which publishes the Good Universities Guide among other publications, one of the realities of going back to study is that it can cause some friction between you and your family.  

“Put measures in place to cope with your absence ­– for example, distributing the housework differently or changing school pick-up arrangements. You may also want to pin your class timetable to the fridge, add assessment due dates to the family calendar or schedule study nights away from home – perhaps in the (hopefully noise-free) student library,” it suggests.

And if you intend to work while studying, make sure you have the support of your boss and colleagues if you will be taking study leave or have to leave early to attend lectures.