In 2012, I wrote the following piece about how I was never going to return to college at midlife for Her.meneutics, one of the predecessors to the Christianity Today Women’s website. The piece was entitled, “When Higher Education Is Neither: Why Should I Earn A Degree?” At the time I wrote it, I was 53 years old. I thought I had some clarity about how the rest of my vocational life was going to go. I still stand by these words, and believe they’re true for many of us who never finished college. However, I need to add a P.S. about what happened to me between 2012 and today. It turns out I didn’t have a clue.
First, the 2012 post:
“Where did you go to college, Michelle?”
I hesitated before answering: “I didn’t finish college.” Among the highly educated crowd round the table, there were a couple of seconds where I felt like I’d showed up at prom wearing sweats and a bandanna.
The conversation drifted to other topics, but a woman sitting next to me noted my momentary discomfort. “Why don’t you go back to school and finish your degree?”
It is a question to which many adults respond in the affirmative each year. Forty-seven percent of new and returning students are 25 or older, according to The Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education. Most adults have packed-full lives, and returning to the classroom means reprioritizing family, work, and church or community commitments. In addition, returning students need to figure out how to pay for school. The cost of higher education has risen in recent years at more than twice the average rate of inflation. Though many are questioning whether the price tag of a college education is worth the economic benefit, according to a recent Pew study 86 percent of college graduates surveyed felt that their education was a good investment.
Many adults head back to school including job training, preparation for a new career, or personal enrichment. I have been dancing with the question of returning to college for most of my adult life.
I left a state university at the end of my sophomore year, unsure how to proceed after I was told there was not a space for me in the major area into which I’d hoped to transfer. I came home in search of Plan B. That plan included an unexpected romance, followed by a wedding at age 20. Shortly after I got married, I landed a staff position at a community college, and then eventually another staff job at a private four-year college.
My husband and many coworkers encouraged me to consider finishing college during those years. I could have attended classes at a discounted cost. Instead, I chose to focus on freelance writing, which led to a lot of freelance (and mostly free) learning from the writing books and magazines on the shelves of my local library. These how-to guides supplemented the protein-rich diet of theology, Christian living, and Bible study materials that filled out my regular reading list.
We chose to homeschool our three children, which gave our household a decidedly academic personality. Classics read aloud formed the backbone of our children’s education and enriched me as well; I’d never read Dickens, Hugo, Defoe, or Shakespeare during my own K-12 years.
The churches we’ve attended are typical of many evangelical congregations when it comes to education: They are far better at encouraging members to love God heart, soul, and strength than they are at encouraging discipleship of the mind. My personal lifelong learning habits of reading broadly and writing reflectively have helped remedy this deficiency.
I found myself back on staff at an evangelical college and seminary when my youngest son finished high school. There it was again, a new variation of the Question, being asked of me by various coworkers and a few students: “Why don’t you finish college, and go on for a divinity degree? You’re certainly bright enough, and you’d be in good company,” they told me. “There are lots of women your age enrolled here.”
I eventually left the job, but there is a part of me that still wonders if I should pursue my college education. Many of the people I respect most in my life possess advanced degrees. There are teaching and leadership doors I would love to enter, but many are closed to me without a degree key to open them. Those lingering regrets, along with a nagging sense that I may have shortcircuited the opportunities presented me by God, are the parts of me that squirm when people ask where I attended college.
The question of vocation is embedded in the college decision process for most adults. A high-school senior trying to decide on a major is a gentler version of a mature adult’s restless query: “How am I to best serve God with the gifts, talents, and experience he has given me?”
Educator Parker Palmer said, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” The classroom lost some of its appeal for me as I sensed God’s pleasure when I mailed my first freelance article attempt to a tiny magazine three decades ago. When I sold the article, I realized that I didn’t need a degree in order to pursue the particular vocation he designed for me. I also quickly discovered that the only way I’d be able to excel in that vocation was to live a learner’s life.
Learning happens in classrooms, labs, or lecture halls, but God never intended these to be the only places where faith-filled intellectual discipleship happens. God calls us to transform knowledge into wisdomthroughout our lives. In light of the fact that only half of 2011 college graduates said they needed their degree for their first job, a degree may not be the best use of a learner’s time, talents, and finances.
Still, an education always is.
A year and a half after I wrote those words, I received an unexpected invitation from a gracious professor to enroll as a special status student at Northern Seminary. Though I was lacking a Bacherlor’s degree, school administrators were willing to take me on as a student as long as I proved I could do the work. It turns out my years of freelance writing (everything from books to plays to curriculum to P.R.) along with a rich, raggedy patchwork of ministry and life experience suited me for classroom work far more than I ever could have imagined. I loved the Masters’ degree-level coursework and the interactions with professors and fellow students alike.
I was plugging away at a M.A. in Christian Ministry degree when I fell ill – very, very ill. I’ve spent much of my life battling one sickness or another, but in the spring of 2016, I received a diagnosis that required me to rethink how I could best use my resources of time, energy, and funds. With great sadness, I realized that I was not going to be able to complete that degree after all, though I do hope to audit some classes in the future.
Northern’s administrators tallied up the coursework I’d completed. It turned out I’d done enough to earn a graduate certificate. While it is not an official degree, it is a reminder to me that I am not as clever as I think I am when it comes to life planning and goal-setting. My experience at Northern Seminary also validated the words I wrote before I knew I’d be attending school. My life-long learning habits prepared me for the classroom in surprising and profound ways. I’d spent years reading theology and church history, and it was a delight to realize the Holy Spirit had been at work, guiding and teaching me all that time. The classroom helped me make new connections between what I already knew, and clarified for me that the most beautiful theology is a work of love, yet still falls far short of describing the excellencies of our eternal God.
We may have excellent plans for our lives. We may set lofty financial, career, or academic goals for ourselves. But at some point – often at midlife – we may discover that our plans are nothing more than a first draft that is being rewritten for our good and God’s glory. My experience in the classroom is one of the ways in which my vocation as a writer/communicator has been clarified and confirmed.
Sitting in the classroom was a review of another lesson I should have learned long ago: Never say never!
If you’ve gone back to school at midlife, add a note in the comments to tell us where you studied and what the experience was like for you.