It's Not a Waste of Time to Go to College When You're Older

People who go to college later in life wind up earning about the same money as those who graduated younger, a Gallup report says
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Saddled with kids, mortgages, and the corporate grind, older adults may view going to college for the first time as a questionable investment. New research suggests they should reconsider. So-called nontraditional graduates who graduate at age 25 or older end up with incomes on par with those of their younger peers, a Gallup report released on Thursday shows. 

Gallup looked at about 4,000 nontraditional graduates and 7,500 traditional graduates, all of whom earned degrees sometime from 1990 to 2014. As long as they graduated at around the same time, there was no significant difference in earnings between the two groups.

“I think most people believe if you go to college later in life, that’s the less ideal time to do it and that you won’t get as much benefit out of it,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education. “But whether you went to college as an 18-year-old or started as a 33-year-old, if you finished, you’re making the same amount.”


In an ideal scenario, nontraditional graduates would see a bump in salary to make up for the years of lower income before they got degrees. Yet it remains that, had they never gone to college, they would probably be stuck with lower wages. The report suggests that a college degree is an equalizing force with the potential to lift earnings for anyone, regardless of age, says Busteed. That's cheery news for the growing number of adults heading off to college later in their lives: Gallup says the percentage of nontraditional graduates increased to 32 percent in the period from 2010 to 2014, double the rate of 16 percent in the 1970s.