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I am contemplating pursuing a bachelor degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering or System Engineering. Not to look for a job with it but just to expand my knowledge. I have a reasonable income as a programmer.

I have a certification in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from City&Guilds 20 years ago but ended up being a self-taught programmer. for the past 15 years, I have been able to win and deliver myriads of projects projects successfully. I'm versatile in various programming languages: C/C++, Java, Python, Rust, Haskell, Lisp (and its derivatives).

I thought of expanding my knowledge in Electronics Engineering either by self-thought or via school. My worry is, I will end up having my degree at 47 if I enroll.

What do you suggest I should consider when making this decision?

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    Why do you think this might be a problem? Do you think you'd have difficulty getting accepted anywhere? Do you think you'd struggle with actually doing the work involved in getting the degree? Do you think you might be judged by your classmates or others (not that this should matter)? Do you think it wouldn't be all that valuable professionally (but you mention mainly wanting to expand your knowledge, so I guess this isn't applicable)?
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 23, 2020 at 12:33
  • Please avoid answers, alternatives, anecdotes, or extended discussion in the comments; this conversation can continue in the chat. Please see this FAQ before posting a comment below this one.
    – cag51
    Oct 23, 2020 at 20:08
  • Are you able to attend classes full time? Going for ECE on course to finish in four years is gonna be a pretty big thing to balance with still working! Oct 24, 2020 at 3:23
  • The question would benefit from information about where you live and how expensive it would be to get the degree (which appears to concern some answerers more than it appears to concern you ;-) ). City & guilds could be a hint that you are in the UK where there are currently significant tuition fees. Oct 24, 2020 at 4:39
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    location, location...... in some countries this is very common, but in others may be impossible
    – Mike M
    Oct 24, 2020 at 20:12

11 Answers 11

47

Firstly, to answer the actual question at the top: yes, absolutely. There is no age limit on doing a degree. It is not at all unusual for people significantly older than you to complete degrees.

My worry is, I will end up having my degree at 47 if i enroll.

Is that a problem? Most people with degrees have degrees at 47 - they just happen to have had 26 years to forget most of the material in between. Sure, having a degree earlier might have been a financial/career advantage, but unless you've got a time machine (in which case present it and collect all the degrees you could ever possibly want) you can't change that, so your choice is, instead, between being a 47 year old without a degree and being a 47 year old with a degree - I can't see any particular disadvantage to the latter, unless the process of doing the degree course is going to cause you problems (via stress, loss of income, cost, work-life balance issues, etc.).

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    You'll do ok. But you might be a little bored as your cohort will be unorganized students fresh from high school who are in the process of growing up. You have all the skills in self motivation, you're engaged with the subject and interested, you'll actually do the assignments and with covid you won't spend all your time in the pub.
    – D Duck
    Oct 23, 2020 at 12:39
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    I second all of this. But as a practical matter, note that the analysis on the financing can change later in life. Taking out student loans in particular may have a very different analysis for someone at 42 then 22. Oct 23, 2020 at 15:46
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    @TimothyAWiseman Indeed, from a UK point of view it's infinitely better to start your student loan at 42!
    – user96809
    Oct 24, 2020 at 0:11
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Sure, you could, but you should consider if you really should.

Mature-age students are nothing new; there are plenty of people who get degrees in middle age. There's nothing wrong with that.

In your particular case, though, I'd wonder how much value you'd get from it. Are you planning on transferring into a field of employment where electrical engineering qualifications are required? Will this allow you to get a promotion or a pay raise? Are you just doing this for fun? If the latter, are you prepared to pay tens of thousands of dollars for whatever enjoyment you get out of the course?

Doing some back of the notebook estimations for my university (in Australian dollars), you'd be looking at paying about $1000 to 1500 per class for a domestic student, times four classes per semester, times two semesters per year, times 3-4 years, or about twenty five to fifty thousand dollars total.

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    This is such a capitalistic viewpoint. People used to find education worthwhile on its own merit. OP says it's not about (monetary) value "but just to expand my knowledge" which personally I find a noble cause. People invest money in all kinds of hobbies. What's wrong with investing it in education? It seems like OP at least won't need student loans.
    – user9482
    Oct 23, 2020 at 6:27
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    @Roland I'm not denying that the OP might enjoy the process of getting the degree, I'm just not sure if he'll get $25,000 to $50,000 of enjoyment out of it, and that's a lot of money so it's not a decision you can really make lightly.
    – nick012000
    Oct 23, 2020 at 6:29
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    OP hasn't stated where in the world they are or if they would have to pay anything at all for tuition (in much of the world this is free or cheap). Of course OP would still need to invest a lot of time.
    – gerrit
    Oct 23, 2020 at 8:24
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    Plenty of European universities offer both full-time and part-time programmes, usually costing anywhere between €0-€1500 per full-time year. Even with a low income, this is hardly a financial burden at all.
    – Servaes
    Oct 23, 2020 at 11:17
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    @Roland It is a pragmatic view. Someone who is independently wealthy can afford to pursue education without thought of the cost. Most people need to be at least aware of the costs and the cost-benefit-analysis. It may still be worthwhile (I went back to grad school in my 30s for instance) and education does have value outside of economic benefit, but most people cannot afford to completely ignore the economic costs. Oct 23, 2020 at 15:51
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Yes, you can. You know this of course. The deeper more relevant questions is am I afraid of social biases and norms. Will I stand out/fit in? What if I fail? Or what if I succeed? What if I get recognized as a natural gifted student and I have waited this far in life to do this, what is I did this and that earlier in life..how different my life would be at the present moment?

Throw your thoughts to the abyss of nothingness, and let in the mindfulness of the now. Let this moment be your start to the path of your tranquility and may the knowledge of what you seek be bestowed upon thy now. Be free to the transients of time and settle in the comfort of this moment in the awareness that you are in control of the actions you take like you have always been.

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Many years ago I taught at a university that (in addition to lots of traditional 18 year olds) specifically catered to older, non-traditional students (i.e. had staff decicated to their advising et al). I remember fondly one woman who was well over sixty. She felt frustrated that she dropped out of university when she got married, so she went back to school and got her bachelors degree.

So, if you just want a college degree because you don't have one, and can afford to spend the time and the money - sure, go for it. You'll probably feel very good when you graduate. (I suggest that you look for schools that state specificlly that they welcome non-traditional / returning students, and research what resources they offer.)

If you want to expand your knowledge, then you're probably better off taking specific courses that you're interested in through a non-degree continuing education program. (You can find pretty much anything you like, especially if you're open to distance learning and are willing to pay the tuition. Given your experiences that you list, you may, for example, like some graduate-level course in category theory and functional programming that would not be a part of any undergraduate degree program.) To get a bachelors degree in any major in the U.S., you'd be required to take lots of "fluff" courses (usually called "core curriculum" or something similar) that might not be hard, but would not be useful or interesting either.

If you think that getting a college degree will improve your chances of employment, or that you'd have a good time socializing on campus as portrayed in Hollywood movies like The Animal House - sorry, I doubt that very much.

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    Good answer but quite country specific. For example, a bachelor's degree in the UK in engineering would not contain any "fluff" courses: you would only take engineering modules (and relevant maths, possibly taught by the engineering department itself). Oct 22, 2020 at 22:41
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    very true. In the U.S. an engineering undergraduate would have to take lots of humanities courses that in most other countries are done with at high school level. Oct 23, 2020 at 1:47
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    I don't know what you're referring to by "fluff" courses. I've never had a humanities course in my engineering university in The Netherlands, unless you count history of science. Is this an American thing? OP hasn't stated where in the world they are.
    – gerrit
    Oct 23, 2020 at 8:26
  • Yes, my answer is U.S. cntric. Here is an example of "fluff courses" requirements ccny.cuny.edu/engineering/flexible-core Oct 23, 2020 at 12:45
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You can, but consider whether the courses or the diploma have more value to you

In principle, there is nothing wrong with getting a bachelor's degree when you're already in a late stage of your career. However, there is an important difference between you and someone who enters college at an age of 18 or so: they often need a diploma to start their career, while you do not (as you already have a career). As such, the value of a diploma could be negligible for you. It may still be the case that you want to follow a formal program completely, but if you do not need a diploma, you do not have to. So I urge you to explore the possibilities, because maybe taking only half or just a few courses from the full program suits you better. Or maybe you just don't know yet, and want to start at a slower pace than in the normal program. (My advice stay the same in the case that there are no "filler" courses in the full program that have no direct relation to the topic of the degree. Each program has some courses that are essential for any course that follows, but there is always a point where you can stop or sometimes courses you can skip. )

For an example, some of the lectures during the first year of my bachelor (in the Netherlands) where joined by a man who was likely over 40 years old. I haven't spoken with him much, but I gathered (from other students that collaborated with him in projects) that he did not follow any formal program, but took a few key courses from the mathematics and electrical engineering program. I do remember that he was always very enthusiastic during the lectures, always well-prepared, and it seemed he was enjoying his time in the lecture hall. From the perspective of a teacher, older students can be very good students, as they more often have an intrinsic motivation that is more rare among the younger students.

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    Yes. Let me add: you will have professors who have never worked in the real world, you may find that their exam questions are annoying. Electrical Engineering is math intensive, if you haven't been using advanced math much, you will be at a disadvantage.
    – Mattman944
    Oct 24, 2020 at 17:06
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This is perhaps an overgrown comment, but it fits more as an answer, to help align your expectations. You probably don't want the classic student experience anyway, being a bit older, but still, consider how much you want to fit in to the social aspects.

I'll assume you've thought through the financial aspects, and that you can qualify (likely to be no problem). Don't neglect to think through/discuss the effects on any meaningful relationship/family.

I returned to university in my 30s, in a much more settled lifestyle than my peers. I'm also in the UK. The study aspects were fine - I'd forgotten some stuff they knew, but had learnt other things (like how to run projects), and socialising with the students I worked with was easy despite 10-15 years age difference.

Where I did less well was I'd been hoping to get back into university sport (kayaking, but hoping to do some other adventure sports) and maybe some societies. As someone more mature I just couldn't deal with the 18-year-olds' approach to the inherent risks of the activity, and socially I had nothing in common with them - so I gave up on the idea.

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  • "As someone more mature I just couldn't deal with the 18-year-olds' approach to the inherent risks of the activity, and socially I had nothing in common with them - so I gave up on the idea." yes, that aspect is also important you need to command some respect though.
    – alexander
    Oct 24, 2020 at 23:36
  • @alexander luckily this only related to a strictly optional activity so I could walk away. In situations closer to the academic part of university life, there were no issues
    – Chris H
    Oct 25, 2020 at 6:13
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YES. I have never met someone who lamented having done a degree. And I am in Philosophy, one of the degrees many people think are useless!!

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    "I have never met someone who lamented having done a degree" Clearly you haven't gone looking very hard, given how much complaining about student debts I've heard from Americans. Bernie's policy for the forgiveness of student debts got him a lot of support for a reason.
    – nick012000
    Oct 23, 2020 at 4:57
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    @nick012000 Maybe Philosopher of science did their degree in a country where students pay little or no tuition. OP hasn't stated where they are.
    – gerrit
    Oct 23, 2020 at 8:28
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    Exactly, Licenciatura and MA practically for free! Oct 23, 2020 at 14:50
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I mean as far as age, you can absolutely do it. Let's ask it, why not? You will become 47 anyways, so why not pursuing your interests? However, if you have no plan to actually use your degree in your career, paying university tuition (in case your education is not free) might not be the best idea. There are lots of resources available online that can be acquired for close to nothing (mostly free). When you enroll in a college, you do not just pay for the material you learned, you pay for your degree as well (a huge portion of your money goes to university staff, campus maintenance, funding research grants for grad students, etc). So, it might not make sense to pay for things that you may not need. With classes all going all online in most counties, you do not even get to experience the social aspect of learning and the on-campus resources anyways, so it might even make less sense. Whatever path you choose, it is never too late to become a more knowledgeable person. I understand your fear and it is valid but it is mostly social programming, not something substantiated from reality.

Edit: My answer assumes that the education you take as a university student would put costs on you. Therefore, some parts of my answer might not apply to your case. Would be great if OP clarifies that.

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    OP hasn't stated where they are so we don't know if they'd need to pay tuition.
    – gerrit
    Oct 23, 2020 at 8:27
  • Fair enough, I had a North American perspective. Edited
    – user35129
    Oct 23, 2020 at 21:33
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The other answers are fantastic in covering the financial problems and value of a degree.

I want to provide a perspective that I hope will be motivational. I'm a professor at a top-tier US university where most of my students are traditional youngsters. I have, however, had the opportunity to teach three students who were non-traditional. All three had successful technology careers and were looking to expand their knowledge into neighboring domains. Sure, this may just be a small data-set problem, but I think there is something to my experience.

All three of them were some of the best students I have ever taught. They were certainly the most fun to have in the classroom, as they were clear-eyed, asked penetrating questions, were able to provide useful examples to the rest of the class, etc. They were in the class because they truly saw the value of the knowledge they could gain in the class, which is somewhat rare in the rest of my students. They also had the confidence of their years and plenty of earned experience to speak from.

It sounds like you would be one of those students. Go for it! I'd love to have you in my class.

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  • Some countries have specific schools targeted for employed people. In France, I know about CNAM Oct 25, 2020 at 6:17
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Yes, absolutely. You have to consider the financial and time-management implications of your choices seriously though.

  1. Are you planning on quitting your job to take a full-time course? Will you be absorbed back in your industry in a post-Covid economy after four years? Are you ok with missing income for four years?
  2. If you're going to do this part-time then do you have the time to devote to classes after a 40hr work week and family responsibilities?
  3. Can you afford tuition?
  4. If you only care about knowledge, then could you be better served taking targeted online courses in specific topics?

Also, what exactly is your worry of being 47 when you get your degree? If you were looking to get hired as a fresh electircal engineer at 47 then yes, you have a legitimate worry about ageism. You will find it very difficult to be hired, especially with global economy shrinking so much. But if you wanna stick to your current profession then who cares how old you were when you got your degree?

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As part of your decision process, consider the "degree-by-examination" approach.

Roughly, this is the approach where one self-studies for course tests and then transfers in test results as credits towards a degree at an accredited university.

While this is the most financially and temporally efficient path to a bachelor's degree, it is largely devoid of the other aspects of campus-based learning, which may be valuable to you.

A less extreme alternative could be to test out of some/most courses and reserve a few courses for in-person learning.

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