During retirement: Back to school?


Now that you’re enjoying a stimulating retirement and exploring new horizons, what about “back to school”? A surprising number of retirees seek out the classroom, especially if they feel obligated to extract every penny from their GI Bill benefits. Some see school as an opportunity to make up for lost time: the education you could never afford or the training that always seemed to take too long. Others go back to school for the chance to learn new skills or to advance their degrees. A few even go back to school to fill their time and avoid boredom.

Just like a job offer, consider the reasons that advanced education is suddenly so important to you. If this has been your life goal for decades and you finally have the time and money, then enjoy yourself! Explore your curiosity while you’re still motivated to succeed with the educational bureaucracy. You’d be setting a great example for your family, especially your kids. You could be on the road to a doctorate, a new career, or even an avocation.

Be sure to understand why you’re interested in returning to school. If you’re using school for the structure and socialization, then you may want to reconsider your commitment. At first it’s comforting to know that you have someplace to go at 9 AM every Tuesday, but as the months go by you may begin to resent the constricting routine. School is not as confining as a cubicle but it’s still a structured environment with assignments, deadlines, and performance reviews. Making the time for homework, projects, and exams may be more of a burden than you care to handle.

The socialization may not be what you expected, either. The student demographic could be much younger than you with much less world experience. Other students with full-time jobs won’t be interested in spending hours delving into every detail of the material. Some may be busier with family priorities, leaving you to feel that you’re handling too much of the group assignment. You may be enjoying knowledge for its own sake while others feel the competitive pressure to excel, to maintain their scholarship, or to boost their careers. There will be an ever-present temptation to cut corners or even ignore a rule– not quite the ethics you may have expected.

Are you seeking educational wisdom to make up for missed opportunities or because you need more credibility? Maybe you’re still smoldering with resentment that the military never sent you to graduate school, or frustrated that your deployments always conflicted with your course requirements. If that’s the case then you might want to re-evaluate your reason for working so hard to get through a program that may only lead to an awards ceremony. Your advisers and fellow students want you motivated by the desire to learn, not by a wish to avenge old wrongs. If you feel that you need a degree or certification to validate your existence, then imagine how you’d feel spending months or years on that goal. During your working years it might have been important for certain duties or jobs, but do you need it for your retiree life? Will your family, relatives, friends, or neighbors care that you have a master’s degree or a CPA?

Part of your feeling of obligation may be caused by a desire to make the most of every opportunity. If your military benefits didn’t offer the program, would you pay to go back to school? Earlier versions of veteran’s educational programs were “use it or lose it” and had to lead to a definite degree or certification before the deadline. If you don’t need to be certified then the program may not keep your interest. The latest version of the GI Bill actually allows beneficiaries to transfer their benefits to spouses or children. Would you rather give your opportunity to someone who could change their life more than it would improve yours? The transfer flexibility can make it less urgent to jump back into the education and training routines that you lived in the military.

If you’ve ever been an instructor at a military training command, and most especially if you’ve ever been in charge of evaluating instructor techniques, then be very careful about your decision to return to school. Your teaching knowledge and experience make you one of the world’s worst students and a professor’s nightmare– a fellow professional instructor. You’ll be so distracted by different teaching styles and errors that you’ll have trouble following the material, and the instructor will soon grow to dread your every question and comment.

If you don’t “need” the degree or the certification, and if you’re not “wasting” a benefit or some other opportunity, then you don’t “have” to go back to school. Learning for knowledge’s sake is always a good idea, but the structure and the deadlines can turn an enjoyable experience into a painful marathon. Instead of subjecting yourself to the traditional academic environment, why not create your own program? Many schools and colleges offer local residents a chance to monitor or audit courses without the requirements of assignments or tests. You may not be allowed to ask questions or join in group activities, but you have a no-obligation chance to read the books, sit in on the teaching, and enjoy the show. If a higher priority comes up then you’re not skipping school or letting down your classmates. You can tailor your learning to your personal needs– if you just want to manage your own investments then you may not need to complete every course of an accounting degree.

You might even be able to teach yourself from books and websites. Instead of going “back to school”, you could create your own school– tailored precisely to your needs and on your schedule. If it doesn’t work out the way you expect, then you can always fall back on your military benefits and the educational system.

Going back to school may be the right choice for you— it certainly was for “Boxkicker”, one of the veterans profiled in “The Military Guide”. He planned ahead and worked hard on his bachelor’s degree before he retired from active duty, so he was ready to start his master’s degree and maximize his GI Bill benefits. His degree fits right into his new part-time occupation, and his new career may turn out to be his avocation. He completely understood what he wanted to do and how to do it. Make sure that you understand your own goals and motivations before signing up.

Retirement is the best time of your life to make changes, but don’t be disruptive. It may also be the first time that you’ve ever had so much control over this many aspects of your life, so take it slowly and give yourself (and your family) plenty of time to adapt. Don’t give up that control, and don’t drift along letting change control you. Think through each of your changes and consider whether you’ll see the commitment as an incentive or a burden. Give yourself time to adapt to each change, to decide whether it’s temporary or permanent, and to learn whether it supports or interferes with your other change plans. Don’t burn out. You have the rest of your life to experiment and enjoy your changes, so don’t make things happen so quickly that retirement becomes painful.

Related articles:
Forget about who you were and discover who you are
Retirement: don’t recreate your old environment
Myths of military retirement and early retirement
“But… but… but what will I DO all day?!?”

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WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

2 Comments
  1. Thanks. I have to admit that I’m a bit weak on the GI Bill and much more familiar with active-duty tuition assistance.

    I hope all the bureaucratic delays get straightened out before it turns into the military scandal of 2011…

  2. Good article. My husband used all of his benefits to just keep busy. He LOVES school!

    Yes, the new GI Bill can be transferred BUT the bill is only good for 15 years after you leave the service. This is a problem for many younger troops who cannot afford to get out and use it, and certainly are not able to transfer it to their unborn children. Great for retirees though.
    BTW- the new GI Bill takes about 6-8 months to start paying. It is a mess. It is not being used by many because they cannot afford the first 6-8 months of tuition and costs before it sets in.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?