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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 17:30 EDT

Too Old for Business School?

October 6, 2008

On several field trips to local businesses, 42-year-old Liza Turley, a 2008 graduate of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, noticed a recurring misunderstanding. Speakers and business leaders would often assume she was a teacher, not a student.

Considering Turley had a good decade on her classmates, it wasn’t surprising that onlookers didn’t peg her as a student. After all, of all full-time MBA students, 40-and-older students remain a rare subset. And while the MBA is, for the most part, a younger person’s game, many older students are finding ways to make it work.

Typically, business students enter graduate school with about five years of post-undergraduate work experience, meaning they are generally in their late 20s or early 30s, a time of life when new directions are being set. In contrast, adults 40 and older are often settled in careers, have families, and are at a level where the additional skills don’t guarantee substantial payback. For that reason, they are more likely to get their business degrees in executive or part-time programs.

“Usually by your late 20s, you’re at a pivotal point in your career where you’re making decisions about the rest of your future,” says Rachel Edgington, director of market research and analysis at the Graduate Management Admission Council [GMAC].

But for some people, the move is right regardless of age. “There’s never a bad time to pursue a graduate degree. A graduate degree of business has been proven to increase career options,” Edgington says.

For Turley, an MBA helped her acquire the skills and vocabulary to move from a small entrepreneurial environment to a larger corporate one. For 12 years she was in the food business and had a large share in a catering business for seven of those years. “I had similar goals as my peers, but I just had a much deeper work history,” Turley says.

Regardless of her age, Turley, who got her current job at Akona Consulting in Kirkland, Wash., through a classmate a year older, said that her MBA degree was worth it “unequivocally.”

While the number of 40-and-older students in all graduate programs increased from 1995 to 2005, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, the GMAC reports that the number of GMAT business entrance exams taken by 40- to 49-year-old students has been decreasing over the past several years.

Of 217,698 GMAT tests taken in the 2006-07 testing year, only 7,581, or less than 4%, were taken by 40- to 49-year-olds. That’s also about a third less than five years earlier, when the 40-to-49 group took 10,092 tests. Edgington attributes this drop to several factors, including the fact that Generation X is one of the smallest population bubbles.

Still, although the number of tests taken by the 40-and-older crowd is down, admissions experts point out that an MBA remains a viable option for the right student.

One academic who advocates 40-year-olds going to school is Michael Williams, the recently appointed dean of Touro College of Business in New York City. Touro has a high number of adult students — almost 20% of the fulltime graduating class there is 40 and older. Williams estimates the average student in this year’s graduating class is in his or her early 30s.

“I can’t imagine not going for an MBA when you’re older — that’s my professional and personal belief,” Williams says. “We typically find that our older students come to us clearly with a plethora of experience. Some of it is fragmented, [and] they don’t know how it fits together.”

Anita Brick, director of career advancement programs at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, where there are typically just a few 40-and-over full-time students but none in the 2008 class, agreed that many older students who find success in their MBAs use what they already know. She recalled a student who could no longer practice surgery but got the tools he needed from business school to become the CEO of a medical device company. “He really leveraged the experience that he had,” Brick says. “I wouldn’t call it a career change, but more of a career extension.”

Sheryle Dirks, associate dean for career management at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, said that over-40 MBAs should be prepared to expand their job hunt outside the confines of the standard business school recruiting process.

“If a 40-year-old student is interested in the positions being filled through the on-campus venue, some employers may wonder how an older student will fit with a younger group of associates or what they can expect in terms of initial assignments and career progression,” Dirks says. “An older candidate who can successfully address those questions will stand far better chances of receiving an offer than one who does not.”

Still, several 40-plus students who recently attended full-time MBA programs said the experience was well worth it.

For Jeff Recker, 41, attending Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Business was a “tremendous experience.” After working with several startups that failed during the dot-com bust, he found himself at an uninspiring medical sales job. He was there for about two years before deciding to make a move.

“If you have an itch, scratch it because the longer you wait, the arthritis might set in,” Recker, who graduated in May, says of his long-time musings to attend business school. “If you believe in yourself, you’ll find that others might too. No one can take education away from you once you get it.”

Recker recently learned that he has been awarded distributorship for Solar Big Belly, a solar trash compactor company he learned about during a case study at Vanderbilt. “It’s obviously had a direct payback because what I learned in a case study is now part of my business,” says Recker.

Jonah Zimiles, 51, decided to go for an MBA at Columbia Business School after spending six years as a stay-at-home dad with his autistic son. “It gave me a multitude of skills that brought me the confidence to know that I can meet virtually any type of challenge that the economy would throw me or any kind of business challenge that’s out there,” says Zimiles, who had previously practiced law for nearly 15 years.

Zimiles, who graduated in May, is using his skills to start a community project of his own. He and his wife noticed the neighborhood bookstore was closing and bought it on a whim with plans to expand it, learn the ropes of retail, and eventually employ autistic adults to give them training and experience.

Zimiles said he did not go to business school with the intention of making new friends, or “playmates,” as he puts it. However, he celebrated his 50th birthday last year in Las Vegas with a group of his 25- to 30-year-old peers and also competed in a “briefcase throw” at the Duke MBA Games.

He did cite one drawback to business school, though: “My wife says I am spending too much time on Facebook.”