There was a time when going back to school as a much-older student was a gag. 

Specifically, that time was 1986. The gag-filled film was called Back to School. It was about a successful entrepreneur, played by the one and only Rodney Dangerfield, returning to college to get his degree. The catch? His own son is an undergrad at the same time. Legendary comedian Sam Kinison also does a fine turn as a history professor. 

Almost 30 years later, going back to school is no gag. A fascinating story by Lauren Everitt in Poets & Quants profiles Jim Schmitz, 62, a former director of the Cardiology Clinic at Scott & White Healthcare in Temple, Texas. Following a successful medical career, Schmitz sold his house, gave away his car and dog, and enrolled in London Business School's one-year Sloan program in January, 2013. 

The Age of Business School Students

"While Schmitz may be an extreme example," writes Everitt, "his experience illustrates a larger shift: B-schools are increasingly targeting older, seasoned students, primarily through executive MBA and Sloan programs."

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the population of older students is growing. The reason?

"In today's market where more people are working longer--whether they have to or they choose to--it's not just, 'Well, I'm 65, it's time to go sit in a rocking chair,'" Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council, tells Everitt. "I just don't think that mentality for the most part exists anymore." 

Executive MBAs (EMBAs) are one thing, but what about the age of students in conventional MBA programs? Last fall, Harvard Business School revealed that the class of 2015 included 23 students who'd received their undergraduate degrees at least 10 years earlier. It was the highest total in the last three years. The class of 2014, for example, contained 17 students who'd earned their undergrad degrees at least 10 years earlier.  In the class of 2013, it was only 12 students. 

Granted: The vast majority of students in the classes of 2013-15 are three-to-six years removed from undergrad life. So the older students remain a teeny minority. Moreover, it's worth noting that even if you're 10 years out of college, you could still be in your early to mid-30s. Nonetheless, the statistics plainly show that, at HBS at least, there's been an uptick in students who are more than a decade out of college. 

The Traits of Older Students

Schmitz's work experiences helped him immensely in the Sloan program. "I'd already managed large teams of people, published lots of papers, conducted clinical research; I'd done basic science research and was pretty well connected in the academic medicine community, and that probably brought significant value to our class," he tells Everitt. 

Also, older applicants often possess a firmer grasp on precisely why they want to pursue an MBA, notes Sara E. Neher, assistant dean for MBA admissions at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, in a BloombergBusinessweek story. 

That said, going back to school in a different subject isn't easy. Even a heart doctor like Schmitz considers it "one of the hardest things he's ever done." 

But returning to school is never a breeze after a long layoff--whether you're in your 30s, 40s, or older. "In general our EMBA students have been away from an academic setting long enough that the challenges some of them experience in returning seem to be fairly standard across the cohort, regardless of whether they are twelve or twenty years removed from their previous academic experience," says Ian Rogan, Director of Executive MBA and Global Programs at the Yale School of Management. 

Leaving aside the pluses and minuses of returning to school after a long hiatus, one thing is clear: Continuing your education, at any age, is no laughing matter.

But if you want to laugh about it, Rodney Dangerfield and Sam Kinison can help. 

Published on: Apr 24, 2014