Support for Adults Returning to College How to Thrive When Going Back to School

Many adults regret walking away from their potential degree when they were younger, whether they chose to join the workforce early, or if college just wasn’t right for them at the time. These adults are on the cusp of making the leap into higher education, but they’re understandably nervous – when juggling work and family obligations, adding another commitment can be daunting.

Fortunately, adults returning to college are in an excellent position. They have some work experience, which might translate into college credit. And they know what it takes to balance their life, manage their time and buckle down to get it all done. This guide takes a look at what adults returning to college can expect and why it’s a great idea to make the leap.

10 Reasons to Consider Returning to College as an Adult

Returning to college as an adult can yield a wealth of rewards. Here are a few reasons to consider it.

  • More pay.

    There is a correlation between level of education and pay, with holders of advanced degrees typically earning more money than those with lower degrees. Returning to college is a significant step adults can take to increase their earning potential.

  • Gain qualifications.

    Some jobs require a college degree as a minimum for entry-level work. Other jobs might require individuals to possess a certain level of knowledge or training. College can help adults meet these requirements.

  • Personal growth.

    Whether it’s figuring out how to study, learning better time management or discovering new academic subjects, college is filled with plenty of opportunities for personal growth.

  • Sense of accomplishment.

    For some, going back to school to finish a college degree can bring a strong sense of accomplishment. Even if the degree makes little difference in the person’s professional career or pay, “finishing what you started” can bring personal satisfaction.

  • Change careers.

    Changing careers isn’t easy, but a major step in doing so usually involves receiving a formal education in a field related to the new profession. Getting a specific college degree often serves as the first step to a new career.

  • More free time.

    The process of earning the degree almost never provides more free time, but after graduation, it’s a different story. With a more advanced degree, higher pay and more flexible work hours are possible.

  • Networking.

    Networking opportunities abound with classmates, faculty and staff. Going to college means meeting hundreds of new people; one of them could be the key to a fantastic career change or promotion.

  • Obtain valuable skills.

    College, especially at the vocational level, offers unparalleled training. Many of these skills can be obtained in the real world, but rarely in such a structured and forgiving atmosphere.

  • Improve teamwork skills.

    Study groups and cooperating with classmates are common activities in college. These group learning sessions provide additional opportunities for adults to work on their teamwork skills.

  • Learn time management skills.

    Even those with excellent time management skills will be tested in college. In addition to school responsibilities, most adult students have work or family obligations. Anyone who can earn their degree as an adult can be confident in their ability to manage their time.

Expert Advice: What to Expect When Going Back to School

Dale Leatherwood is the co-founder of ClearDegree, the Online Education Concierge service. Dale has over 20 years of experience in training and higher education, including extensive experience in distance learning.

What are some of the more surprising things students should be prepared to encounter when going back to school after a long absence?

The most surprising thing is that if you’re prepared, then going back to school may seem a lot easier than it used to be, for a couple of reasons. First there are a lot more resources available to get through the classwork – Google exists! You can find info and explanations from a massive number of sources, and tools like Kahn Academy can help make almost any subject understandable if you need help.

Second is the fact that social media has kept many adults in a collaborative mindset. Sitting with a group of people in a class or joining a group discussion in an online course isn’t too different from the one-to-many conversations that adults are having every day, so it will come a little more naturally even though you haven’t been to school in a while.

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When a student needs help, what are some of the best resources to turn to on campus and beyond?

There are 4 resources that students should use, and I’d put them in this order of usefulness:

  • 1. The instructor.Most instructors have office hours, and many schools have a required maximum response time to a question. This is the first place you should start with questions about coursework. And remember, there’s really no such thing as a dumb question.
  • 2. Fellow students – If you have a question about class or the school in general, often a fellow student has gone through the issue already and knows how to avoid problems and get the right answer.
  • 3. The school student support team. A good program has a dedicated student advisor assigned to you or a student advisor team. That can be a one-stop solution to questions about classes, schedules, financial aid and more.
  • 4. External resources. As mentioned earlier, questions about a complicated classroom topic that you simply aren’t getting are often answered in a great way using online resources. Google, Wikipedia, YouTube videos, Kahn Academy – these are all ways to get a variety of angles on a topic so that you can better understand.

Anything you'd like to add about students going back to college after a long absence?

As mentioned earlier, going back to school used to be a much bigger deal. An adult student in a class in 2000 would be a somewhat unusual sight. In 2018 it is the plurality of students in many cases. Because of that you should expect schools to be more accommodating to your situation in terms of offering online courses, flexible environments and credit for prior learning or experiences.

Most importantly there is nothing that should hold you back from taking that step. As we have seen time and time again with our clients, there is an option for every situation, you just have to find it.

How to Balance College as an Adult

For anyone with numerous responsibilities outside of school, a healthy balance is critical to success. Balancing school requirements with personal and professional ones can make the difference between graduating and dropping out. At the very least, it’ll have an effect on GPA and overall academic success. Keeping a good balance can be tough, but it’s definitely achievable with these tips.

  • Prioritize responsibilities.

    Resist the temptation to get things done in the order that just feels right. Instead, get things done in the order of their importance. For example, pulling an all-nighter for a test the next day might occasionally make sense. But staying up all night to get ahead on an assignment that’s not due for another few weeks probably doesn’t. Instead, spend time with family or make sure you’re caught up at work.

  • Time management.

    How your time is spent makes the difference between chaos and clarity. Start by figuring out how to get the most done within the hours available. For instance, someone who takes public transportation can use transit time to complete a reading assignment for school. During the lunch break at work, use the extra minutes to take care of phone calls and run errands of instead of waiting until after work, thus freeing up time at the end of the day.

  • Plan ahead.

    Effective time management and balance requires meticulous planning. “Your main focus is the outcome – a degree and some knowledge – and if you know in advance what you have to do and have planned for it then it will be much easier than you think,” suggests Leatherwood. “Read the syllabus, understand there’s no such thing as a dumb question, plan your schedule (whether you’re going to a campus or going online) and never ever be worried about asking for help.”

  • Ask for help.

    Want time to relax and do special things with the family? Seeking out some help might be required. Maybe it’s a coworker who will cover you so you can leave work 30 minutes early once a week. Or it’s a spouse who will take over certain household chores until you get your degree. A little bit can go a long way, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • Take time for yourself.

    Completing a college degree can be a long process. Don’t go full steam ahead the whole time. Take a few moments each week or month to stop and have a little time to relax. This will also serve as an opportunity to remind yourself why you’re going back to college.

  • Consider online coursework.

    One of the biggest challenges to finding balance is that everything that needs to get done has a deadline at the same time. Being able to take online classes can spread out some of the school responsibilities to parts of the week where you’ll have more time, such as in the evening or on the weekends.

Being nervous about heading back to school is perfectly normal and expected. What’s good to know is that you’re not alone; there are more older students going back to school than ever. In fact, you’re the “new norm” when it comes to higher education!

Dale Leatherwood

Applying Life & Work Experiences Toward Your Education

Experience is one major advantage adult college students have over their younger classmates. In addition to making them more effective learners, this experience may even shorten the path to their degree by substituting for one or more classes via the work and life experience credit system.

  • Each school will have their own policies and rules as to what type of experience will count toward college credit and what the student needs to do to obtain the credit. However, most schools will offer life and work experience credit in three primary ways.

    • Credit for military experience or training.

      This credit is made possible with the cooperation of the Department of Defense and the American Council on Education (ACE).

    • Portfolio.

      The exact requirements may vary, but portfolios often include detailed descriptions of the relevant experience in essay form plus additional verifiable proof.

    • Exams.

      These exams prove the student possess the requisite level of knowledge to be able to forgo certain college class requirements. These exams can be school-specific or may be standardized, such as through CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) and DSST (DANTES Subject Standardized Tests).

  • Besides simply living life and working in a given profession, students can earn non-traditional college credits in any number of ways.

    • Skills training.

      This is a major source for experience. It can be obtained through military service or in private industry.

    • Corporate training.

      Some corporate training, like leadership seminars or work with certain software, can be a boon for students seeking credit.

    • MOOCs.

      Enrolling in a Massive Open Online Course to learn something new can sometimes be used as credit toward a class.

    • Professional certifications or licenses.

      Some licenses or certifications that might be required during the course of a person’s professional career can be used to prove worthiness for certain credits.

    Life or work experiences that are very specific – bookkeeping, information technology, writing, etc. may allow you to get credit through a portfolio assessment or a learning assessment where you can test out of a course. If you’ve been keeping the books for a small business for 10 years, then passing an accounting 101 course may be as simple as passing a test.

    Dale Leatherwood

  • No, but many colleges will, especially in their online degree programs. Before enrolling, make sure to check with your school of choice to see if they accept life and/or work experience.

    The reasons only some schools accept life or work experience credits vary widely, but can include administrative costs, education philosophy and student need. In most cases, schools will limit experience credit for basic or introductory level courses. Schools with more non-traditional students are likely to have fewer restrictions on experience credits.

  • This will depend on the specific school the student is enrolled in. Military experience is one of the easier types of experience credits to transfer between schools due to the uniform system in which veteran benefits are administered and processed.

    ACE and NCCRS are organizations that evaluate courses and training to convert to college credit. The first place you should look is the training that your company has provided and see if it qualifies via one of these organizations.

    Dale Leatherwood

  • The exact number depends on the school, but students should not expect a school to accept more than one or two years’ worth of college credit for work or life experience. At most schools, this will amount to about 30 to 60 credit hours.

  • That depends. Some methods, such as CLEP, will require the student to pay a given fee to take a test, but a high enough score means a class credit, which cuts down on tuition costs. Some schools may charge fees for evaluating the student’s experience, determining if college credit is warranted for a given experience and if so, how many credits. In most instances, students will still save money compared to paying the tuition to take courses to get the credits the traditional way. At the very least, these credits can reduce the amount of time they need to complete their degree.

Not getting credit for life experience? No problem. There are lots of other ways to use those experiences when going back to school.

  • Contribute to classroom learning. College professors and fellow classmates will appreciate the unique perspective adult students can bring to classroom discussions.
  • Apply work or life experience to assignments. Depending on the degree program and class requirements, students can use an incident or challenge at work to serve as a topic for a class paper or idea for a group project.
  • Use the experience to help fellow students. Adult students will have insights and connections from the non-academic world that younger students will usually lack. To make a lasting, positive impression that will earn good will, adult students can offer to help classmates with school work or facilitate a networking connection between the classmate and a professional contact from work.

9 Scholarships & Grants for Adults Returning to College

There are thousands of scholarships and grants available for all types of students. Some of them are specifically tailored for adults. And while the terms “scholarships” and “grants” are used interchangeably, they are different in that grants are typically need-based while scholarships are usually merit-based.

  • Adult Students in Scholastic Transition (ASIST) Scholarship $2,000 to $10,000

    Sponsoring Organization: Executive Women International (EWI)

    Application Deadline: Varies, based on EWI chapter.

    Requirements: The ASIST scholarship is available to any adult who resides in a geographic area served by one of EWI’s local chapters. It is for someone who faces economic, physical or social challenges and wants an education to improve their life.

  • Alpha Sigma Lambda Scholarship $3,000

    Sponsoring Organization: Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society

    Application Deadline: Late April

    Requirements: Adult students who attend a school with an Alpha Sigma Lambda chapter may apply for this scholarship. Additional eligibility requirements include financial need, working toward an undergraduate degree and having at least a 3.2 GPA (on a 4.0 scale).

  • Cash Store Continuing Education Scholarship Up to $1,000

    Sponsoring Organization: Cash Store

    Application Deadline: After 200 applications have been received.

    Requirements: Cash Store offers a scholarship for individuals at least 25 years of age who have at least a 2.75 GPA (on a 4.0 scale). Up to five awards are given each year. Anyone who has graduated high school is eligible to apply.

  • Jeannette Rankin Scholarship Up to $2,000

    Sponsoring Organization: Jeannette Ranking Foundation

    Application Deadline: Mid-March

    Requirements: Women aged 35 years and over may apply for this financial-need-based scholarship. Applicants must also be enrolled or accepted into an accredited post-secondary institution at the undergraduate level.

  • Non-Traditional Students Scholarship $1,000

    Sponsoring Organization: Western Fraternal Life

    Application Deadline: Early March

    Requirements: To apply for this one-time scholarship, applicants must be at least 25 years of age, have been a member of Western Fraternal Life for at least two years and be attending or accepted to an accredited post-secondary institution.

  • Walmart Associate Scholarship $500 to $3,000

    Sponsoring Organization: Walmart

    Application Deadline: Late August

    Requirements: This renewable scholarship is available to Walmart associates who are at least part-time employees and have worked at Walmart for at least six months. Students must enroll in an accredited post-secondary institution or be participating in Walmart’s Lifelong Learning Program.

  • Adult Skills Education Program Up to $1,000

    Sponsoring Organization: Imagine America Foundation (IAF)

    Application Deadline: Varies

    Requirements: Nontraditional college students who are at least 19 years of age and are also IAF members can receive this grant if they attend any participating Adult Skills Education Program school of their choosing.

  • Live Your Dream Award Up to $16,000

    Sponsoring Organization: Soroptimist

    Application Deadline: Mid-November

    Requirements: This grant is available to women who serve as the primary source of financial support for their families, demonstrate financial need, reside in a Soroptimist International member country and have been accepted to an accredited vocational or undergraduate degree program.

  • Higher Education Adult Part-Time Student Grant Up to $2,000

    Sponsoring Organization: College Foundation of West Virginia

    Application Deadline: Late June

    Requirements: Students apply for this grant by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They must attend an eligible post-secondary institutional in West Virginia. Applicants must also have been West Virginia residents for at least 12 months before applying and demonstrate financial need.

Benefits of Online Learning for Adults Returning to College

Most adults who choose to return to college have more obligations than the typical college student. They often have families and full-time jobs, which makes traditional, on-campus courses very difficult. That’s where online learning options come in. Online schools provide flexible class options that allow students to take courses at a time that’s convenient for them, such as in the early morning, late evening or on weekends. Even when students must be online for class at a certain time, at least they can attend class remotely.

Besides flexible class attendance, online classes also allow for self-paced learning. This can occur in two main ways. First, the student can take as heavy or as light of a course load as they want. This allows them to take things slow with only one or two classes when work or family obligations keep them busy. But if they have some extra time for a semester, it gives them the option to overload their courses and accelerate their learning to finish sooner.

Second, the pace of completion is controlled by the student. While there is usually a hard deadline to complete a course, it’s possible to finish the class as ahead of schedule if they choose.

Access to college and university resources

Online students usually have access to the same university resources as other students. Certain on-campus resources may not be available unless the student is willing to travel to the school. The good news is that if a student lives too far away to use an on-campus service, they are likely not charged for it – another way learning online saves some cash!

Academic resources will be available through online methods. Most online students have access to academic advisors, career counselors and other school officials to obtain assistance in planning their degree or getting extra help for a particular class. This assistance can be available via email, telephone, online chat or video conferencing.

Online tutoring is also an option. Schools often have online tutorials available to help students with general study and other academic issues, but live tutoring is a possibility as well. Technical assistance is a vital part of online learning and is usually accessible to distance learning students who are having trouble with their computer or other electronic device used for learning.

Counseling resources will be available to online students to the extent it’s possible for the school to provide it. For example, counseling services may not be available to online students unless they visit the campus to see the therapist or counselor. However, many schools will provide online options for students to obtain some mental health services, such as communicating through text messages, video conferencing apps or online portals.

Finally, online students can expect access to career and professional development services. Schools can give access to online job databases, alumni networks and career research tools. Career services advisors will be available to answer any questions students may have about finding a job after graduation.

How can adult learners choose a good online program?

Finding a good online program will depend largely on specific academic and logistical needs. This means that what’s good for one type of online adult college student may not be good for another. Therefore, the first step in finding a program is to figure out what you want and need from an online education.

For example, students must decide what type of college degree they need and see if it’s available online. One thing to keep in mind is that some online degrees will have on-campus or in-person requirements. Some of these requirements are school-specific, but others are not, with any accredited program having certain in-person curriculum requirements. A good example of this is a bachelor’s degree in nursing, which requires hands-on training, whether the bulk of the program is online or on campus.

It’s also important to remember that some online degrees are more common than others. Criminal justice and business are very popular and can be found at most online colleges and universities. But engineering is much less common; there may only be a handful of accredited online engineering programs to choose from.

The next step for the adult student is to identify their logistical needs for program completion. Those who need the maximum amount of flexibility due to work or family obligations will want to find a program that offers asynchronous and self-paced learning. But others who only work part-time may be perfectly fine with a distance learning program that’s offered synchronously, requiring students to be on their computer to attend class at a certain time and day.

Other considerations include size and extent of the alumni network, amount of career services available, cost of tuition, availability of transfer or experience credits and admissions requirements.

Insider Perspective: My Experience Returning to College as an Adult

Chris Gerhart is a substance abuse counselor in private practice in Richmond Hill, GA. He has an alphabet soup of professional qualifications behind his name. He is a life-long learner and a lover of old dogs, older cars and his wife and daughter. Visit his website at www.christopherhgerhart.com

Q. You’ve earned three degrees (so far!). What’s your story?

A. I went back three different times. Once for an associate (1997), then again for a BA (2002), and most recently for a MA (2013). A fourth may happen; but then you'll have to call me Doctor.

I initially started college in 1984, while still in high school. I went to a four-year school and got kicked out twice, once for disciplinary violations and once for academics; in reality, both were substance abuse related.

After cleaning up and getting out of the Army, I went to a community college so I could become a licensed substance abuse counselor. A few years later, I went to a 4-year school to complete my undergraduate studies. Some time later, I did an online master's program in addiction studies.

Each time was a bit different and presented unique challenges and opportunities. When I first went to college, there were virtually no cell phones and the internet was between only a few people/places. When I went back in 1995, I did not know how to use a computer; so, I took a class. By 2000, even I had a (flip) cell phone, email account, etc.

I found it strange that people would shell out a bunch of cash to be on a college campus with all kinds of new and different girls and other possibilities for social interaction around and continue talking to just the friends that they knew in high school. (Kind of like crazy people wandering about muttering to themselves and wondering why they feel so isolated.) Doing an online master's program was really nifty because I got to keep my job, stay with my family and live in my own house, all while interacting with other people who were doing the same thing.

Q. What made you most nervous about going back to school? How did you overcome those fears and worries?

A. One thing that made me nervous was budgeting both time and money. I used a daily planner for my time and kept a close rein on my spending. School expenses and time commitments came first and foremost. At the same time, I set up my schedule so that I had at least one day per week without any commitments for work, school or family. That way, I had something to look forward to each week. Sometimes, I would work an extra shift that day or spend a few hours at the library; but, it was only if I wanted to do it that day, not if I did not.

Q. When you needed help, what resources did you turn to? Were there any on campus or through your school that were especially helpful?

A. I can’t say enough good stuff about the instructors and classmates that I have had in my academic career. The biggest challenge I had was asking for and accepting help that was offered. Most people want to see others do well. The other thing is that reciprocity in academics remains in great demand. As an adult student, don’t be surprised if your younger classmates look to you for guidance in all sorts of areas, in and out of academic life. Tutoring and being tutored, formally and informally, strengthen and reinforce material for both teachers and students. 

Q. What advice would you give to those who want to go back to school but aren't sure about making the leap?

A. Start with one class in something that you like and will study anyway. History and psychology have always been interesting for me. So, I started with one class in each.

There are a lot of community colleges that have classes that will transfer to higher institutions, often at lower costs. (Always check with the 4-year school about what they will take from a community college.)

Some schools will allow you to audit a class. This means that you attend, test and everything else; but, you don’t pay full price (sometimes nothing) or get any college credit.

A number of online schools offer free classes. Try one or two.

Q. Anything else you'd like to add about being an adult learner?

A. Have fun with it. As an adult, we are often less afraid to make mistakes or risk looking foolish before our peers. One of my favorite stunts was to show up to the first day of class a few minutes early, sit at the instructor’s desk and begin assigning seats, taking attendance, giving out assignments. I even had a younger professor play along with my ruse for about 20 minutes.