Guide to Going Back to School as an Adult

Returning to school as an adult can open up a new world of possibilities. This guide details the college application process, how to get college credit for work experience, tips for school and work balance, and scholarships for adult learners.

If you're thinking of returning to school as an adult, you might be feeling apprehensive. After all, we think of higher education as a rite of passage for carefree teenagers with a newly minted high school diploma and none of the responsibilities of real life.

Let's dispel that myth now.

First, you're not alone. According to the Lumina Foundation, around 37% of undergraduate students in this country are over the age of 25. You're also in good company if you've got kids and a job -- 26 % of all undergraduate students are raising children and 64% are holding down a job while they're in college (40% work full-time). And those numbers are only growing. The EAB projects that the number of students between the ages of 25 and 34 will climb 21 % by 2022.

Whether you're a mom juggling children and a demanding job, a single parent with a limited income or a Baby Boomer looking to update your skills, we've designed this guide for you. Here, we'll look at the college application process, how to balance school and work, the ins and outs of online degrees and ways to pay for school including financial aid and scholarships for adult students.

Why Return to School as an Adult?

There are lots of reasons adults are returning to school. Here are a few that might resonate with you:

  • You're Ready for a Career Change - As the working world has evolved technologically, you might find yourself in a field with no potential for growth. Or, you may just be ready to pursue a dream that's long been deferred. Either way, a college degree or certificate program can give you the skills to move into a more fulfilling, upwardly mobile career.

    If you already have a degree in an academic subject, such as history, English, or mathematics, you might consider returning to school to become a teacher. In addition to earning a teaching certificate, teachers will need to pass a certification exam, such as the Praxis, FTCE, or TExES, depending on location.
  • You're Wiser Now - When George Bernard Shaw opined that 'youth was wasted on the young,' there's a good chance he was standing on a college campus. When you tried college the first time, you may not have been equipped with the maturity, perspective and vision to understand the importance of education. Now, with some life experience under your belt, you'd be able to handle and even enjoy another stint in academia.
  • You're Worried About Retirement - Many of us who are approaching retirement age have concerns about diminishing social security, rising costs and not enough savings for those golden years. In fact, more than 24 % of adults over 65 without a disability hold some sort of job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Even those who don't need to work go back into the labor force for the challenge or to pursue a passion.
  • You Need to Stay Competitive - The workforce is constantly being flooded with fresh faced college grads who are willing to work for less and eager to carve out a career. Going back to school as an adult, whether it's continuing education courses, certificate programs or a degree, can keep you relevant and irreplaceable.
  • You Want to Finish What you Started - Perhaps you had every intention of finishing a degree and life got in the way. An illness in the family, financial concerns and unexpected life changes have derailed many a college career. Going back now can give you a sense of accomplishment, boost self-esteem and set an example for everyone around you.

How to Go to College as an Adult

Many adults have the motivation to go back to college but the process can seem daunting. How do you find the perfect college for you? How do you submit a college application online? How do you get college credit for your life and work experiences? How do you navigate higher education when so much has changed in the last decade?

And, perhaps most importantly, how do you balance life and school as an adult? In a Strada-Gallup survey , around one-third of adults aged 25 to 64 said they'd left school because of the difficulties juggling work, family and school.

Below, we'll cover all of these questions and offer practical guidance for finding your ideal college, submitting a winning application, transferring credits and staying sane as you manage life and school simultaneously.

What Degree Level Do You Need?
What Programs Are Offered?
What Support Services Does the College Offer?
Does the College Fit Your Lifestyle?

The College Application Process for Adults

High school students often have several years to start thinking about colleges and preparing application materials. As an adult returning to college, you don't have this luxury, which makes it all the more important you stick to a timeline. That might look something like this:

Learn Your Deadlines
Gather Application Materials
Fill Out Your College Application

During this process, you'll also want to apply for financial aid, get credit for your life experience and start preparing yourself, your family and your employer for your new student life. We will cover all of these below.

Getting College Credit for Life and Work Experience

Not all schools will give you college credit for work experience or life experience but many do and it can be beneficial to use these policies to your advantage; not only will it shorten your time to a degree, but less credits to completion means less total cost. Here are a few ways you can earn college credit for life experience:

    • Professional certifications/licenses. Certifications and licenses you've gathered as a part of your work life demonstrate that you have knowledge and skills in the area and schools may see that as enough to let you opt out of certain subjects.
    • Military experience. The skills you learn in the military are so universally regarded that there's an established system in place between the Department of Defense and the American Council on Education (ACE)
    • CLEP Exams. The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) lets you take an exam to prove your proficiency in a subject area. If you pass, you can get credit for an equivalent class. You'll want to check with your school to see which exams will count for your program's coursework. CLEP exams cost $85 and must be taken in-person.
    • Corporate training. If you've ever attended conferences or skill training courses as a part of your profession, you may be able to count these for college credit.
    • Portfolios. For degrees like art, photography and design, a portfolio might work as evidence that you've already mastered the skills a given course might impart.
    • MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and/or Adult Education Courses sometimes offer college credit upon completion.

    Many students ask 'do college credits expire?' Technically, no . However, your ability to transfer them to a new school might diminish over time. Core courses typically never expire but Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) classes typically have a shelf life of around 10 years because of advances in those fields. Courses at the graduate level may last around 7 years.

    The registrar's office at your college is a great resource for getting the most out of the college credit transfer process. They may refer you to an easy-to-use transfer portal, let you know what exams you can take to opt out of courses and help you understand how your life and work experience will translate at the college level.

How to Balance School and Work as an Adult

Balancing life with school is never easy but there are some things you can do to keep yourself healthy, sane and on the path to graduation:

Divide Duties
Plan Meticulously
Make Arrangements at Work
Practice Self-Love

Adult Education Online: How to Take Online Courses

It's hard to overstate how much online degrees can benefit adult learners. Online courses allow you to attend class at home, work or wherever it's most convenient for you. If you've got 30 minutes for lunch or you're waiting to pick up kids from school, you can read assignments, communicate with classmates and stay organized with your coursework.

And, without having to commute or pay for costs like room, board and on-campus fees, you can save plenty of cash on your education. Of course, if you've never taken an online course, the idea might be daunting. How do you interact with classmates and professors in an online class? How do you turn in assignments? Do you have to log in at certain times? Are online courses as rigorous as those on campus?

Below we'll address all of these concerns and offer some tips for taking your educational pursuits online.

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Online Courses
How Online Classes Are Structured
How Students Interact in an Online Course
Do Online Courses Have In-Person Components?
How to Handle Technical Issues in an Online Class

Paying for College: Getting Financial Aid as an Adult College Student

The cost of higher education is a huge factor in returning to school as an adult and it often keeps many from pursuing their dreams of a degree. It doesn't have to. There are plenty of ways to save money on a degree, like getting as much college transfer credit as you can (which we've covered above), choosing an affordable program and applying for financial aid.

There's a lot of misinformation out there about applying for financial aid as an adult student, so let's debunk them now. There is no age limit for financial aid, it does not cost money to apply for financial aid and there's no credit check required.

All you need to do to find out what grants, loans and other financial aid is available to you is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). To apply, you'll need your social security number, your driver's license or ID number and your most recent tax return. You'll also need to provide financial information such as bank accounts, investments, stocks and any untaxed income like child support, alimony or interest.

Typically, you'll find out how much help you can get paying for college. Some options might include:


As an adult student, you may also qualify for tax credits. The most valuable of these tax credits is the American Opportunity Credit. With it, undergraduate students can claim up to $2,500 in education-related expenses like tuition, fees, books and equipment (but not living or transportation expenses). This credit is even refundable, meaning you can increase your annual tax refund by $1,000 if you meet all of the requirements. To receive the full credit, you must have made less than $80,000 if filing as single or $160,000 if filing jointly.

The Lifetime Learning Credit lets you deduct 20% of the first $10,000 you've paid toward a degree; it counts for both undergraduate and graduate degrees and can even be used on non-degree vocational programs. The same types of expenses are eligible as the American Opportunity Credit, though this one is not refundable. Single filers can claim the credit if they made less than $58,000, while married filers get it if they made less than $116,000 jointly.

It's important to note that you can't use both tax credits in the same tax year.

For more on paying for college, check out our Guide to FAFSA and Financial Aid Guide for College.

Scholarships and Grants for Adults Returning to College

Scholarships for Adults Returning to College

There are plenty of scholarships for adults heading back to school. To give you an idea of what's out there, here are a few examples:

Ford ReStart Scholars Program
Alpha Sigma Lambda Scholarship Working Parent College Scholarship
Adult Students in Scholastic Transition Scholarship
Custody X Change Single Parent Scholarship

Grants for Adults Returning to College

While scholarships are often merit-based, grants are almost always based on financial need; they may not ask you to write essays, show your grades or provide letters of recommendation. Here is a sampling of grants for adults returning to college.

College America Return to Learn Grant
Imagine America Foundation Adult Skills Education Program (ASEP)
P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education (PCE)
You Can. Go Back. Adult Student Grant

Resources for Adults Returning to College

Help is out there for adult learners going back to school. You just need to know where to look for it. Here are a few places that can help.

Where to Find Help as an Adult Returning to School

Many adults heading back to college feel nervous about things like being the oldest student in class, not being able to keep up with assignments or feeling left behind when it comes to technology. Often, most of these fears fall away as students get their footing. There are also many places to turn for help if you find yourself struggling:

    • Professors. Professors are there to help you understand assignments and grasp the concepts taught in class, so they're an invaluable resource for questions about your coursework. Some schools require professors to answer students' questions within a set timeframe.
    • Classmates. Your classmates may be more experienced with the online learning portal, may have had the issue you're having or may understand assignments you're struggling with.
    • School Support Systems. Most schools have advisors and tech support people you can contact with issues about coursework, assignments, classes and financial aid. Many even offer free online tutoring services. It might be helpful to identify how to get help in each of these areas at your school before you start classes.
    • Outside Sources. If you're struggling with an assignment, an LMS, or any other part of your adult education, never underestimate the value of Google, Wikipedia, YouTube or to find answers.

    Study Abroad Opportunities for Adults

    If you missed out on the opportunity to study abroad during your first experience in higher education, don't worry: the ship has not sailed on your chance. There's typically no age limit on the study abroad opportunities offered by colleges and online students can even take advantage. Here are a few places you can look for opportunities to study abroad as an adult:

    International Student Exchange Programs
    United States Abroad Consortium
    The Global Scholars Program

    Organizations That Offer Help To Adults Going Back to School

    There are several organizations around the country that help adult students connect with resources and find support for their journey back to school. Below are a few that offer tangible help to adult learners.

    The Graduate Network is an affiliation of school, government organizations, businesses, non-profits and college graduates, all working together to help support adults who are returning to college to complete a degree. This network provides connections to employers, access to tuition benefits and connections to local, city and state support groups for the 37 million 'Comebackers' in this country -- students with some college credits but no degree.

    Back2College is a resource hub for adults looking to complete a degree or certificate. From its site, you can find links to scholarships, internship opportunities, admissions help, career counseling and tips for finding a degree program. The site also offers forums and FAQs for adult learners.

    Tennessee Reconnect is a program that provides adult learners with a personal advisor who can help them find degree programs, apply to colleges, connect with financial aid opportunities and make the transition back to student life. Tennessee Reconnect also has grants, credit transfer programs and connections to Adult Degree Completion Programs (ADCPs) at colleges in the state.