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?
Your degree level may depend largely on your situation. If you never attended college, you might think about a 2-year associate degree to jumpstart your career or act as a stepping stone to a 4-year college. If you previously attended college, finishing a bachelor's degree may only take you a year or two. If you have a bachelor's and just want to switch gears on a career, a certificate program might give you the skills you'd need at a fraction of the price of a master's degree. Finally, if you need a credential (like a license or certification) for your career, you'll need a program that fulfills the credentialing body's requirements.
What Programs Are Offered?
We're assuming that you've already decided on a degree and career path. If not, take a look at our Adult Education Articles; these can help you narrow your search.
You'll want to find a college that offers a program that aligns with your career goals. Professions like nursing and teaching offer fairly clear degree paths; others don't. No two programs are built the same so you may need to look at concentrations within larger degree programs, find programs that let you choose electives or look for curriculums that feature lots of courses in your field.
What Support Services Does the College Offer?
In that same Strada-Gallup survey, over half the respondents who left college said they didn't get the guidance they needed from the school's support services. Those who did finish their degrees said their schools support services played a big role. That's why it's important to look for schools that have on-demand academic resources for students like you. This might include highly rated, accessible tech support for online courses, free or low-cost tutoring services, dedicated adult student advising and quality career counseling to help with job searches.
Does the College Fit Your Lifestyle?
Make sure the college you choose is adult-friendly. If you're attending on campus, you might look for schools with married student housing, day care services and flexible courses that can be scheduled around work and family. If you plan to pursue an online degree, you might look for schools with asynchronous courses that allow you to complete assignments and absorb class materials whenever it's convenient for you.
Things like accreditation, student demographics (particularly the student body age) and graduation rates can also have a huge impact on your college experience as an adult. You can find all of this information for your target schools at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
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
Each school has different deadlines and some even have deadlines for individual components of an application. For most colleges, the deadline for applications is around the beginning of January. Colleges that offer early decision -- where you can apply earlier and hear back earlier -- often set deadlines around November.
Gather Application Materials
Start gathering application materials as soon as possible. These might include transcripts from high school and any colleges you attended. If you didn't complete college, you'll need to enroll in a GED program and take high school equivalency courses. You may also need SAT/ACT scores and letters of recommendation from employers/previous teachers/community leaders.
Fill Out Your College Application
Most colleges offer applications that can be filled out online and many will allow you to upload your application materials, though some may ask for physical copies. You can apply to each school individually or you might consider using the Common App, which allows you to fill out and manage college applications to several schools at once. Common App boasts 900 schools in its network and 24/7 tech support for navigating the application process. It also recently launched a way for students to transfer previous college credits to their new schools within the application portal.
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:
For some adults returning to school, it's helpful to make a list of all the daily/weekly activities it takes to keep life on track. This might include meals, kids' schooling and extracurricular activities, spending quality time with friends and family, cleaning and maintaining the house and meeting obligations at work.
With everything laid out like this, you can have a family meeting and decide how to divide duties to take some of the pressure off. Let them know you'll need their support and understanding as you transition into this life change.
If you're single, you might look at this list and rank obligations by priority and find ways to cut back and make room for a new time commitment.
An ounce of planning can save a pound of work. Check out your course syllabus and start making mental preparations for the materials you'll need to absorb and the tests you'll need to take. If it helps, set reminders that give you plenty of time to stay on top of assignments. There are all sorts of apps and websites designed specifically to help students plan, organize and manage coursework, exams and deadlines.
Make Arrangements at Work
Many adult students are working while in college, which can be difficult to balance. Make sure you set reasonable expectations with work. Let them know you may need to cut back on hours, leave early once a week or take a temporary leave as you adjust to life as an adult student. Most workplaces should be supportive, especially if you help them understand that you're learning skills that will benefit the company.
While having a support system, organizational skills and a solid plan will help, there will be times when balancing school and work will feel chaotic and overwhelming. Living in that chaos 24/7 is a recipe for burnout, which is why it's important to practice self-love.
Identify healthy ways to relax, whether it's going for a run, doing guided meditation or practicing yoga. These activities don't have to be self-helpy, either. For some, having a drink with friends, vegging in front of the TV or just retreating from the world for a while can be just as beneficial. Just make sure you set aside times for yourself where you aren't thinking about work and school; forgive yourself and let go of any guilt about meeting your obligations.
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
Synchronous online courses require students to 'attend' class by logging in at particular times of day to watch live lectures and interact in a virtual classroom. Asynchronous online courses allow students to absorb course materials, complete assignments and take exams at their leisure (most classes still have weekly deadlines). Some students prefer the more structured, traditional feel of synchronous classes, while others like the freedom of completing coursework at their own pace.
How Online Classes Are Structured
Each college has its own system for delivering online courses, so it can look quite different from institution to institution. However, most incorporate a learning management system (LMS), a virtual portal where students login to check out the syllabus, view course materials, watch lectures, communicate with classmates and professors and upload assignments. There are several common LMSs , including Blackboard, Moodle and Canvas, all of which have unique approaches. Because of this, you may want to see what LMS your target schools use and decide what works best for you.
How Students Interact in an Online Course
It's true that online courses make it a little harder to build relationships with your fellow students and professors. Still, with a little effort, students can use built-in social media, chat, forums and videoconferencing tools to ask questions, work on group projects and forge the bonds that reinforce the learning experience.
Do Online Courses Have In-Person Components?
This can depend largely on the school and the subject. Some schools require online students to complete residencies where they get to know classmates and the school community before starting their online schooling. Some might require in-person components because they're integral to the learning process or they are a prerequisite for licensure or certification in the field. This is common in disciplines like nursing and teaching. For other programs, students may never set foot on campus.
How to Handle Technical Issues in an Online Class
To have a smooth experience with your online courses, you may need a fairly new computer, high speed internet and specific software. Even with these things, problems can arise. That's why schools typically offer technical support designed specifically for online students. If you anticipate technical problems, you may want to see how this support works: is it live? If not, how quickly do they respond? Is it offered 24/7? How do students review the help they get from these services?
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:
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG). These grants offer between $100 and $4,000 annually to students with exceptional financial need.
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants. Those who served in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan are eligible for $6,345 per year.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant. TEACH grants provide up to $4,000 annually for students in certain teaching programs.
Work-study programs allow students to work part-time (typically on-campus) to earn money to pay for tuition.
Direct Subsidized Loans offer low interest rates and do not need to be paid back until after leaving school. Students with Direct Unsubsidized Loans must start paying them back immediately. These government loans are recommended over private loans because they offer favorable terms.
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
The Ford ReStart Scholars Program for residents of Oregon and California covers 90% of the college's cost of attendance and are renewable for up to four years. Candidates must not already have a degree, and they must be 25 years of age or older and not more than halfway through their degree program. The deadline to apply is March 1.
Alpha Sigma Lambda Scholarship
Alpha Sigma Lambda, the official honor society for adult learners, offers 14 need-based scholarships worth $3 ,600 each to students who have completed 24 credits at their current institution and have a GPA of at least 3.2. Applications must be submitted by April 30.
Job-Applications.com Working Parent College Scholarship
The Job-Applications.com Working Parent College Scholarship is designed for working parents who are currently enrolled in college, either part-time or full-time. Applicants need to submit an essay about balancing school with work and parenthood. Applications are due December 5.
Adult Students in Scholastic Transition Scholarship
Offered by Executive Women International (EWI), the Adult Students in Scholastic Transition (ASIST) Scholarship awards amounts between $2,000 and $10,000 to adults facing physical, social or economic challenges who want to take advantage of educational opportunities. Candidates must apply through a local chapter of EWI, which can be found on the organization's website. awards amounts between $2,000 and $10,000 to adults facing physical, social or economic challenges who want to take advantage of educational opportunities. Candidates must apply through a local chapter of EWI, which can be found on the organization's website.
Custody X Change Single Parent Scholarship
Custody X Change offers three scholarships each year to single parents who are returning to school. To be eligible, you must be a single parent, be enrolled full-time and have a GPA of 3.0 or higher. You'll also need to submit an essay and unofficial college transcripts. Amounts range from $500 to $1,000 and deadlines are April 30, August 31 and December 31.
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
The College America Return to Learn Grant offers $5,000 toward tuition for students who have earned some college credits but have not finished a degree.
Imagine America Foundation Adult Skills Education Program (ASEP)
The Imagine America Foundation offers $1000 for adult students who want to attend a career college. This one-time grant is open to applicants who:
- Complete the NCCT Educational Success Potential Assessment;
- Are enrolling in a participating trade school;
- Are U.S. citizens or permanent residents;
- Can demonstrate financial need
P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education (PCE)
Women who had to quit school can get up to $3,000 as a one-time grant to return to school from the P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education. To qualify , you must be a legal resident who has been a non-student for 24 consecutive months and can finish a degree in 18 consecutive months. Candidates must do an interview with a P.E.O. chapter chairman and be recommended for the grant by their local chapter.
You Can. Go Back. Adult Student Grant
States sometimes offer grants for students who want to go back to college so it's a good idea to check your state for any programs you might qualify for. For instance, the state of Indiana offers the You Can. Go Back. Adult Student Grant, which awards $2,000 to adults finishing a certificate program, an associate degree or a bachelor's.
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 Study.com 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
International Student Exchange Programs, or ISEP, offers a huge variety of study abroad options around the world. From the site, you can find out how the programs work, where to apply, how to coordinate college credit at your school and ways to budget your experience abroad. You can also connect with study abroad scholarships and find internships overseas that fulfill your degree program's requirements.
United States Abroad Consortium
The United States Abroad Consortium offers a wide range of ways to connect with study abroad programs including foreign language learning, courses at renowned universities around the world and internships with businesses, non-profits and community charities from Australia to South Korea.
The Global Scholars Program
The Global Scholars Program operates on campuses around the country (like this one at Boise State University), connecting current students to international research opportunities, service-learning projects, college courses and cultural-enrichment programs.
GoAbroad connects adults to learning opportunities around the globe including TEFL courses, internships, volunteer programs and other meaningful experiences. At the very least, these offer chances to learn and be enriched as a student; some may even be transferable as college credit and/or help with college admissions.
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.