Going Back to School | Advice for Adult Learners

Maybe you want to return to school to complete a degree you never finished.  Or maybe you never got started on a college degree, or you’re interested in changing careers.  Whatever the reason, you’re not alone—plenty of adults return to school.  If you’re interested in furthering your education, here are a few things you should know.

Think about your reasons for going to school.

For most traditional college students, the decision to get a degree is easy.  They often get a lot of financial help from parents, and they can afford to go to school simply for the “college experience.” 

Adult learners are more aware of the investment required for a college degree.  They must pay for themselves, negotiate time or tuition help from their employers, and make many other adjustments to their lives in order to accommodate school.  It’s important to know exactly why you want your degree before making such investments, so you can decide whether it’s worth it. 

Choose a program that gets you where you want to go.

Once you know why you want to go back, it’s important to choose a program that will give you the best chance of meeting your goals.  Do you need an Associate’s, Bachelor’s, or Master’s degree?  What degree program will be best for you?  How open is your industry to accepting online degrees?  College is a big investment, and you’ll need to choose your program wisely.

Consider non-traditional options.

Many traditional colleges offer independent guided-study options that allow you to study mostly at home under faculty guidance.  You can also pursue a degree part-time. Online colleges allow you to study remotely, interacting with peers and teachers through e-mail, message boards, and Instant Message programs.  Many adults choose virtual learning as the fastest, easiest, and most practical way to earn a degree.  Online education is growing in popularity among adult students because online degree programs are flexible and easier to fit around full-time work and family obligations.

Ask about life experience credits.

As an adult student with years or even decades of work experience, you may be able to shorten your time in school by earning life experience credits.  Some traditional and online colleges will waive the requirements for certain classes for students who demonstrate the skills and knowledge taught in those particular classes.  This can save you considerable time and money.

Investigate your transfer options.

If you attended college in the past, you may be able to apply those credits toward a degree today.  Transfer credits could save you thousands of dollars and several years in school.

Research grants and scholarships.

There are ways you can earn grants and scholarships—free money for your education—from many different funding sources.  Some colleges offer these grants on a need-based basis, while others offer them based on your background, ethnic orientation, path of study, academic achievement, and more.  You can also find grants from businesses in your area, as well as community and religious organizations, fraternal orders, unions, and associations you belong to. 

Talk to your employer.

Your employer may be willing to fund your education.  Talk to your boss about tuition reimbursement programs.  If you plan on working full-time while earning a degree, an online degree program may be the best choice for you.  Because online education doesn’t require a fixed schedule of classes, adult students often find it easier to study while handling work and family responsibilities.

Avoid private student debt.

Investigate all other funding sources before you take out any student loans from a private lender.  Private loans have high, variable rates that continue to accumulate interest while you’re in school.  Before you sign up for one, apply to government loans, investigate scholarships, and check out your employer’s tuition reimbursement plan.  Don’t let a college talk you into accepting any loan without knowing the terms.

It isn’t easy to go back to school.  But it is possible to earn a degree without sacrificing job or family responsibilities or going deeply into debt.  Investigate all your options before choosing a school, and you’ll be able to reach your goals.


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