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Going Back to College: A Guide for Adults

Abound: Finish College »

Going back to school is an increasingly common choice among adults who never got their bachelor’s degree. You might be thinking about doing the same, but what will it be like to balance your job, your family, your finances, and college classes? The thought can be intimidating—and confusing—but you are not alone! It may surprise you that non-traditional students make up about 73% of all students enrolled in higher education. That means that millions of people are making it work, with more and more schools making adult education possible.

This is a huge step that can be both exciting and overwhelming. To help navigate your way to the degree-completion program that’s best for you, we’ve put together a list of everything you need to know before heading back to college.

Facing Fears

Adults desiring to return to school as non-traditional students face many fears—particularly those related to their own self-doubt. 

”I haven’t been in a classroom in years! What makes me think I can jump straight into college?” 

Hey, we get it. The idea of such a big change is scary, and being fearful or doubtful about going back to school is very common. In fact, there’s even a name for it! The “confidence gap” refers to the trend that students straight out of high school are more confident about their ability to graduate than those who begin college later in life.

But while college might be challenging at first, non-traditional students actually have a significant advantage over traditional students: as an adult, you already know how to balance work and the many life responsibilities you face every day. Adulthood requires plenty of time- and stress-management skills that most 18-to-21-year-olds haven’t honed yet. Your life experience will help you make wise choices and fuel the fire to succeed.

It all starts with a plan. Gather information about programs you’re interested in, think about your goals for after graduation, and establish a support network to help you take the leap and finish your degree.

What Is a Degree-Completion Program?

Degree-completion programs are specifically designed for students who have started earning college credits but still need to complete more credits for a four-year degree. They factor in some or all of the credits earned from a previous four-year undergraduate program and provide the remaining courses that fulfill the remaining requirements. Some degree-completion programs are also available to those with associate’s degrees, providing more thorough education to round out the gaps in the less-comprehensive degree. 

Degree-completion programs are offered in a few different formats, including in-person, 100% online, or hybrid schedules, which have both in-person and online courses. They are often more affordable and flexible than traditional schools, offering adult students a realistic, accelerated path to finishing a degree.

According to Dr. Andy Atzert, Dean of the College of Professional and Continuing Studies at Adelphi University, “Adult students who seek to complete a bachelor’s degree need help in planning individualized pathways to graduation that take into account their busy lives and awards them credit for prior learning inside and outside of college, which reduces the time and cost to compete a degree.” Adelphi has dedicated advisors who work with current and prospective students to plan their degree pathways and to keep them on track until graduation. 

A Guide to Get Started

Ready to take the next step? Let’s go over a few things to help set yourself up for a successful academic career!

1) Find the right fit

Choosing the right degree-completion program for you is crucial for your success. When comparing programs, remember to consider the following:

  • Areas of study: What field do you want to study? What feels most relevant to your career goals?
  • Budget: What tuition can you afford? Will you be able to support yourself while taking classes?
  • Online, in-person, or hybrid classes: Which class format works best for you? Consider both the environment you feel most comfortable in as well as whether commuting to campus is feasible with your schedule.
  • Flexibility and time commitment: How do your responsibilities affect when you can and can’t focus on your studies? If need be, find a program that allows you to move at your own pace, meet in the evening, or meet in whatever way fits your unique schedule.
  • Student support options: Look for schools that offer comprehensive support to its adult students, including things like tutoring, IT support, or even childcare

There are so many options out there, so be sure to find the school that will support you on your journey.

2) Figure Out Your Finances

College degrees are not cheap, and any program you choose is going to require a financial commitment. Needless to say, it’s critical to have a plan.

College tuition rates vary from school to school. Keep track of the tuition rates for each program you consider, and let your budget help inform the program you pursue.

  • Research financial aid options: Check with the financial aid office at your prospective college to see what types of aid are available to adult learners. This may include scholarships, grants, and loans. You may also be eligible for federal aid, such as the Pell Grant or work-study programs.
  • Apply for financial aid: Once you’ve identified which types of aid you’re eligible for, work with the financial aid office to apply for them! Keep track of the deadlines for everything, and remember to fill out the FAFSA as well so that you can access all of your federal aid options. 
  • Budget for college expenses: Create a budget to help you manage your finances while in school. Consider the cost of tuition, textbooks, transportation, and other expenses.
  • Look for additional sources of funding: Consider applying for scholarships or grants from outside organizations or through your employer.

3) Hone Your Time Management Skills 

  • Create a schedule: Make a schedule that includes your class times, study time, work hours, and family obligations. Stick to your schedule as much as possible to help manage your time effectively.
  • Use a planner: Use a planner or calendar to help keep track of important dates such as exams, project deadlines, and meetings.
  • Prioritize your tasks: Identify which tasks are most important, and prioritize them accordingly. This will help you stay on top of your workload and prevent feeling overwhelmed.

Take breaks: Remember to take breaks throughout the day to give your brain a rest and prevent burnout.

4) Find Balance 

Balancing work, school, and family will take intentional effort, but it is possible. Adults returning to school will be more successful with an established support system to help them juggle life responsibilities and school.

  • Communicate with your employer: Let your employer know that you’re going back to school, and discuss any scheduling conflicts or accommodations that may need to be made.
  • Enlist the help of family and friends: Ask for help with childcare, household chores, or other responsibilities if necessary.
  • Set realistic expectations: Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t do everything you feel you ‘should’ be able to do!
  • Practice self-care: Take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Exercise, eat well, and make time for activities you enjoy.

5) Go For It

If you are determined to finish your bachelor’s degree, a degree-completion program is an excellent choice. In addition to applying the credits you earned when you were previously in school, many degree programs accept college-level examination program testing, such as CLEP testing and Prior Learning Assessments. Some schools, like Neumann University in Aston, PA, will provide credit for professional training or military experience if you provide documentation. You may potentially earn college credits before you even begin taking classes, setting you well on your way to your degree.

As a non-traditional adult student, getting past your fears and just going for it is the hardest part! Once you start a degree-completion program, your confidence will soar, and you will know you can succeed.

By following this checklist, you’ll be well-prepared to start your journey back to college as an adult learner. Remember to stay organized, communicate with your support system, and take care of yourself along the way. Good luck!

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