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Tips for Going Back to College After Dropping Out

Nathan Wilgeroth / Abound: Finish College »

There are countless reasons why someone might drop out of college. Perhaps the first school wasn’t the right fit. Or maybe other responsibilities caused a temporary shift in priorities. Sometimes an unplanned circumstance pushes students so far behind that it becomes too difficult to catch up. And, sometimes, the financial burden can also put a pause on education. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone; in fact, the overall dropout rate for American undergraduates is over 40%. This has left more than 34 million adults with some college credit but no degree. 

We at Abound have always advocated for the reasons you should finish college, but this last year has only made it that much more crucial in a competitive post-COVID economy. Job losses and market shifts have people rushing back to school to finish their degree for an advantage in the enormous pool of unemployed candidates. 

Money, time, and unplanned life events may have made your path to a degree seem impossible. No matter your reasons for dropping out, however starting again with a plan of action can help prepare you for success. With the help of Andy Atzert, Dean of the College of Professional and Continuing Studies at Adelphi University, we have compiled some tips for returning to college to finish your degree. Personal and professional success is just around the corner!

1. Identify Your Motivation

What do you hope to achieve by returning to college? Think about what you’re looking for in regards to your career, your family, your finances, etc. How can getting your degree help you meet your goals? It’s important to think about the finish line at the beginning to decide whether and how starting the journey again will help you. 

You don’t have to do this brainstorming alone; the college you’re looking to attend can help you! At Adelphi, for instance, dedicated advisors are available to work with students to match their educational goals to their career goals. As students explore their desired outcomes, they are given the guidance they need to choose an appropriate program and/or internship and clinical experiences. “It’s important for students to start out with a clear goal in mind and get sound advice on how to meet that goal,” says Atzert

Does the degree match the career you want? Many people worry about getting a job after college—and for good reason! Make sure your degree will help you get the job you want. When you land on something that fits your interests, needs, and goals, you might have found a good fit!

2. Do Financial Aid Homework

Dean Atzert encourages everyone to learn about financial aid as early as possible. It’s best to do this homework with the help of your prospective school so that you can understand all the options available both federally and through the school itself. “Returning students are generally too busy to decipher the complexities of financial aid and so many colleges like ours equip our advisors to answer basic questions or connect prospective students with our financial aid specialists.” 

Regardless of the school you’re looking to attend, you’ll likely want to pursue federal aid by filling out the FAFSA® form. Beyond that, make sure you leave no stone unturned and apply to all that you might be eligible for. Especially given the current economic circumstances, you shouldn’t have to miss out on any aid.

If you are currently employed, you might be able to benefit from tuition reimbursement from your employer. Your continued education can provide immense value to your company, so ask about how your boss might be willing to invest in your skillbuilding. 

3. Get the Most Out of Transfer Credits

Going back to school doesn’t mean to have to start over from scratch. If you have previously attended college, you might be able to apply your earned credits to your new program’s degree requirements. Whether your credits will transfer depends on where you’re applying and the amount of time that has passed since you were last in school, but it’s always useful to double check with an admissions officer to help you save both time and money.

Previous college credit isn’t the only way to exempt yourself from degree requirements; you can also earn credit for the professional experiences you’ve had in adulthood! “Most students who return to college not only have already earned some college credit,” says Atzert, but also have life experience that could be translated into college credits through Prior Learning Assessment and credit by exam.” Check out our advice on the myriad opportunities you have to fulfill college credit through work outside of college. Things like Prior Learning Assessments, the College-Level Examination Program, or professional licensing can get you even closer to your degree.

  • Program choice—If you did not enjoy the major you started with, or the course load was too challenging, consider enrolling in fewer courses at once (or switching to a different major).
  • Family responsibilities—If you have children or other family members who require significant care, it’s important to establish a support system with a network of babysitters or regular caretakers.
  • Work responsibilities—If you work full time and cannot manage a full course load as well, you could consider going back to school part-time. Although it will take you more time in the long run, your daily school responsibilities will be more manageable.

4. Find the Class Format That Works for You

What’s the best way for you to receive instruction? This answer can be based on how you learn best, what your work schedule is like, how much time you can carve out for learning in one window, and what your responsibilities at home are. If you work full time and cannot manage a full course load as well, for example, you could consider going back to school part-time. Although it will take you more time in the long run, your daily school responsibilities will be more manageable. Depending on your needs and preferences, you can choose a part-time, full-time, online, on-campus, or hybrid program.

5. Build a Strong Support System

College is challenging, and as with every challenge, you are more likely to thrive with the support of friends, family, and the resources available to you. Into adulthood, we understand that you probably have far more responsibilities than you did when you were in your traditional-college-aged years. That’s why it takes a village to keep you afloat and successful as you manage school on top of whatever work, family, and other personal commitments you have. 

If you have children or other family members who require significant care, it’s important to establish a support system with a network of babysitters or regular caretakers. Indeed, you’re best equipped to succeed when you communicate your needs.

6. Utilize Student Services 

Once you do enroll in school, take advantage of the resources that it offers to keep you in a strong personal and academic position. Many institutions offer the same or similar services to adult students as it does to traditional students. Dean Atzert remarks that returning students often lack confidence in their academic skills such as writing and math, and so Adelphi has made academic support services available to all returning college students. There’s no reason to lack confidence in your ability to perform as a student. Writing centers and other academic support facilities can help you find your footing and improve on any weaknesses you may have. 

7. Find Your Perfect Fit

When applying to and enrolling in a college, you’ll probably want to consider factors like its location, its cost, the quality of its classes and professors, etc. Everyone will have different needs depending on their responsibilities and circumstances. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to an advisor or visit for advice and a peek at high-quality schools. 

If you’re on the fence about returning to school, remember that, even though you may not have finished the first time, consider the costs of not finishing college at all. Additionally, most of the credits you have already earned could transfer, and you may even receive credit for your work experience! What’s more, advancements in technology continue to make learning much more convenient and accessible. Don’t think of it as starting over completely—think of it as resuming the process with more wisdom and a better plan for success! 

Wondering where to start? Abound: Finish College can help narrow down your options and get you in touch with schools that we can confirm are Accessible, Affordable, Accelerated, and Advanced. Take a look at the schools we trust and find the program that works for you.

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