Going back to college: 9 tips for a successful return
Countless situations make people consider quitting school, and more still make them think about going back to college later in life or after a brief sabbatical.
Maybe the first time around you didn’t know what career to pursue, lost a family member, your family grew, you couldn’t cover the cost of college, or maybe you just felt too homesick and it took a toll on your mental health.
Fortunately, with time comes resources, direction, and drive. If this has been your experience, now could be the perfect moment to resume your educational journey.
Follow along to find out what you can expect from your first year back as a non-traditional student and 9 ways you can prepare.
What is a non-traditional student?
The definition of a non-traditional student is quite broad and encapsulates anyone who enrolls in college a year or more after graduating from high school. You are also considered a non-traditional student if you:
- don’t go to school full time
- dropped out and didn’t complete your degree
- have one or more children or dependents
- are a student over the age of 25
- work more than 35 hours a week
- graduated with a GED instead of a diploma
Whether your situation fits neatly into one of these bullets or is completely unique, there is a place for you in college if you have the desire and willpower to try.
9 preparation tips for going back to college
The hardest part is over. You have decided to change your life, started applying to schools, and submitted your FAFSA. Now, you just have to comb through your acceptance letters, choose your favorite school, take the required assessments, select classes, and secure a financial aid package.
1. Choose a school and major that makes sense financially
If your main goal for attending college is to get your career off the ground, it’s important to think about the quality of your investment right away and the likelihood that it will pay off.
“Evaluate the anticipated increased salary over the remainder of your professional career vs the short-term costs, like forgone salary, tuition, books, and fees,” says Linda Abraham, the founder of Accepted and the first President of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants.
Passion vs. payoff
Strike a healthy balance between studying a subject you’re passionate about and earning a degree that allows you to meet your financial goals.
“A degree is worth your time if you are passionate about learning. While future career prospects are important, they are not the only factor to determine if you want to spend your time earning a college degree. Study a subject that interests and excites you,” says Mandee Heller Adler, an author and founder of International College Counselors.
How to calculate degree ROI
Make sure you can afford to get the degree you want by assessing the cost of tuition, materials, and additional expenses like housing and child care compared to your financial aid package and expected post-graduation salary.
If they’re too disproportionate, you may need to apply for more scholarships, earn a less advanced degree, go to a different school, or switch majors.
It’s also important to consider the amount of time it will take you to be in a full-time position in your desired career.
Adler adds, “Certain degrees lead to higher-paying jobs, like computer science, engineering, finance, and nursing. However, not all high-paying jobs are equal. Certain medical fields require such a lengthy education process that you will not be able to pay off your debt as quickly.”
2. Take any assessments your school requires
You already had to take an admissions exam like the ACT or SAT to get into your school’s program, but the tests don’t end there. Many schools also require new students to take subject placement tests so they can determine which courses are suitable for them. These are common in STEM and language courses, but requirements may vary.
You can find out which tests you need to take by reviewing your acceptance materials or visiting the new student services page on the school’s website.
3. Talk to your advisor about your goals
Your college advisor is there to help you make smart educational decisions, gather resources, and ultimately find personal and professional success. They’re available to help you:
- plan your classes
- meet graduation requirements
- share academic and career planning resources
You can also discuss how to make your classes fit your needs so you can avoid overextending yourself. If you’re an adult learner, they can also help you explore programs and classes to assist you in meeting your goals.
This is especially important if you are planning to enter a field like education or medicine that requires additional education, certifications, and training.
“[As] older students with more life and work experience, you might already have a good sense of your career goals before beginning your education. Rather than a broad, liberal arts education, you might be looking for more specialized programs,” explains Adler.
4. Nail down financial aid
As an adult learner, nailing down a great financial aid package is essential. While your tuition won’t cost more just because you’re a non-traditional student, you may have more expenses in your daily life. For this reason, it’s important to maximize your financial aid package without burying yourself in debt.
“Make sure to apply for scholarships and financial aid, as well as checking if your employer offers programs to help employees pay for college,” Adler says.
You may qualify for various types of financial aid, such as:
Ultimately, it is best to make getting scholarships and grants a priority. These aid options are free money and don’t have to be repaid unless you drop out of school. Ideally, you’ll be able to cover the rest of your education out of pocket so you don’t go into debt.
Of course, this isn’t feasible for most students. If you can’t quite cover the rest of your expenses, subsidized and low-interest loans are the next best option.
How to apply for financial aid using FAFSA
You can apply for FAFSA online and will need to complete the process each year. If you attended college in the past, you can sign in with your old ID. If you’re new to the process, you’ll need to create a new one.
After you make an account, you will enter information about your income. If you are unmarried and under the age of 24, you also need to report your parents’ income.
Once they process your application, your school will receive your information and send you a financial aid package based on your answers.
Tip: Find out what the FAFSA deadline is for your state to ensure you submit the application on time.
Get a better financial aid package
If you need more money, don’t be afraid to talk to your school’s financial aid department about additional funding or alternative ways to pay for college.
You can often get more money just by asking for it, and if not, they can recommend scholarships or student loan options.
“There are great folks in college [and] university financial aid offices that can explain all of your options. When in doubt, continue to ask questions until you fully understand the financial aid package being offered,” says Dr. Ramon Goings, Associate Professor in the Language, Literacy & Culture Doctoral Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
5. Understand graduate requirements
You will need to satisfy several graduation requirements to earn your degree.
In addition to the advanced classes you take for your major, you will need to complete general education classes and may be required to complete internships, field work, practicum, work studies, volunteer opportunities, and more.
Between all of these and the time you’ll need to study (2–3 hours per week for each credit hour), you must carefully plan your short-term schedule and long-term academic plan.
Understanding graduation requirements also lets you know what to prioritize. This way, you aren’t stuck trying to squeeze a class into your packed schedule or finding space in an overcrowded class so you can graduate on time.
6. Sign up for classes
Students generally register for classes 3–4 months before classes start, but spots in popular and required courses fill up quickly, so don’t delay.
Students generally schedule their classes online, but if you have questions or need accommodations, schedule an in-person appointment with your faculty advisor.
You’ll want to strike a balance between General Education (Gen Ed) classes and major-specific courses.
If you don’t take enough Gen Eds early on, you may get stuck playing catch up as an upperclassman. Alternatively, if you don’t take classes for your major, you might not have the prerequisites needed to take more advanced courses.
7. Start planning how you will balance life and school
“For older non-traditional students, your life probably looks a lot different than an 18-year-old’s. Some non-traditional students have children, are married, and need a job to support themselves and their families. These factors affect what you prioritize when searching for a college, as well as your experience once you get there,” says Adler.
Find time to prioritize all of the important things in your life by:
- scheduling time for school, work, and family
- planning to study at the time of day when you’re most productive
- prioritizing urgent to-dos and not stressing yourself over things that aren’t
- taking breaks and focusing on your mental health
- not being be a perfectionist
- rewarding yourself for small wins
3 practical tips for balancing school and life
Dr. Goings, an industry expert and the son of a non-traditional learner, has 3 practical tips for balancing life and school:
- Have conversations with your family about what you are doing and make them a part of the journey. At times, schoolwork will impact the time you have for your family, and as long as they know this is temporary, you will get their support.
- Get yourself organized. A busy home and school life brings the potential for many scheduling conflicts. Staying organized will ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible.
- Stay in constant communication with your professors. They understand you are human. When you build a rapport with them, they will learn what is taking you away from class and help you find solutions. Not saying anything is the worst choice because they can’t help you.
8. Find a strong community on campus to support you
Many people assume that adult learners are focused, independent, and not particularly interested in the community element of college.
In fact, many students, traditional or non-traditional, rely heavily on their community to help them through difficult times.
If you’d like to make friends or just network, Dr. Goings recommends that you, “Engage with the office on campus who supports adult learners (they have a range of names and vary in scope of support), and if those don’t exist, students may have to push the institution to create the space for adult learners to connect.”
You can also join educational, volunteer, and social groups just like anyone else.
Additionally, for BIPOC students who believe they would excel with more diverse mentorship and peers, most schools have groups and resources on campus that you can learn more about by reaching out to the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).
9. Set healthy boundaries and ask for help
As an adult learner, chances are you have a lot going on. Balancing family, work, and school can be a lot for even the most organized student.
If you start to feel overwhelmed, ask for help. Some things you can ask for include:
- deadline extensions
- note-taking assistance
- clarification about questions on tests and assignments
- learning resources
- process recommendations
Try to form a relationship with your professor, TA, and advisor so that if you run into problems or have questions, you feel comfortable asking for help.
Keep in mind that needing some assistance doesn’t mean you’re not smart or that you don’t belong. Everyone is at college to learn, and the most successful students don’t hesitate to ask when they don’t know something.
How does the college experience vary for traditional vs. non-traditional students?
While classes and coursework are the same for traditional and non-traditional students, older students don’t generally experience “college life” in quite the same way.
Social life differences
As an adult, you’ll probably skip experiences like frats, sororities, and dorm living. If you have young children, you might also have to forgo some parties and spur-of-the-moment excursions.
“Traditional students typically have little responsibility outside of being a student. However, non-traditional students come to college juggling multiple responsibilities which [may] include [things like] full-time employment or taking care of a dependent (child or relative), all while being a full-time student,” says Dr. Goings.
While non-traditional learners may have different priorities, you can still connect with your peers by joining professional organizations, study groups, and cultural organizations.
How do classroom experiences differ?
According to Dr. Goings, one of the most substantial educational differences between traditional and non-traditional students is in how they handle themselves in class.
He explains his study results on the subject:
“Because non-traditional learners may be pursuing degrees in fields they currently work in, sometimes they have more practical expertise in the subject than their professors.
What I found for non-traditional students was that they had to sometimes temper their expertise in an effort to not outshine their professor. This was a strategic move to ensure they got good grades in their classes.”
Meanwhile, traditional students are generally learning the information for the first time.
How to create a positive relationship with your professor
While data shows that many adult learners worry about stepping on their professor’s toes – you don’t have to. The key to creating the most beneficial learning experience for yourself while fostering a great relationship with your professors is communication and respect.
Some ways you can impress your professors and create a relationship where you feel comfortable speaking up include:
- getting to know them and their research
- disagreeing respectfully
- visiting office hours
- addressing them using their title unless they request otherwise
- sending professional emails
- asking genuine questions
Is it too late for me to go back to school?
You’re never too old to learn. All it takes is a single day and a single decision that you want to finish school.
“College is not just for 18-year-old high school graduates; it’s for anyone who wants to commit to learning. A bachelor’s degree can be an important investment in your future, teaching you skills for specialized, high-paying jobs,” says Adler.
She adds, “College presents unique challenges for all students, often in an environment where you will be encouraged to overcome challenges, broaden your horizons, and meet your goals. Don’t compare yourself to other students; everyone is on their own path to success.”
How to find a good school for adult learners
As a non-traditional student, you may have different priorities than a traditional college student who is fresh out of high school. The college you attend must understand your life circumstances and experiences to better accommodate you.
“Traditional students have been ‘students’ virtually all their lives. That has been their primary or sole occupation. That’s their identity. The non-traditional student is usually older and has more life and professional experience, but it’s probably several years since they were a full-time student,” says Abraham.
Some signs that a school welcomes non-traditional students and is dedicated to their success include having:
- child care centers
- public transportation that picks up students who live off campus
- affordable and plentiful parking
- book exchange programs
- transition advisors with experience counseling returning learners
- inclusive student organizations
Signs you should earn a degree
Going back to school can be life-changing. Earning a degree can help you score a promotion, leave a job you hate, get higher pay at a job you love, or allow you to pursue a passion professionally.
You might be ready to go back to school if you:
- know which career path to pursue
- have found a passion for a field you’d like to advance in
- understand college expenses and funding options
- have a strong support system
Questions to ask yourself before applying for college
If you find yourself pondering the question, “Should I go back to school?” ask yourself these 8 simple questions. Your answers can help you assess the personal, professional, and financial implications of attending college and earning a degree.
- Can I find housing close to school that fits my specific needs?
- Do I have transportation to get to all of my classes?
- Will my major give me skills that translate to my future career?
- How quickly do students with my major find jobs?
- Does my future salary and current financial aid justify the cost of getting a degree?
- Are there communities and resources I can utilize to improve my on-campus experience?
- Do the class sizes suit my learning needs?
- Does the school offer career services like interview preparation mentorships?
Best colleges for non-traditional students
As an adult learner, it’s important to find a college that meets your educational needs. The program you choose should set you up for success regardless of your personal situation. Once you have selected a degree, look into applying for some of these excellent scholarships to help you fund it.