Practical Advice on Going Back to College
Tips from an adult educator on making your college dreams a reality
Every month, I stand in front of a room of adults who are thinking about enrolling in college. I answer their questions, and I listen to their stories. No matter their background or career goals, nearly all of these prospective adult students share one thing. Doubt. How will they find the time? How can they afford it? What if they fail?
But when I hear from these same students after they've graduated, none of them regrets having earned a college degree. Not one. In seven years of advising adult students, the sense of satisfaction and pride I see on each graduate's face continues to be an inspiration.
They've done it. And so can you — though you probably have many of the same concerns that my students do. Here's the advice I give to them.
If we all waited to do something until we had time, we'd never do anything. We'd never get married. Or have kids. Or go on vacation. We'd never expend the effort to do what really matters to us. But when we want something, we make the time for it.
Sure, most adult students I work with have full-time jobs. Many are raising children or caring for aging parents. Some also have neighborhood or community commitments. But many colleges offer a variety of class formats and times to accommodate students' schedules. You can take classes on Saturdays or on weeknights. You can take accelerated classes with shorter semesters. There are even online options.
Most of us don't think twice about taking out a loan to buy a house or a car. But education is less tangible — its value is hard to grasp. That's why so many adults rule out college because of the costs. But the personal and professional value of having a diploma will reap benefits for the rest of your life.
Yes, it will cost money. And, no, there is not a lot of financial aid for adult students compared to what's available for traditional-aged students. But scholarships and fellowships do exist. Some employers will cover tuition. And many universities offer programs that will help you earn college credit for your work and life experiences. In fact, St. Edward's University awarded well over 200 hours of credit to adult students through our Center for Prior Learning last year alone.
Additionally, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012 figures, the median annual wage for a person with a bachelor’s degree is nearly $40,000 more than a person with some college and no degree, making the investment well worth it.
Many adults I talk to are afraid to fail. I call it the “imposter syndrome.” You don't think you belong in college. You don't remember how to study or take a test. You're afraid that you'll stand out. Consider your successes in other areas of your life. You’ve had to be persistent and disciplined to accomplish things. Returning to school is no different.
And you will not be the only adult student. Not even close. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of students over age 25 who enrolled in college between 2000 and 2011 increased 41%. Plus, you can take advantage of academic advisors (like me), tutoring services, career planning, and myriad other on-campus resources.
You’re probably not the same person you were 5 or 10 or 20 years ago. Now that you’re a bit more seasoned, you’re likely to take your classes more seriously. Plus, being in the workplace has given you a whole new set of skills that you can apply to your courses.
And don't forget some of your biggest advocates — your professors. At St. Edward's, we have nationally recognized faculty members who teach only adult students. They understand how valuable your time is. They are constantly refining their teaching methods to match how you learn best. And they want you to be successful.
The bottom line?
A college degree is an attainable goal. You can do it. You will find the time and the financial resources. You won't be alone. And if you're still not sure? Connect with the invaluable support network waiting to help you at universities across the country. If you never start working toward your degree, you’ll never finish.
Lori Eggleston Thorp is director of New College Support Services at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She has taught and advised adult students for more than seven years and has an M.Ed. from Texas State University. Lori has also presented at the Association for Continuing Higher Education International Conference, the Region 7 National Academic Advisors Conference and the Texas Academic Advising Network.
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