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Tips for Returning to School as an Older Adult

going back to college

The word “school” evokes a picture of playgrounds or young adults in dorms, but many individuals return to school years into their careers. Some may be returning to complete a college degree so they can qualify for new positions. Others may be aiming for a graduate or professional degree to further their career or change careers. Regardless of your reason for returning, entering an educational program as an adult brings new challenges.

1. Choose your program wisely

First, you will first need to decide what you want to study. You may have started the process of returning to school with a clear goal in mind or you may be exploring multiple paths. Choose a degree that is relevant to the work you want to do. To help with this decision, consider getting impartial advice from people who are doing, or hiring for, the job you want. You may find that a particular degree is highly valued while another is seen as worthless in the field.

Once you decide on your field of study, be sure to carefully assess the program and school. Although a more convenient location or cheaper tuition seems appealing, the quality of the education and reputation of the school are arguably more important. Ask questions about the types of practical experience, networking and job placement that the school offers. Carefully examine statistics on how many students successfully graduate or gain employment.

2. Look for programs aimed at working professionals

When you’re looking at schools, you may notice that some schools are geared toward working professionals while others attract mostly younger adults. While many adults do successfully attend traditional programs alongside college-age youths, many find that programs designed for returning adult students are better options.

Programs for older students may offer evening or online classes to fit around traditional working hours. In addition, your classmates will often have more practical experience in the field. Additionally, professors in programs aimed at older students may be more understanding of the conflicts between career, family and education.

3. Embrace the new technology

If it has been awhile since you were last in school, you may be surprised by some of the newer technology. Online only or partially online classes are now common. Learning in online programs often takes place through video lessons and discussion boards and may or may not include scheduled class times.

Even in-person classes incorporate new technology. Many schools now ask for papers to be submitted through an online program that automatically checks for plagiarism. Others may utilize electronic polling to ask questions during lectures to check for understanding or encourage participation.

4. Find the money

The cost of education is often perceived as a barrier to returning to school, but it doesn’t have to be. All students should fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) online. Undergraduate students may qualify for financial assistance or subsidized loans. Graduate students have fewer options but are likely to qualify for federal loans for up to $20,500 per year. Scholarships and grants may also be available through your school, your local community or through national organizations.

If you’re employed, ask your employer if tuition assistance is available. Many employers pay for some or all of the tuition for qualified employees. Some employers may require that the degree is relevant to your current job or that you continue to work for them for a certain period of time after the end of your course.

5. Relearn study skills

If you have been out of school for many years, you may need to relearn certain study skills. Be sure you have the necessary tools and supplies before the start of the class. If you will be using a shared computer, purchase a USB flash drive or open a cloud storage account to store your papers and files. Textbooks can often be purchased or rented online for lower costs than through school bookstores. Electronic versions are another option for some books.

You may feel confident writing papers if your job involves a lot of business writing, but remember that the style of writing for school may differ from the type of writing you do at home or at work. Pick up the recommended style guide for your field and school. Style guides cover everything from acceptable formatting to effective wording.

As an older student, you’re likely to be balancing school, work and family. In order to succeed at school, you will need to set aside time to study, write papers and read your materials. Look for quiet times in your schedule such as after the kids go to bed or in the evening after dinner. Ask your family, friends or co-workers to help cover other responsibilities during the busy periods when final exams or papers are approaching.

Returning to school brings some challenges but also many advantages. Getting a new degree can increase your salary for many years to come. Communicate regularly with your professor if you’re having trouble with a class. Many schools also have support groups, social activities and special programs designed for adult students. By preparing yourself ahead of time and getting help when you need it, you too can successfully return to school.


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