A realistic look at starting college as an adult

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Going back to school later in life is a big decision. So, it’s no surprise that stepping back into academia raises a lot of questions and concerns for adults.

Between families, jobs, and other responsibilities, the considerations as you head back to college can feel overwhelming. Luckily, adult students have more options than ever before. And we’ve tried to give you a grand overview of what to consider as you start making these big decisions.

The most important thing to remember as you take this step forward is to stay organized, understand the pros and cons, and prepare yourself for the ups and downs.

Have a clearly defined goal

Why are you going back to school?

Is it to increase your salary? Get more career opportunities? Level up at your current company? Or because you want to switch your focus entirely?

Whatever the reason, clearly define it. Knowing what your end goal is will help you stay motivated when things inevitably get hard.

Knowing what your goals are can also help you do everything from picking a school (do they have the right program and majors?) to determine how much money you’ll spend on your education (think about your ROI).

Having a plan in place will help you settle on the deciding factors in your education. Your goal will keep you organized, on track, and on budget — ensuring that that your decision to go back to school is the right one for you.

Choosing a college

The most difficult aspect of going back to school is deciding where to go. Each college comes with its own set of pros and cons. Not to mention program upon program to choose from.

As an adult with a lot of responsibilities on your plate, the first thing you should look for is whether or not they offer an adult education program.

An adult education program will ensure you have the resources you need to make it through your class load successfully. It ensures that the college offers courses on your schedule, in many cases at night, and understands the commitments adults have. In some cases, adult programs will offer multiple options for online courses as well, making it easier than ever for you to actually get to class.

Additionally, there are a lot of schools that offer “prior learning assessments,” which could help you cut your back-to-school time in half. Using tests like CLEP or simply evaluating your life experience can add “completed credits” to your class load.

This helps tremendously for adults who want to learn and increase their career opportunities, but don’t want to spend years pouring money into tuition.

If you can find a college that simplifies the education process for adult learners, it should definitely go to the top of your list.

Figure out your finances

The biggest obstacle many adult students face is financing. Figuring out how to afford classes, when you already have bills and expenses, can make the goal seem out of reach.

The good news is that it’s not. There are plenty of opportunities out there to get funding for your education. Start by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), which will qualify you for grants, loans, and institutional-based scholarships.

From there, start applying for scholarships. Yes, scholarships.

They’re available for all students, no matter what level or age, including adult learners. In fact, there are tons of scholarships aimed at parents, working professionals, and program-specific funding. Do your research and apply to as many scholarships as possible.

Ask your family to support you in any way they can. If they can’t contribute financially, maybe they’d be willing to watch the kids a day or two a week. Or even gift you a textbook or two for holidays and birthdays.

It’s never easy to ask your family for money or support, but if you showcase your determination to making life better for you and your family, they might be more willing to provide assistance.

Your job might also have resources that help with tuition reimbursement or loan repayment. Be sure to inquire with your HR department to see if there are options that might help you out.

Chances are, you’re going to need to fork over some money for your education. Just think about it as an investment in yourself. Budget it into your yearly plan or save for it over time — nothing will help you succeed more than having a plan in place.

Decide what you can handle

Full time or part-time? It’s a question a lot of adult students have. There are, of course, pros and cons to each. Going full-time can seriously impact your ability to work at the same time, while part-time means your attention is divided between school and work.

This is one of those situations where you need to be very real with yourself about what is realistic. We all want to believe we can take on 12 hour days and still have a family life — but it’s not necessarily reality.

We cover this decision more in-depth in this post. What’s important is making a decision that makes sense for your goals.

Don’t worry about being the oldest in the room

In most cases, you’re not going to be the only adult learner. These days, tons of people are either starting school later in life or going back after not completing their degrees.

It’s natural to feel insecure attending classes with students from all walks of life, some who might be coming to education with fresh eyes. But remember that you’re taking this step to better yourself and provide for your family or yourself.

Don’t let little insecurities weasel their way into your mind. Keep focused on the why, and you’ll be good to go.

Get organized and stay focused

Once you start class, things are going to get crazy. Whatever your form of organization is, whether it’s an app or multiple notebooks, apply it to your classes as much as you would your work-life.

It’s easy to lose track of everything, from class nights to assignment due dates, when you have so much going on. Put it all in one place and check it daily to make sure you’re on track. Carve out time to work on assignments free of distractions, and on the flip side, time to spend with friends or family.

Remember to decompress

You’re on the road to achieving something huge. It won’t happen overnight, and it requires a whole lot of work. So, don’t forget to build in time to chill out. Something as simple as reading a book or watching a movie can help you take a step back and find your focus again.

Going to school as an adult comes with its own set of challenges. When things get hard and you feel buried under work and class, tap into the reason you’re going back. Your goal should always be at the front of your mind.

Write it down. Hang it up. Put it somewhere you see it every day. It will remind you what you’re working towards and — when you finally complete it — you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that hard work paid off.