It is undeniable. The decision to go back to school to earn another degree after a break from college, or for the first time as a non-traditional student, can be overwhelming and stressful.
“I’m too old, I can’t afford it, and I’m too busy,” are the top three reasons and myths Linda Hudson, non-traditional student specialist at Southern Utah University, says can keep students from starting or restarting their education. “If you are educated about all the resources and plan accordingly, all of these myths can be debunked,” Hudson says.
The dynamics of pursuing a degree as an adult learner, also known as a non-traditional student, are different for the single mom or the 30-year-old working professional versus the recently-graduated high school student. A solid plan and the following eight tips can help going back to college manageable.
While a first-time student might have the time to figure out their career path, someone who is returning to college to finish, expand, or start a degree, while also balancing a family or job, needs to have a clear direction of where they are headed. The first step is to do the research, compare programs and make a commitment to a course of study.
Online or on-campus?
This is a big question for many non-traditional students. Finding a schedule that works with family and a job is a deciding factor for many would-be students on when they can take the leap back into college life. Most colleges and universities offer online and on-campus undergraduate and graduate programs.
Many programs like SUU’s Master of Public Administration program have a mix of both online and on-campus classes. It really comes down to choosing the type of program and school that is going to have the flexibility, hours and coursework needed to meet career and lifestyle goals.
What help is available?
Hudson says one of the top things to do when returning to school is to connect with a non-traditional student services office. “They can help walk you through the process of applying for college, applying for financial aid and scholarships, and having a general understanding of what to expect to better prepare you for a balanced life,” she says.
The counselors in this type of office can act as advocates by giving personalized, individual attention and connecting students to resources on and off campus. They often have special training and support networks specifically tailored to non-traditional students.
How much will it cost?
Finances don’t have to be the biggest barrier to getting an education. There are grants and scholarships specific to non-traditional students. Before shelling out thousands of dollars, it is important to see what types of funding might be available to help ease the financial burden of returning to school. There are usually local, national, and university-specific scholarships as well as grants available.
What childcare options are out there?
Juggling childcare and a college education is a hot topic right now and most universities have a list of resources to help students. For example, students who are also parents can look into Child Care Assistance Means Parents In School (CCAMPIS), a grant from the Department of Education that can help subsidize the cost of childcare. Some universities or professors will also have childcare programs or a child-friendly policy.
How will there be time to study?
Long before the first class starts, prospective students should have a solid study plan in place. Block off time during the week that will be uninterrupted study time. This may mean sacrificing another activity or it may mean getting a buy-in from family members to provide a study area and time free of interruptions. For those with hectic family lives, a study plan may include scheduling time on campus, at a library or another quiet place away from home.
Will it be lonely?
While time may be limited to home, school and work it is a good idea to find a way to get involved in the university culture. Sign up for a club, join a study group, attend non-traditional student events, or attend sporting events. Engaging with your college or university and finding a support group on campus will lead to a more balanced and authentic university experience. It is also important to build an outside support group with family members and friends who can be a safe place to land during the rigorous times of college.
Will it all be worth it?
Yes. Non-traditional students are generally more prepared students and in the long run, a degree increases earning potential. According to SUU President Scott L Wyatt, “The average person who graduates from college with a bachelor's degree will make a million dollars more over their life than a person who starts working right out of high school. An investment in ourselves is the greatest investment we can make.”
There is also an emotional investment that results in confidence and satisfaction from a finished degree.
College is not just for the 18 or 19-year-old finishing high school. It is an opportunity for anyone who wants to increase their skill set, further their education or jumpstart a career. Universities like SUU have the resources to help pave a path for every student to find success. It just takes a little research and a little planning.