Completing a college degree is not an easy feat. It is especially challenging for adult learners, who often juggle family and work responsibilities on top of taking classes.
While there's a "whole social apparatus" set up for students attending college straight out of high school – including college counselors and targeted recruitment programs – adult learners are more on their own, says Terri Taylor, strategy director for innovation and discovery at the Lumina Foundation, an Indiana-based organization that promotes educational access. Even so, more schools are starting to offer tailored support specifically for adult learners.
"Finishing your credentials can be a family-changing decision," Taylor adds. But "it's more of a complex decision for an adult than someone who is 18."
So if you're heading back to college – or even enrolling for the first time as an adult learner – consider the following factors before applying:
- Support network.
- Time constraints.
- College support services.
The cost of tuition has long been on the rise, up more than 150% in the last 20 years among National Universities ranked by U.S. News. Taking just one class online can cost more than $1,000 depending on the number of credits, with graduate-level courses costing even more.
And for adult learners, the costs of going back to college go well beyond tuition, fees, textbooks and housing. Other costs include lost wages, transportation, technology, health care, and often child care and interest on student loans.
Child care and lost wages resulting from temporarily leaving or cutting back time in the workforce can be some of the greatest costs to adult learners going back to college. Juggling family and work responsibilities can be a constant challenge as well, although some employers offer tuition assistance to help students with the cost of school.
For those who take the plunge, gaining more skills and education can open doors, but experts say the key to success is planning and budgeting well in advance. Adult learners may be able to benefit from education tax benefits and state tax deductions, and can receive financial aid in many cases by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, called the FAFSA.
To cut costs and make education more accessible, Michelle Weise, an expert on the future of work and author of "Long-Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don't Even Exist Yet," notes that prospective adult learners could consider lesser-known "on-ramps to better economic opportunities" such as "alternative learning providers, startups, really interesting human and technical skills-building opportunities – more like boot camps."
A reverse transfer – meaning if a student has credits at a community college and transfers to a four-year college, their course and grade information can be sent back to the two-year institution to be considered for a possible associate degree – is another option for cost-conscious adults. Also, students who left college before earning a bachelor's degree may find that they earned enough credits, or nearly enough, to receive an associate degree.
Getting the support of friends and family members can be critical when going back to college, experts say, so adult learners should set expectations and get the entire family involved in their efforts.
"It can be lonely trying to balance all this stuff by yourself," Taylor says. "So it's really important to have people in your life cheering you on."
Additionally, whether it's in person or online, find a community of peers, says Kobi Vanessa Ajayi, a Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University, who is also a working mother. That community can be found on social media sites like Facebook, for example, which has many groups for students, including those with children.
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Before applying to college, start thinking about how much time you're able to devote to school and how many classes per semester are feasible. If you'll also have to work, find a degree program that's flexible so "you don't have to necessarily forgo your wages in order to pursue that experience," Weise says.
For instance, although a typical college semester lasts around 15 weeks, Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana offers a list of eight-week courses. Other colleges have evening or online course options.
"You can keep making progress and not stress out about time as much," Taylor says.
College Support Services
"College is a hard thing to make it through. It requires so much grit, resilience and confidence," Weise says. "And so that's where I think the human touch points are so critical."
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Collegecenter.