The 9 Dos and Don’ts of Going Back to College... as an Adult

The 9 Dos and Don’ts of Going Back to College... as an Adult

7 minute read

Guest Post by Rebecca Klein-Collins You’ve wanted a college degree for a long time. Maybe you tried it once before and did not finish. Maybe you never had an opportunity to start. None of that matters. What matters is that you know you want the degree and you are ready to take the steps to finally enroll.

More Education, Better Job Opportunities

That’s a smart move. The numbers show that more education typically leads to better job opportunities and…. more money. It’s true! People with a bachelor’s degree usually make a million dollars more over their lifetimes compared to people with just a high school diploma. Not every degree is alike, of course. You want to earn a degree that prepares you for careers that are in demand - in other words, you want to earn a degree that employers will value when you, diploma in hand, come knocking after graduation.

Going to College is a Big Decision

When it comes to taking that first step to enroll at a college or university, you might be saying to yourself, “Hang on. Can I really do this?” If you are no longer 19 years old–in fact, 19 might be way back in your rear-view mirror– the thought of going to college at this stage of your life may raise a lot of questions. That’s good. Going to college is a big decision, it’s a big investment, and it will affect your current schedule and lifestyle. You should ask a lot of questions before enrolling. Fortunately, there’s no reason to fear that you won’t find a program that meets your needs; there are so many great college options out there and programs that focus on adult learners. Just do your research!

Tips for Going Back to School as an Adult

As an adult, you don’t have the same concerns as that 19-year-old college student. You’ve got to keep that front and center as you figure out whether to take this on at this time in your life, what college to enroll in, and what to study. Here are some tips to help you in that process.

  • Don’t worry about being the oldest person in your classes. You may picture college classrooms as full of 18- to 22-year-old “kids,” but that’s not reality. Today, nearly 4 out of every 10 college students are 25 years old or older. Also, don’t assume that the 19-year-olds sitting next to you don’t understand adult issues. Chances are that a lot of them are just like you: trying to make ends meet, working long hours to afford tuition, and supporting their families. You will fit right in.
  • Don’t limit yourself only to other people’s recommendations. When you tell your friends and family that you want to go back to college, get ready for everyone to have an opinion about what college you should attend and what you should study. They may have great ideas and suggestions, but their success stories may not work for you. Always do your own research and think about what your own goals are.
  • Don’t be limited by your location. It may be that the college down the road is just right for you, but what if it’s not? Other colleges may offer flexible scheduling or convenient online options that make it easy for you to take classes while working and managing other responsibilities. Make sure you know all the options that are out there for you.
  • Do know all your financial options. College can be expensive, but there are many affordable options that can lower the cost of earning a degree considerably. While taking out student loans can be a reasonable choice when necessary, there are many ways to lower your overall cost of college before you even take your first class. Consider a lower-cost online option or a community college that can get you to the same goal but for much less. Some colleges will partner with companies like StraighterLine to offer lower-cost courses that can then count toward a degree at that college. Don’t just assume that you have to borrow the maximum amount to get the learning you need.
  • Do keep focused on your goals. If a college is making a promise that seems too good to be true; it just might be. Keep your goals and your budget in mind. Prepare questions in advance. If you already have existing college credit, will your school accept it in transfer? Does the school accept prerequisite and lower level courses for credit from affordable online course providers? Does the school have the major you want and career connections you are looking for? Can the college provide you with data on the success of their graduates?
  • Do look for colleges that value the person you are today. You have made a lot of important life choices that created the person you are today. Find a college that values who you are at this stage in your life. Colleges that value adult learners will offer flexible schedules, after-hour support services, and college credit for the learning that you have done at work, in the military, or in other parts of your life.
  • Do ask a lot of questions. Ask a lot of questions about how the college will help you schedule classes, how accessible the instructors are outside of class, whether there are tutoring options, what kinds of help they can provide with financing, and how they will help you connect with employers when you graduate. Good colleges will want to help you succeed. Keep asking your questions, and you will eventually find the college that is right for you.
  • Do accept or seek out help. Perhaps it’s been a few years since you last wrote a paper or even thought about math. That’s okay. Many students who decide to go back to college need a refresher in some subjects or additional help as they navigate their first classes. The best colleges for adults will provide an extensive offering of support options, including tutors, writing labs for assignment feedback, or other help in things like time management and degree planning. Support is there for you to use, so be sure to take advantage of it.
  • Do involve your family. Why? Because they are going on this journey with you. Your friends and family can give you the support you need to reach your goals. Tell them what you want to achieve, tell them what it’s going to take, and tell them how they can help. Bring them along for the ride, and they can be your biggest cheerleaders and supporters.

Like so many important goals in life, earning a college degree will take time and effort, but you can do it. Rebecca Klein-Collins is the VP for Impact at CAEL and has spent more than 20 years working to support adult learners who go back to college. She is also the author of the recent book, Never Too Late: The Adult Student’s Guide to College. About CAEL Recognizing that adult learners are the backbone of the U.S. economy, CAEL helps forge a clear, viable connection between education and career success, providing solutions that promote sustainable and equitable economic growth. CAEL opens doors to opportunity in collaboration with workforce and economic developers; postsecondary educators; employers and industry groups; and foundations and other mission-aligned organizations. By engaging with these stakeholders, we foster a culture of innovative, lifelong learning that helps individuals and their communities thrive. Established in 1974, CAEL, a Strada Education Network affiliate, is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) membership organization. Visit to learn more. 

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