Returning to School

As recently as two generations ago, college graduates could enter the workforce with reasonable expectations of working in the same career -- and even the same employer -- for most of their working years. However, that is no longer the case. Rapid advances in technology have accelerated change in nearly every field. As companies leverage these technological advances to more effectively pursue their business goals and organizational missions, new types of jobs have displaced more traditional positions. Even within established career and job types, new employment opportunities open as the baby boomer generation goes into retirement. All this translates to increased opportunity and competition.

As the job market shifts, people may need to return to college to complete or extend their education

As the job market shifts, people may need to return to college to complete or extend their education. Some may be actively working, but want to advance their current careers by enhancing their skill set. Others may want to pursue employment in another industry altogether either because of an impending downsizing in their current industry, or because personal interests lead them along a new path. Some adults, usually on the older end of the spectrum, may return to college simply for personal enrichment. This has all led to an increase in the average age of college students.

This guide addresses the benefits and challenges of returning to college as an adult. Here you'll find information on the benefits of online learning, along with plenty of information to help you pay for your education. You'll also learn about transferring credit from your previous college and receiving credit for appropriate life experience.

Benefits of Returning to School

Those who decide to further their education gain a competitive edge among emerging workplace opportunities. Employers expect more education from their employees, as more jobs require specialized skills, knowledge, and training. When someone invests the time and money to earn a college degree, they send a clear message to employers that they are qualified and driven to succeed. Furthermore, people who return to college to complete their degree -- or earn another one -- tend to enjoy better job security.

In general, college graduates earn more than non-graduates, and those with a bachelor's degree typically earn more than someone with an associate degree. The trend holds true with graduate degrees; advanced education opens even greater earning potential. A college education requires good analytical and critical-thinking skills, coupled with the determination and discipline to complete a multiple-year project. Some college programs involve an extensive field experience or internship component that develops students in a professional environment. Furthermore, college graduates usually refine their communication skills and grow in their professional confidence. Earning your college degree demonstrates to prospective employers that you take professional growth seriously.

Average Salary and Unemployment Rate by Educational Attainment
  Associate Bachelor's Master's Doctorate
Weekly Earnings $798 $1,137 $1,341 $1,623
Unemployment Rate 3.8% 2.8% 2.4% 1.7%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016

Online Learning for Adults Returning to School

The Education Commission of the States recently published an article entitled, "27 is the New 18: Adult Students on the Rise," in which they highlight the growing numbers of adults and other nontraditional students returning to complete a college education. They predict the growth rate of nontraditional students will outpace traditional students through at least the year 2024. Most of these students already work full time or part time and many have families to care for. Given their unique situations, nontraditional students have a number of specific needs, including flexible and expanded course offerings. In response, colleges and universities offer a growing number of online degree programs with a range of flexible course options.

Most online programs offer courses in an asynchronous format, which means you do not need to log on at a specific time to listen to a lecture; rather, you can complete coursework at a time of day that fits your work and family obligations. This model releases students from the campus-based class schedule and associated commute time, while opening the opportunity to earn your degree from just about any college or university. Furthermore, asynchronous learning means you can log on anywhere, even on mobile devices.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

While some nontraditional students are attending college for the first time, others may be continuing an education they started but did not finish. If you have earned college credit from previous coursework, you may be able to transfer some of those credits to your new school. This can reduce the total number of credits left to complete a degree. As you research prospective schools, note that most colleges do not accept credits earned from an unaccredited college. When selecting a college, it pays to research the transfer policies of the college you're considering.

While college credits earned never really expire, some can be more challenging to transfer if the class was taken quite some time ago, or in a field that has changed considerably since the credits were first earned. Furthermore, highly relevant credits transfer better than those of less relevance. Also, general credits will usually transfer more easily than "major-specific" credits, as colleges design their degree programs with very specific emphases. To transfer credits into a new online degree program, contact the registrar of your previous college to purchase a certified copy of your previous transcript, and send that along with your application materials to your new college. Be prepared to file a petition if you think credits for a particular course you've taken should be accepted by your new college.

Transferrable Credits

What characteristics determine the transferability of credits? In general, credits earned from a public college or university will transfer most easily to another school within the same state, given that both schools are governed by the same state board of education. Ultimately, though, the final decision on the acceptance of previously earned credits rests with the school that you plan to attend. In order to maximize the number of credits that can be transferred, pay close attention to course equivalency, course level, and credit conversion between quarter and semester systems.

Course Equivalency

Schools allow credit transfer on the basis of "apple-to-apple" comparisons. For example, since most schools' introduction to biology courses cover essentially the same content, schools usually approve these transfers. However, courses not specifically related to one's major are usually accepted only as a general elective requirement credit. Beyond content equivalency, some schools differ significantly in their instructional approach (problem-based learning versus simple lecture and lab). This may also impact the ease of credit transfer.

Course Level

Schools vary in the upper division (junior and senior level) courses that constitute the heart of a major; even courses of similar titles can vary in both content and approach. Given this variability, courses at the 300 to 400 level tend not to transfer well. However, schools show a much greater similarity in content and emphasis in their freshman and sophomore level courses. Consequently, 100- and 200- level courses are more likely to transfer.

Quarter Credit Versus Semester Credit Transfers

Most schools operate on a semester-based credit system, while others issue quarter-based credits. Students transferring credits from one system to another should understand the general formula for converting credits from one system to another. A student's prospective school advisor will help the student with this and other questions related to credit transfer.

College Credit for Work Experience

Most nontraditional students work full-time -- or at least part-time -- and have learned a great deal via work, community, military, and independent study settings.

Many colleges recognize the value in such learning and may be willing to grant credit for it. For example, someone who has travelled or worked extensively in one or more different countries may receive credit for a course like cultural anthropology. It is important to note, however, that colleges emphasize the learning acquired through one's experience, not just the experience itself. The next section explores how colleges determine the amount and quality of learning gained through such life experiences.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has synthesized procedures to help colleges and universities evaluate a student's life experience for the purpose of awarding academic credit. Known collectively as Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), this approach covers a variety of assessment techniques and tools like the ones described below.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Students should carefully research their prospective school's policies on credit transfer and credit for prior learning before deciding on which school to attend. Each school sets a limit on how many transfer credits it will accept, which can impact both the length and cost earning a degree. One should also review policies related to credit transferability between schools.

Bear in mind that while some schools award credit for life experience, others simply waive course requirements; either option results in a shorter, more affordable program of study. Finally, the school will determine whether credits are applied toward electives, general education, or major requirements.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

While online degree options address the time constraints for busy adults returning to college, today's dollar has not kept pace with the rising costs of a college education. Nevertheless, adult and other nontraditional students can find financial aid options, in addition to full-time or part-time work.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

The first step for nontraditional students considering financial aid is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Administered by the office of Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA documents financial need by establishing the expected family contribution (or your expected contribution if you are an independent working adult) from the cost of attendance at your prospective school. Obviously, the cost of attendance will vary from school to school, but your expected contribution is based on your unique situation. States, colleges, and private financial aid providers use the information on the FAFSA to determine an applicant's eligibility for their financial aid. In short, unless you want to pay for your education entirely by yourself, you should complete and submit the FAFSA on time.

the cost of attendance will vary from school to school, but your expected contribution is based on your unique situation

Some adult students think they're too old or make too much money to qualify for financial aid. Don't let those misconceptions deter you. As long as a student meets the basic eligibility requirements, they have access to federal student aid.

The FAFSA form is available by October 1 of the year preceding the school year for which aid is needed. While you can wait until June 30 to submit the application, you'll need the FAFSA information to apply for most state, college, and private financial aid options. It pays to file early. Check your school's financial aid office to determine their FAFSA deadline. You'll also need to complete a new FAFSA form for every year that you attend college.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

How to Determine Your Financial Need

The financial aid office of the college you plan to attend will review your FAFSA information to determine how much aid you are eligible to receive. In its simplest form, the calculation that financial aid officers use is to review your expected family contribution (EFC), and subtract that figure from the school's cost of attendance. In other words, the financial aid office computes EFC according to a formula established by law; it does not necessarily refer to how much you're actually required to pay. The figure derived from this calculation represents the amount of need-based aid you qualify for at that particular school.

Need-based aid includes the Pell Grant, the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant, Direct Subsidized Loan, the Perkins Loan, and Federal Work Study. The financial aid office also computes non-need-based aid, looking only at the difference between the cost of attendance and the amount of need-based aid you've already been awarded. Most of this money is in the form of unsubsidized loans. Those pursuing a teacher education degree can, for example, receive substantial grant money if they plan to teach in a high-need field in a low-income area.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


Scholarships are usually awarded on the basis of merit and achievement, and unlike loans, do not need to be repaid. Many scholarships require applicants to submit a personal essay, among other requirements.
Like scholarships, grants do not need to be repaid; they are usually awarded on the basis of need, not merit.
Federal Loans
The federal government offers two major loan programs for students. The four loan types in the Direct Loan Program are directed by the federal government, whereas the federal Perkins Loan Program is administered by the school and loans must be repaid directly to the school.
Private Loans
Some banks and other entities supply private loans for those returning to school. However, private loans have some of the highest interest rates and least friendly terms.


School Aid
Colleges and universities offer their own sources of scholarships, grants, and work study options. The money does not come from federal or state governments, and allows the school greater flexibility in award determinations.
Federal Aid
As the largest provider of student financial aid in the United States, the federal government provides a variety of grants -- such as the Pell grant -- to students with demonstrated financial need.
State Financial Aid
State governments offer a variety of financial aid including grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study programs. However, these options can vary widely from state to state.
Private Scholarships
The private sector provides a range of student financial aid, consisting mostly of scholarships and loans. Sources include religious organizations, foundations, businesses, and banks.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

While fewer financial aid options exist for graduate students, those pursuing an advanced degree still have plenty of opportunities for funding. Students may take advantage of the Direct Loan Program, which offers unsubsidized loans at rates better than those available through the private sector. Students may borrow up to $20,500 per school year. For other needs, a Direct PLUS Loan is available. The federal government also offers work study funding through the school.

Some state governments also offer financial aid for graduate students. This will vary by state and you should contact your state to learn more. Likewise, schools offer their own financial aid for graduate students. The financial aid office of the school you attend can help you with that search. Foundations, organizations, and businesses offer scholarships such as the ones listed below. You may also want to ask your employer whether they offer financial aid for those returning to school.

Scholarships and Grants for Adults and Mid-Career Students

Scholarships and Grants

College JumpStart Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: In addition to traditional college students and high school students, adult and mid-career students may apply for this scholarship. To win this competitive, merit-based scholarship, you need to clearly articulate your goals for pursuing your college degree. View Scholarship

ASIST Scholarship $2,000 to $10,000

Who Can Apply: Adult women aged 23 or older and living near a chapter of Executive Women International may apply for one of 13 ASIST scholarships. See the website for locations of participating chapters. View Scholarship

Leopold Shepp Foundation Scholarship $9,000

Who Can Apply: The Shepp Foundation awards this need-based scholarship to applicants of high character and proven academic ability. Students up to age 40 may apply. View Scholarship

Jeannette Rankin Foundation Scholarship $2,000

Who Can Apply: Women age 35 and higher from a low income background may apply for this need-based scholarship. Applicants must be enrolled in a regionally accredited undergraduate program. View Scholarship

Gen and Kelly Tanabe Scholarship $1,000

Who Can Apply: Adult students returning to school are eligible to apply for this merit-based scholarship, which is also open to high school students and traditional college students. View Scholarship

E. Craig Brandenburg Scholarship $1,000-$2,000

Who Can Apply: Members of the United Methodist Church can apply for a variety of scholarships through the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Students over age 35 should apply for the E. Craig Brandenburg Scholarship, especially if they are seeking to change careers. View Scholarship

Tips for a Successful Return to School

Brush up on Tech Skills: Technology has impacted practically every discipline and class taught in colleges. Even many campus-based courses take advantage of the technology by administering assignments, quizzes and exams through an online interface. You'll ease your transition back into the college experience by brushing up on your computer skills.

Find a Support Network: Returning to college can seem a bit lonely for adult students, especially if you're doing the program entirely online. The ongoing demands of work and family can easily discourage you from your educational pursuit. Surround yourself with those who believe in you and support your college dream. Be sure to build networks with your fellow students and faculty, especially in online programs.

Choose a Flexible Program: Going back to college can certainly disrupt your normal life. You can improve your odds for success by mitigating those disruptions, and the best way to do that is to select a flexible degree program. In general, you'll find that online degree programs tend to offer the greatest flexibility, allowing you to keep working and staying engaged with your family.