Adult Learner

The Adult Learner’s Ultimate Guide for Overcoming the Uncertainties of Going Back to School


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One of the cornerstones of being a successful and responsible adult is learning how to set priorities. For many, this means putting your own educational dreams on hold while you shift your focus to other issues that require your time, attention and resources — such as raising a family, gaining hands-on work experience, saving money, serving in the military or taking care of aging relatives.

However, there will come a time when the demands in your life have calmed — when you’re finally able to retrieve your educational aspirations from the backburner and begin considering how to go back to school, earn your degree and really kick-start your career into high gear.

Even if you’re more motivated than ever before, the uncertainties about enrolling in college can still seem daunting. While the extra years of life experience you’ve gained since graduating high school have surely prepared you to face these challenges head on, that doesn’t alleviate the pressure of answering some of the most pressing questions.

Before you go any further, know this: You are not alone in this journey! Once you identify your topmost questions and concerns about going back to school, it’s all about knowing where to look for the resources that can help.

We’ve compiled some of the most commonly asked questions adult learners wrestle with when making the decision to go back to school. See what research has to say about your primary uncertainties, discover resources that can help you overcome them and hear from graduates who have been there. Before you know it, you’ll be one step closer to earning your degree.

Going back to school as an adult: You’re not alone

Adult learners are college students who are age 25 or older. While you may feel isolated as an adult looking to go back to college, you’re far from alone. Take a look at the following statistics:

As the facts display, it’s likely you’ll be one among many adult learners at your college of choice. You may even find a few cohorts in similar situations as you — taking care of young children or balancing full-time work while pursuing their degree, for example — who you can relate to, lean on and learn alongside.

Before we explore what’s holding you back, think about your key motivation

Your journey toward earning your degree starts by confronting the hurdles that stand in your way. But first, it can be helpful to remind yourself of the elements that are motivating you to earn a degree. What’s your biggest motivator?

The following five professionals are among the many you’ll hear from throughout our examination of the questions and insecurities frequently expressed by adult learners — all of whom experienced going back to school as an adult. Before we dive into their insights, however, they’ve shared the key reasons that drove them to go back to school as an adult. Can you identify with any of their statements?

  • “The key motivator for deciding to earn a degree as an adult was the uneasy feeling I had knowing that I could not support my family if I one day didn’t have the luxury of a two-income household.” — Tamika Seaton, executive director
  • “I entered college with the intention of earning a business degree, but dropped out after almost two years — I wanted to get on with living my adult life. I always regretted that decision, and 25 years later, I decided to pick up where I’d left off: I returned to college to earn my undergraduate degree when I was 45 years old.” – Candace Johnson, freelance writer and editor
  • “I had my kids in my early twenties and didn’t go to college right away, so I kind of did it backwards. By the time I was in my mid-thirties, I thought, ‘What am I doing with my life? It’s time to go back.’” — Jennifer Pretlow, executive customer relations specialist
  • “I was hungry to evolve my knowledge and skills while also wanting something in my life that would challenge me.” — Donald Scott, teacher
  • “I went back to get my degree so that my grown children would not hinder their own goals because they were worried about me.” — Carrielynn Peace, student orientation coordinator
  • “I’d been out of undergrad for a while and had no recent work experience. I believed that recentness of study would make me a more viable candidate for the workforce.” – Kris Allis, published author

Overcome your uncertainties about going back to school

Now that you’ve identified your motivation for embarking upon this journey, it’s time to take a look at the roadblocks that have been standing in the way of completing your degree. Consider the following seven questions that are frequently asked by those in a similar position, and see what those who’ve walked this path before you have to say about each one.

1.      Can I make this work financially?

Financial capability tops nearly every adult learner’s list of concerns when considering going back to school. For many, the time amassed between the last time you were a student and the present has been spent taking the steps to become financially stable enough to make this major change a legitimate possibility.

“Going back to college as a nontraditional student was a huge sacrifice,” admits Carrielynn Peace, who earned her degree at age 49, “but I asked myself what my financial future would look like if I didn’t go back. The picture was bleak.” It’s true that you and your family may have to make financial sacrifices to fund your education, but it can be helpful to, like Peace, think about how earning a degree could open the door to long-term financial gain for your family.

“Look at your college education as an investment in yourself that will add value to your human capital,” suggests Tamika Seaton, executive director at the Florida Lions Club Eye Clinic in Bonita Springs, Florida, and former adult student at Hodges University. An education also gives you a competitive advantage over other job candidates who do not have the same qualifications, she adds.

It can also be helpful to take note of the many resources that exist for students just like you.

“Many avenues are available for adults seeking financial assistance in college,” explains Karen Gorback, retired community college dean and former adult student. “Begin with the scholarship office at the college to which you’re applying. Many scholarships go unused each year because folks don’t bother to apply.” Gorback also suggests contacting one of your local community foundations for scholarship information, as well as running a general internet search for terms like “scholarships for adults” and “grants for adult students.”

Your financial situation may also lead you to explore different modalities of learning. Do some research to examine the cost difference between on-campus and online courses. You may also be interested in exploring self-paced learning models, such as UPOWER™ at Hodges University. Programs like this one allow you to leverage what you’ve already learned from past education or even life experience in a competency-based degree model — often at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college degree.

2.      Will I still have time for my family and friends?

In addition to worrying about the financial toll going back to school may take on your current lifestyle, many adult students share concerns about the time school will take away from their families and social lives. “This is a common concern,” Gorback assures. “The truth is that returning to college will impact your life and take time away from other important activities. My advice has always been to be completely transparent about your educational plans with employers, family and friends. No one will fault you for being honest.”

Gorback also encourages those with children to actively make them a part of the process by taking them on field trips to the college you will be attending, doing homework together and displaying your work and grades alongside theirs on the fridge. “Make education an integral part of your family life — not a sideline,” she urges.

The flexibility of online courses is another way you can ensure too much family or social time won’t be sacrificed as you pursue your degree, says Jennifer Pretlow, who earned her associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Hodges University as an adult student. Pretlow is now an executive customer relations specialist for Amazon. She adds that professors will often be very understanding of the unique needs of adult learners, at times making accommodations for special circumstances.

3.      What will this mean for my current job?

If you’re among the many adult students who intend to continue working while going back to school, this question may inch dangerously close to the top of your list of concerns. In addition to exploring flexible, online or self-paced learning opportunities as referenced above, it can also be helpful to consider the fact that going back to school may actually benefit your employer.

In fact, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) concluded that companies offering tuition assistance programs are often at an advantage in retaining better quality, more educated and more productive employees. It’s that increased productivity, the NBER claims, that makes it economically feasible for companies to offer such financial assistance.

Continued education is so valued, in fact, that working students can even qualify for a tax deduction for work-related education. Do note, however, that one can only deduct the costs of work-related education as business expenses if the education is either required by your employer to maintain your current salary, status or job, or if the education maintains or improves skills needed in your present work.

 4.      Where would it realistically fit into my schedule?

You may already have a jam-packed schedule if you’re balancing home and family life, working one or more jobs and trying to stay active in your community. Now — before you’ve taken the leap to enroll in a program — is the best time to map out all your current obligations and realistically determine if you can carve out enough space to include classes and homework assignments of your own.

It can be important to keep in mind that even if it doesn’t add up as cleanly as you would have hoped, there are still ways to make it work. “I ended up spending seven years attending college part-time,” recounts Candace Johnson, a writer and editor who decided to go back to college as an adult after dropping out 25 years earlier. When she returned to school, Johnson was also raising her two teenage daughters and flying back and forth across the country to care for her mother, who was battling ovarian cancer. “Those were some of the most challenging years of my life, but I was determined to reach the finish line this time, and I took it one semester at a time,” she adds.

As Johnson’s story represents, your journey may not look like that of a traditional student, but that’s not to say there aren’t ways to make it work if you’re dedicated enough.

The flexibility of online courses has helped make returning to school a reality for students in need of a more nontraditional route to the finish line. In fact, a 2015 study from the Online Learning Consortium revealed that more than one in four college students (28 percent) take at least one distance education course, with these numbers increasing steadily every year. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) supports these findings. Also consider the following percentages of students who completed their degrees entirely online, as categorized by the type of institution attended:

  • 9 percent of students at public institutions
  • 13 percent of students at private, nonprofit institutions
  • 52 percent of students at private, for-profit institutions

If you’re still nervous about the transition, consider easing into it with a trial run of sorts. It may be worth it to consider starting small. For example, you might try enrolling in an enrichment course of some sort offered through a local community education program, suggests Donald Scott, who experienced going back to school as an adult and also spent years teaching adult learners. Whether you choose a course on photography, cooking or history, Scott explains this will afford you the opportunity to dip your toe in the water before diving in. “This allows the student to learn the nuts and bolts of returning to school while working,” he says, “without putting any career-specific studies at risk.”

Once you’re ready to commit, Scott urges that you do so fully. “Always seek courses that are challenging and interesting. Don’t try to slide through your education,” he encourages.

5.      Will I be able to keep up with the new technology they use in college?

With all this talk about online courses, you may be hesitant as you wonder about the various web-based platforms and technological tools you’ll need to use proficiently if you want to be successful. Rest assured, you don’t need to possess a deep technological understanding to make it as an online student.

“If you can operate the basics of a computer, you should have no problem,” Pretlow says, adding that during her experience at Hodges University, she had access to a multitude of tutorial videos, IT support services and even a Microsoft Office Suite class to ensure she had the basics down.

If you believe your technology skills are weak, Gorback suggests discussing your concerns with a counselor at the college to which you’re applying. “The institution may have tutoring available to help you become more comfortable with as much technology as you will need,” she explains. “If you are taking online classes, most institutions will have online instruction to help you learn how to use the particular platform the course utilizes.”

You may also consider checking in with your public library for inexpensive technology classes, or it may even pay off to lean on your tech-savvy children, nieces or nephews for assistance as you’re starting out. Even if the technology used in your online classroom environment is foreign to you at the beginning of your experience, most online platforms are intuitive and easy to navigate — you’ll have it mastered before you know it.

“You can do anything you put your mind to; your only challenge is you,” Seaton encourages. “If you do not understand something, ask for help and then work hard to master it. You only fail when you stop trying.”

6.      I’ll be quite a bit older than the other students — will I fit in?

After taking several years off, it’s understandable that you might feel insecure about being older than your classmates. If you’re enrolling in online courses, this may not be as prevalent of an issue, but for those attending regular in-class gatherings, this question could be a nagging one.

According to those who’ve been there, it all comes down to the perspective you choose to adopt from the start. “I was the oldest student in my classes, but I fit in because I was unafraid to ask questions and dispute something I felt was inaccurate,” explains published author Kris Allis, who went back to school when she was 48. “The other students often thanked me for speaking up because it was something they were thinking, but were afraid to ask.”

Gorback agrees. “You are never too old, and you will definitely fit in,” she maintains. “Be assured that your professors will appreciate your presence in the classroom — whether in a building or a virtual classroom. Don’t underestimate the value of your experience as a strong foundation upon which to build additional knowledge. In terms of experience, you have a definite advantage over younger classmates and will be able to keep up.”

7.      Will this really pay off in the end?

The final FAQ on our list is among the most difficult to answer, as the criteria may be different for each individual. When grappling with the question of whether or not a degree will pay off, you’ll need to identify what that truly means to you — perhaps it’s monetary gain, career advancement or personal fulfillment, for example.

“As a lifelong learner myself, I believe that education always pays off — in terms of enhanced skills and brain health, as well as the opportunity to explore new challenges, meet new people and continue experiencing the joy of learning,” Gorback says.

Based on Pretlow’s experience, she feels confident that going back to school was more than worth it in the end. “I wouldn’t have the job I have now at Amazon if I hadn’t gotten my degree. And even now, I’m still advancing to where I want to be within that corporation,” she says. “I also feel very fulfilled personally — not just with my career. I know I worked hard to earn my degrees, and I’m proud of that.”

Even amidst the subjectivity of a person’s individual financial situation, the facts reveal that the cost of not going to college has been continually rising for years. According to the Pew Research Center, today’s college-educated workforce earns approximately $17,500 more annually than their counterparts who’ve not obtained a degree. Those with a degree have also been found to be significantly less likely to encounter unemployment.

Are you ready to take the leap?

Now that we’ve explored seven of the most common uncertainties that stand in the way of adults going back to school, you may be feeling more ready than ever to make that important decision to enroll.

If you’re committed to going back to school to earn your degree but you don’t have your heart set on a particular program, don’t sweat it! That’s why programs like the Bachelor of Science in interdisciplinary studies at Hodges University exist in both on-campus and online formats. To learn more about your options, check out our article, “I Want to Go Back to School but Don’t Know What Career I Want.”  

Already know what you want to study? Take a look at the list of programs offered at Hodges.