5 Questions Adult Learners Should Ask Before Choosing a College
Mike Adamick has many of the same concerns of a typical college student: Making sure he’s taking the right classes for his major, trying to balance his academic and personal life, and looking ahead to financial concerns as he pursues his degree.
But he’s also trying to juggle his study load with his daughter’s sports schedule and making sure he has dinner on the table for his family. That’s because Adamick is one of the increasing number of adults who is going back to school – many of them post-kids – to pursue higher degrees or simply finish up where they left off.
In fact, these days, 16% of all undergraduate students are over the age of 25. Even more remarkable, according to recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, a surprising number of undergraduates – 74% – fall into the category of “nontraditional” students (even if they’re not necessarily adults). Nontraditional students are defined as having one or more of the following characteristics:
- Being financially independent from their parents
- Having a child or other dependent
- Being a single caregiver
- Lacking a traditional high school diploma
- Delaying postsecondary enrollment
- Attending school part time
- Being employed full time
May of these nontraditional undergrads have found that once their kids get older and start to leave the nest, they finally have the time to pursue their own interests or further their careers. Adamick, who is a published author and used “nap times” to write several books, is looking to finish up his required classes towards a degree but also to strengthen his skills as a writer.
“I dropped out of school 25 years ago to take a job as a newspaper reporter and had quite a fun career,” Adamick says. “When my daughter was born 12 years ago, we decided as a family that I would stay home, instead of basically using all of my salary toward childcare.
“She’s in middle school now and approaching high school and really needing less and less of me as she finds her own path. I’m not having to guard the electrical sockets or watch out for falls so much. So, as I look ahead to when she’s off to high school and then college, I wanted to be prepared for a second act.”
If you, like Adamick, fall into the nontraditional student category, what are some things to keep in mind if you decide to head back to school? Here are a five questions to ask yourself:
1. What is my goal?
Your choice of school and course of study will depend on whether you are pursuing a certificate or degree, or just taking classes to enrich your life. You may be looking to stay competitive in the workforce and gain more expertise in your current field, which would require a more specialized school or docket of classes. Or maybe you’re looking to start exploring new interests for your own enjoyment.
Either way, applaud yourself for taking this step! In her book, Never Too Late: The Adult Student’s Guide to College, author Rebecca Klein-Collins offers some sage advice: “Find a college that really understands who you are at this stage in your life and doesn’t make you try to apologize for who you are at this stage in your life.”
2. Should I attend an online or traditional school?
Online schools are becoming increasingly popular because of their convenience, in terms of both scheduling and location – there’s nothing like being able to earn credits from your couch. Many adult education students are also working full-time jobs during the day, and online classes are a way to juggle school and work efficiently. In addition to schools that offer a strictly online curriculum, many traditional colleges offer online courses – the University of Pennsylvania announced recently that it would be the first Ivy League college to offer an online bachelor’s degree.
A traditional college campus will offer some things that an online school can’t: Labs, libraries, and and health centers, just to name a few. But probably the biggest difference is being on a physical campus, interacting with other students and in-person access to instructors, which could make a big difference, depending on your course of study. Traditional campuses also come with extra expenses and logistical concerns such as transportation costs and parking, so the location of the college you choose could have an impact on your finances and lifestyle.
Another new trend: classes offered in non-traditional settings like public libraries that offer courses ranging from Microsoft Word to public speaking to homebuying – they’re becoming extremely popular with adults looking to ease back into the college world but in a familiar, low-key setting.
Whether you choose an online college or traditional campus, do your research and make sure the college you choose is accredited, and offers the degree you’re looking for.
3. Will I need financial aid?
Once you’ve decided on a school and course of study, it’s time to figure out how to pay for it. Going back to college isn’t always something that has been worked into most household budgets, and can easily put a strain on finances. According to the New York Times, it can come with a hefty price tag. On average, students pay the following costs, per year:
- 4-year college: $19,167.24
- 2-year college: $13,197.78
- Online college*: $16,288.49
*These are colleges that are exclusively online OR more than 25% of their students are enrolled in an online program.
Community colleges are considerably less expensive and seem like the logical choice, and many students use this as a starting point before pursuing four-year degrees at universities. And if you’re lucky, you might even live in one of the 11 counties and cities across the country that offers free tuition.
If you are still employed, check with your human resources department – many companies encourage continuing education and offer tuition assistance to employees. If you’re interested in pursuing financial aid (or even if you’re not sure), it’s also wise to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as soon as possible.
4. Will I fit in with a college crowd?
At the risk of sounding ageist, there is something to consider if you choose a traditional campus: that you won’t be the youngest person in the room. Lifestyles, habits, and cultural references might accentuate the generation gap, but interactions with younger students can also be refreshing and a learning experience in itself.
“That was one of my big fears – being the oldie in the room,” Adamick laughs. “But a community college really draws from a diverse crowd, in terms of race, gender, age, so I am not the oldest in class.”
Regardless, you may find your maturity is an asset. Adamick says, “I wish I had the skills I have now when I was 18 – the ability to communicate clearly, listen, sit down for long periods to read, ask questions, and to easily assess what I need to do to learn better and also succeed in class structures. I’m really trying to stay mindful of how I can put my experience to good use.”
5. Will I have challenges balancing personal/home/work life?
As with any pursuit, there’s always the chance that it will upset the delicate balance of your work and personal life. You might be wondering if you’ll be so busy with your psychology homework that you’ll forget to pick up the kids at soccer. Or what if your partner or spouse or boss resents the family/work obligations that have fallen to the wayside in favor of your pursuit of that nursing degree? It’s important to discuss with your family and employers your education plan, and to set realistic expectations on both sides.
Additionally, Klein-Collins advises that it’s important to assess your school for their willingness to fit into your “Find a place that acknowledges who you are at this stage in your life,” she tells NPR. “And that can manifest itself in a number of different ways. It can mean that a school is not expecting you to drop everything and go to school full-time; they understand that you have work and family obligations and they help design a program that’s going to fit into your busy lifestyle.”
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