Education beyond high schools opens up a world of opportunities for professional achievement and personal fulfillment. While choosing to go back to school is a major decision, tens of thousands of adults return to learning everyday. In fact, according to U.S. Census figures, there are 54 million people in the American workforce with some college but without a degree. So, you are not alone! Whether returning to earn a certificate, associates, bachelors or graduate degree, it is important to remember that education is a powerful tool for career success and personal growth. Once achieved, adult learners often share that there was no better gift they could have given their families or themselves. The decision to return to learning will not only benefit you, but may motivate friends and family to think about their own potential. In your own quest for personal advancement, you may become a role model for others to do the same.
If you’ve been out of school for years, it’s a good idea to brush up on your academic skills or perhaps learn some new skills, but it is never too late to learn. Most adults fear entering a classroom full of 18-year olds, but discover soon that there are many adult learners in every classroom. In fact, students ages 25 and older now account for 6.8 million U.S. college students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As our economy demands more skills, adults are returning to the classroom in record numbers and they are bringing discipline, focus and purpose.
Remember that you are not alone in your journey to get a college degree. If you find yourself struggling with homework, childcare, or just getting used to being enrolled in college, there are people and services on campus there to help you. Many adult students recognize that today’s campus has changed to meet the needs of its diverse students. And, the truth is, instructors enjoy the life experience and mature viewpoints that adult students bring to the classroom. Older students have been more places and have met more people and these experiences add a new perspective to learning and can even help traditional age students garner an understanding of “the real world”. Students returning to school after a decade or more are a valuable resource for professors and a wealth of information for younger students. When you take time to reflect where you have been and what you have learned, you may surprise yourself with the wisdom and expertise you have gained from outside the classroom. Taking time to do this will renew your confidence and will propel you to further accomplishment.
There are many different programs of study that can help you prepare for a new career. Perhaps your work history and life experience lend themselves to a particular course of study. The process of choosing a school and an academic program begins with some self-reflection. Before beginning the application process, you'll want to identify the types of schools and programs that best fit your interests and lifestyle. Consider these questions:
By answering these questions and reflecting on your reasons to go back to school, you'll be closer to identifying a program that will help you realize your goals.
If you are still considering your degree options or are conflicted between courses of study, use career inventory or personality assessments to help you determine how to best translate your interests, skills, and talents into a potential career – we recommend Career Coach from Great Bay Community College and My Next Move from O*Net. Tools like the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook will provide more information on the results of career or personality inventory assessments. When used together, career assessments and the Occupational Outlook Handbook will help you to decide on a degree program that prepares you for a fulfilling career
For program planning, selecting a major, and learning about the college or university, make an appointment to meet with an admissions counselor or academic advisor. This is your opportunity to ask questions, gain a better understanding of admissions requirements, and determine which of the many academic programs will best prepare you for the career you would like.
For undergraduate study, students have three options: a certificate program (roughly one year, focused on a career objective), an associate's degree (roughly two years of career or bachelor's degree preparation), or a bachelor's degree (roughly four years that provides advanced study in a particular major). Your career and educational goals will inform which level you choose to pursue, but you are not locked into one program upon enrollment; you always have the option to transfer. Transferring is especially common for students enrolled in a two-year associate program at a community college who then wish to attend a four-year program to earn a bachelor's degree. If your ultimate goal is a bachelor's degree but you are still considering career options or cost is a concern, beginning your college journey at a community college and finishing at a four-year institution is a popular choice. In New Hampshire, the Dual Admission program provides students with the opportunity to enroll at a community college and be admitted to one of the public universities.
If you have earned college credit already and are looking to finish your degree, consider searching for schools that are “transfer-friendly”, meaning the institution will accept credits earned from other institutions.
There are five key components to choosing a college or university: academic program or major, schedule, location, support services, and cost. Thinking about your needs in these five categories will inform your college decision. When you sit down to create your college list, the first piece is to identify schools offering your intended academic program. Although it is not an admissions requirement to have chosen a major, it is helpful to have an idea; with this knowledge in mind, you can choose institutions that will help you achieve your personal and professional goals. The schedule, location, and support services are also key pieces of the college admissions puzzle because they can determine your academic success. Choosing a school that offers online education or flexible class times within driving distance will enable you to attend classes regularly and meet requirements and deadlines for classwork. Support services like Writing Centers, Math Labs, and tutoring are available to all students at no cost. Finally, the cost of your education is a key factor that should be considered when creating a list of colleges and universities. Remember that you can apply for financial aid and scholarships, but only choose colleges that are financially feasible for you and your family so you are not buried in debt. We always recommend having at least one financial safety school.
There is no specific date to begin the college application process because each school is different. Colleges and universities have distinct timelines and deadlines, so it is important to visit admission websites and speak with representatives. Many colleges use the Common App, which allows you to complete one application for several colleges. If the school(s) to which you apply to use the Common App, you can begin the application when the portal opens on August 1st of each year. For many online colleges and community colleges, you will not complete the Common App, but rather the school's application. If you have schools that are rolling admissions – meaning they read applications as they arrive rather than by a specific date – talk to an admissions representative about their timeline and when you can begin classes, because their terms might look different than a September or January start date.
Although each college and university will have slightly different requirements, you can expect to submit the following:
Before sitting down to complete your application, be sure that you have reviewed the required application materials. Preparing the required materials will avoid frequent stops to find answers or materials, meaning you will be able to apply more quickly.
As of January 2014, New Hampshire has moved away from using the older GED® as a means of certifying a student’s high school-level academic competence and now uses the HiSET® exam. (New Hampshire joins Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Wyoming in adopting the HiSET and more states are sure to soon follow suit.) As with the GED, passing the HiSET certifies that a student possess high school-level academic skills. This is important because admissions to colleges and universities require either a high school diploma or proof of successful completion of the HiSET or GED.
The HiSET exam is used to assess your skills and knowledge in five core areas (classified as five individual subtests):
Every state will have varying requirements, policies, and costs associated with taking the HiSET, but some New Hampshire-specific details of taking the HiSET include:
For more information on taking the HiSET in New Hampshire visit hiset.ets.org/requirements/nh
The CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) exam offers students who have acquired knowledge outside of the usual education settings to show that they have learned college-level material so they can bypass certain introductory college courses. Check with the college directly to find out their policy on awarding credit. The test is sponsored by the College Board and is available at more than 2,900 colleges and universities nationwide. Visit collegeboard.com/clep for information regarding test taking centers, preparing for the CLEP, school code information, and test descriptions.
Distance learning or “online learning“ may be an attractive option for those returning to education. Online courses consist of an internet-based learning environment where students sign in regularly to retrieve assignment directions and interact with other students and their instructors. The professor posts lecture notes online and hold “office hours“ online so that they can be reached easily. Oftentimes students are asked to participate in a discussion board, in which the instructor asks questions related to class materials and students engage in a discussion together on the given topic. Several online universities have the same amenities as brick-and-mortar universities, like Learning Centers, clubs and student organizations, and Career Services.
According to the Distance Education and Training Council, an estimated eight million Americans are currently enrolled in distance learning programs. Distance learning offers a flexible study schedule and students can accelerate through classes quickly or move at a slower pace, while maintaining career and family responsibilities. Since online courses rely heavily upon motivation and self-discipline, often this type of learning can work well for mature students.
Ask yourself these questions to determine if distance learning is right for you:
Online programs offer a variety of options, ranging from high school diploma programs to a doctoral degree. Some institutions offer hybrid courses which are a mix of both online and face-to-face meetings. If you have determined that you have the self-motivation, basic computer savvy, and independence to study online, the next step is to find institutions that are accredited by one of the six regional accreditation associations, the U.S. Department of Education, or the Council for Higher Education. Accreditation is simply a validation process – colleges and universities are evaluated against established standards to ensure a high level of educational quality. Knowing something about a school's accreditation can tell you a lot about the value of the degree or course for which you are paying. If you obtain a degree or take a course from a non-accredited institution, you may find that the degree is not recognized by some employers or that the course credits may not transfer to other institutions. Avoid scams or getting your degree from a "degree mill" by making sure the program is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting association. There is a billion-dollar industry of online schools whose only requirements for a degree is payment. A good program will have a strong organizational structure, adequate financing to offer quality programs, appropriate curricula, competent faculty, and strong student supports. Ultimately, though, the institution must evaluate the quality of its program based on student achievement. To check any U.S. institution's accreditation status, log onto chea.org. Locally, students can get information from the NH Postsecondary Education Commission.
Do employers recognize online degrees?
As long as a degree has been awarded by an accredited institution, it is like any other degree in the eyes of potential employers. Taking online classes may even be more impressive to potential employers because the courses require independent study, computer skills, networking, and the ability to balance work and school. The skills garnered from online classes are transferrable to the workplace where the use of email communication and various software applications are routine. Some businesses even provide financial incentives to employees who enroll in online programs.
Can I transfer my online credits?
Most distance learning institutions are accredited by the same agencies as traditional colleges and universities so most credits will be transferable to traditional institutions. Some online learning institutions have articulation agreements with colleges and universities regarding online credit transfer. Be sure to research your online school and the school you wish to transfer credits to for policies on the number of credits you can transfer from an online program.
Do I need advanced computer skills?
No! If you can use the Internet, you can take a course online. Most courses require students to use email, download, or upload assignments and use chat rooms to facilitate discussions and relationships with peers.
Here is what you will need in order to participate in an online class:
A major concern of adult students is finding time to attend classes and do homework. Fortunately, the keys to success in college are the same as the keys to success for most endeavors: plan ahead, prioritize, be determined, and ask for help when you need it.
Also keep your sense of humor! College will certainly be a stressful time, but it should also be fun.
Before you enroll in college, here are some ways to prepare in advance:
Start establishing priorities and managing your time by being brutally honest with yourself: Are the activities that take up most of your time really moving you towards your goals? If not, it is time to set some priorities that support your goals, and make sure they get plenty of your time and attention. Time is a precious commodity; basically, you use it or lose it. The good news is that we all have the same amount of time everyday, so use it to your advantage. Since there will always be plenty of diversions to distract you from your goals, practice staying in the driver's seat when it comes to time management. Remember putting off for tomorrow the things you can do today is procrastination. Procrastination is wasted energy.
Here are some time management tools that can bring a sigh of relief to your busy college life.
Paying for college can be a challenge for returning students who are already balancing a career and family obligations. Fortunately, many programs give financial assistance to adult students attending college. Federal and private loans, tuition reimbursement plans, and educational grants and scholarships may all be available to the resourceful adult student. Finding the necessary funds for college, however, takes time, research, organization, and planning. Understanding the process, meeting deadlines, and utilizing all available scholarship resources are essential to maximizing aid and getting on the road to your degree.
As an independent student (no longer considered dependent upon parents for financial support), adult students are likely to be eligible for federal aid programs that offer assistance through grants and lower interest loans. As you begin the process of filling out applications for admission to college programs, you should also begin the process of filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA can be filed after October 1 of the year before you intend to enroll and should be filed to meet a school's specific deadline. The FAFSA looks at the adjusted gross income, assets (excluding the value of a primary home or retirement fund), the number of dependents enrolled in college more than half time, and age. From this information the FAFSA will generate a number called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) that reflects your ability to pay for one year of college. The FAFSA is filed each year that you remain in college. For tips on filing the FAFSA, click here.
Colleges use the EFC this number to determine a student's eligibility for federal aid and intuitional aid by subtracting the EFC from the institution's Cost of Attendance (COA). The amount remaining after this calculation is considered a student's demonstrated need for financial aid. A college's Cost of Attendance encompasses the amount budgeted for tuition, books, fees and supplies, and any expenses such as travel or childcare.
Once the financial aid office reviews a student's demonstrated need, they will draft an award package that may fulfill this need through "gift aid," in the form of grants and scholarships, or in the form of subsidized and unsubsidized loans, which need to be repaid. However, you may be required to contribute more than the calculated EFC. At that point, you must decide which package to accept and begin to think about financing any amount outstanding after financial aid is applied.
Most students are left with a "gap," or sum of money they will owe the college after all financial aid has been put into place. Tuition Payment Plans are one way to approach these costs. These plans help to limit the need for borrowing by allowing students to pay college costs from current income in interest-free monthly payments to the school (typically broken into 8-12 payments). Check with your college financial aid or bursar office for more information about the plan your school utilizes.
Some students may also need to explore private student loans to help pay for their education. These loans are provided by for-profit and non-profit lending organizations and are not backed by the federal government. Private student loans are designed to supplement, not replace, other financial aid sources to fill funding gaps. Only borrow what is needed to cover your education expenses and take advantage of all federal student loans before considering a private loan. Generally, they are less expensive than unsecured consumer credit (such as credit cards). If you require a private student loan, do not wait until your tuition bill is due to apply for one, because you may receive less favorable terms and conditions.
Private student loan lenders offer different incentives to try to entice you to choose them over another lender. Some features to look for and compare among the various lenders include:
Before applying for federal aid, check with your employer to see if tuition reimbursement is included in their benefits. Your organization may have a program in place to help pay for some or all of your education, based on specific criteria. It is also important to note that there may be tax benefits associated with tuition reimbursement. Visit irs.gov to find out more about tax credits and eligibility.
Even when applying for federal aid, we recommend researching scholarships. Scholarships are considered "gift aid," meaning you do not need to pay them back like a loan. Most scholarship providers do not set age limits for their applicants, but many scholarships are specific to adult learners. Using a scholarship search engine can help filter the list to those scholarships that best suit you. Try one or more of these to get you started:
Your best bet is to narrow your focus, and search for grants and scholarships that apply specifically to your status as a returning student. Many programs target specific sections of the population, such as veterans, women, minorities, and disabled students. Scholarships can also be career-specific and dedicated to students who are pursuing distinct professional paths.
New Hampshire Charitable Foundation (NHCF) is the largest provider of publicly available scholarships in New Hampshire, awarding scholarships to students for professional certificate programs, licensure, two- and four-year undergraduate degrees and graduate school. Visit the NHCF website (nhcf.org) to apply using a single, online application.