Overcoming the Challenges of Going Back to School as an Adult Learner
It's becoming increasingly common for adults, years or even decades into their working lives, to realize it's time to go back to school. The motivations may vary: common reasons include wanting to set out on a new career path, doing more interesting work, making more money, changing fields, qualifying for a promotion, or trying to be more competitive in the job market. And the circumstances will vary as well: for some, it means completing a degree started long ago; for others, it means enrolling in college for the first time; and for still others, it means taking on graduate-level coursework.
While making the decision to go back to school - whether it's to obtain an associate degree, bachelor's degree, master's degree, or certificate - is certainly exciting, it also can be intimidating. Going back to school as an adult is a very different experience from going back to school as a traditional-age student (between the ages of 18 and 22), and poses a unique set of challenges. Although all of these challenges are, with persistence and preparation, surmountable, it's important to enter your experience as an adult learner with open eyes and a plan for success.
We've compiled a list of some of the most common challenges facing adults returning to college - or enrolling in a degree program for the first time - in order to help you think about how school might impact your own life, and begin to come up with strategies for handling these challenges. And don't worry - you're not alone. If you need help coming up with a solution to a particular situation, want to bounce ideas off of someone, or simply need someone to talk to, most high-quality higher education institutions assign you a dedicated academic advisor to support you throughout your academic journey. Their job is to help you navigate the often-complicated world of adult learning, so you should reach out to them as much as you need to.
Common Challenges Facing Adults Returning to School
Fitting School Into a Busy Schedule
One of the biggest issues that comes up for working adult students is time - or, more accurately, the lack of it. Adult learners, unlike traditional students, are often working full-time and have families to support, meaning that most are attending school part-time and must find creative ways to fit their schoolwork into their schedules. The solution is to find a program with a more flexible format - which usually means one that isn't full-time and on-campus.
Some students choose to take night classes or pursue low-residency campus options; however, these options are still limiting, since they're offered at set times that students must attend, and represent an additional time commitment in the form of travel to and from campus.
While some students can make this work for their schedules, many adults can't - their schedules are too unpredictable, or too full, to be able to attend on-campus classes. For these students, online learning is an excellent option. Online learning is flexible and, for the most part, asynchronous, meaning students can log in and attend class whenever it's convenient for them. This means that adults can go to school whenever they have free time - late at night, early in the morning, or in the middle of the day. While students still have to commit to making time for their schoolwork, this mode of learning allows them to fit it into their schedule in a way that works for their life.
Students should also have honest conversations with their families and friends, as well as with their employer. Asking your partner or children to take on more household responsibilities while you're taking classes, telling your friends you'll be less available for social gatherings, and letting your boss know that you may need additional flexibility in your schedule will help alleviate some of the pressure that comes with balancing your existing commitments with your schoolwork, and will help you build an understanding network to help support you through your program.
A Lack of Financial Resources
While the rising cost of college is a challenge for everyone, it's a particular issue for adult learners. Adult students have so many other financial responsibilities, from mortgages to families to existing debt, and so the idea of paying for college can be daunting to say the least. Adults are often saving up for their children's education, so spending money on their own degrees doesn't seem possible, or have already invested money in college experiences that they didn't complete.
For these reasons, many adults simply assume college isn't an option because of the financial commitment it would require - and when you look at the sticker price advertised by many colleges and universities, it's easy to understand why.
While taking on the cost of tuition is a major decision, and one that shouldn't be taken lightly, there are many options out there to help make college more affordable - and realistic - option for adult students. Certain kinds of colleges are less expensive than others. If you're pursuing an associate degree, or are getting started on a bachelor's, community college is an excellent option. For those who already have credits under their belts that can go towards a bachelor's, or are pursuing a master's degree, online schools tend to be less expensive than campus-based schools due to the lack of overhead associated with the programs they offer.
Additionally, adult students are eligible for financial aid, which can help offset the cost of tuition in the form of federal student loans and grants. Individual institutions may also offer scholarships and financial aid packages that can lower the cost of tuition even further.
And once a school has been selected, pursuing transfer credit opportunities and test-out options can help students earn credits more quickly and affordably.
Fear Of Not Being Cut Out for College
Many adult students want to go back to school, but are afraid that they won't be successful in obtaining their degree. Many people think back to high school or to prior college experiences and remember the challenges they had, whether it was with the work itself, time management, or a lack of motivation and engagement. Some believe that it's been too long - that having spent years out of the classroom means that they won't be able to make school work for them again. And some worry about sticking out, or feeling out of place, in a classroom filled with students much younger than them.
All of these fears are understandable - and the good news is, they're incredibly relatable. Almost any adult learner experiences self-doubt at some point during their academic journey, but persistence and an eye on the ultimate goal - a degree - helps them to keep going.
Adult learners should seek out degree programs specifically designed with their unique needs in mind. For many, this means looking into schools that offer night classes or online programs that cater to working students. Not only do these academic options offer the flexibility that adult learners need, they're created to meet the learning needs of adults (which tend to be very different than the learning needs of traditional college-age students), and will draw on students' professional experiences. Adults will feel more at home in these programs, surrounded by classmates who understand their perspectives and challenges, and classrooms often become built-in support networks.
Additionally, these schools understand that adults need certain resources to help them overcome the struggles they might face in pursuing their degrees. For example, many schools will assign students a dedicated academic advisor as soon as they enroll, and that advisor will work closely with them throughout their college experience to help them achieve success. Instructors may offer additional flexibility when life challenges arise, and academic and technical support is made readily available to give students the assistance they need, when they need it.
Although the challenges of returning to school as an adult learner are very real, they're not struggles that you'll have to take on alone. By enrolling in a program designed for students like you, you'll find yourself in an environment that understands the unique obstacles you face, has resources in place to help you find ways to overcome them, and is ultimately dedicated to your success.