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 every day. 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 major of study. Some colleges will even honor your prior learning experience by issuing college credits that can be counted toward a degree. For program planning and selecting a major, make an appointment to meet with an admissions counselor or academic advisor to discuss your options. 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.
College admissions requirements include the completion of high school or other general education testing. If you did not graduate from high school, check into obtaining a GED. For information and testing sites: gedtest.org.
Ask if you are required to take any entrance or placement tests and, if so, when these tests will be offered. Adults typically do not need to take admissions tests such as the SAT or ACT to gain entrance into an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program. For graduate school admissions, however, standardized tests such as the GRE or GMAT are required by most graduate schools.
Make sure you request official transcripts from any colleges or other educational programs you have attended in the past. The admissions counselor will use this information to decide which credits will transfer into your new degree program.
Designate a file folder where you can collect and organize all information about completed educational activities: unofficial college transcripts, your resumé, certificates of completion (and outlines) from any seminars/workshops/training programs you have attended, etc. If an essay is one of your admissions requirements, having all this information at your fingertips will come in handy.
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 instructor. The professor posts lecture notes online and holds “office hours” online so that they can be reached easily. 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. Distance learning allows students to maintain career and family responsibilities while taking classes. It is a popular method for earning certificates or degrees for career advancement without leaving your current job. 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:
How do I find the right program?
Distance learning institutions offer a variety of options including high school diploma programs and college degree programs from an associate’s 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, it is important to look for schools 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 by which institutions of higher education 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 at nh.gov/postsecondary/colleges/diploma_mills.html.
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 e-mail 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 e-mail, 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 every day, 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. Students should be comforted by the fact that there is help available to make college dreams a reality through financial aid. Understanding the process, meeting deadlines and utilizing all available scholarship resources is essential to maximizing aid and getting on the road to a degree.
As an independent student (no longer considered dependent upon parents for financial support), returning students are likely to be eligible for federal aid programs that offer assistance through grants and lower interest loans. As students begin the process of filling out applications for admission to college programs, they 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 the student intends to enroll and should be filed to meet a school’s specific deadline. The FAFSA will look at the adjusted gross income of the student and spouse if applicable, the student’s assets (excluding the value of a primary home or retirement fund), the number of dependents enrolled in college more than half time and the applicant’s age. From this information the FAFSA will generate a number called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) that reflects the student’s ability to pay for one year of college. The FAFSA is filed each year the student remains in college. For tips on filing the FAFSA, click here.
The colleges use this number to determine a student’s eligibility for federal aid and any intuitional aid available 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 a financial aid package that may fulfill this need through grants, scholarships and both subsidized and unsubsidized loans. However, the student may be required to contribute more than the calculated EFC. Students will receive these offers from each school in an award letter. At that point, a student must decide which package to accept and begin to think about financing any amount outstanding after financial aid is applied.
Beyond applying for federal financial aid, returning students should check with their employers to see if tuition reimbursement is part of their benefits. A company may have a program in place that stipulates that they will pay for some or all of a student’s continuing based on a 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.
Also, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation's Adult Student Aid Program assists adult learners pay for higher education . Typical awards range from $100 to $500 per application period.