As the weather cools, the leaves turn and backpack-laden kids head off to class, it’s a natural time for adults to contemplate going back to school, too. Finishing your college diploma or pursuing an advanced degree can be a great way to boost your professional qualifications, but it does come with its own set of challenges. If you’ve never experienced a higher-ed environment or haven’t set foot in a classroom in years, you may have concerns about what the experience will be like and how you’ll handle the transition. But don’t let those fears hold you back from taking the next step in your career — you can achieve academic success at any age or stage of your life.
What If I Don’t Fit In?
If your images of today’s college campuses are mostly shaped by TV and movies, you might envision yourself sticking out like a sore thumb in a class full of students fresh out of high school. The reality, however, is much more diverse. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 33% of undergraduate students in the U.S. are over the age of 25 and 22% are over the age of 30. Those numbers are only expected to grow, with a projected 20% rise in students 25 and older from 2010 to 2020. In programs specifically geared to your demographic, these rates are even higher. For example, at Tiffin University more than 40% of the total student population are adult learners who have been away from school for several years, while only 7.17% of Trident University’s students are in the “traditional” 18-to-24-year-old group. In addition, numerous schools now offer the opportunity to pursue your degree online, where age differences can be less apparent.
Whatever option you choose, you won’t be alone. At any colleges, student organizations offer adult learners the chance to meet, socialize and support one another. And even if you do find yourself in the minority, your maturity can be an advantage. Professors tend to recognize that older students enrich the classroom environment with their practical knowledge and real-world experience. Younger students can benefit from your insights, and in turn, you might find that you appreciate their enthusiasm and different perspectives.
What If I Can’t Keep Up?
After years away from the world of studying and test taking, it’s common to worry that your skills are rusty. A wealth of Internet resources can help you brush up on nearly any topic imaginable, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), which allow you to sample classes from universities around the world and see if you like the Web learning format. You can also refresh your memories of the physical classroom setting by signing up for a continuing education class or auditing a course at a local college. And once you enroll in a degree program, you won’t be left high and dry. Some schools have introductory courses designed to help you get up to speed, like “Trident University Experience,” which gives adult learners with limited higher-ed experience the tools to thrive in their online studies, including research techniques and the fundamentals of writing academic papers.
Most colleges and universities have learning centers staffed with professional or peer tutors who provide free one-on-one or group assistance with writing, math, research and sometimes more specialized subject areas — and increasingly, these services are available in multiple formats to serve nontraditional students. In Bellevue University’s Tutoring and Study Skills Program, for instance, tutors are available for consultation not only in person, but also via email, phone or Skype. Many online degree programs provide free access to a Web-based 24/7 tutoring service such as Smarthinking.com, which is used by Upper Iowa University and Regis University, among others. Mentoring is another feature that can help you stay on track; for example, students in Monroe College’s online programs are assigned a personal student services counselor to guide their studies, assist with tutoring and keep up their progress.
Education has evolved tremendously in recent years, and being out of step with classroom technology is a concern for adult learners. Support is available at many schools, especially those catering to adult learners, and e-learning courses offer a free orientation to get you acquainted with the online platform. Libraries are another source of guidance; most campus libraries have a research help desk to help you navigate all the electronic resources now available, and local public libraries often offer basic help with computers as well as reference assistance. Once you have a course or two under your belt, you might find that you actually enjoy how things have changed, particularly if you struggled in school in the past. Instead of just lectures and note taking, today’s teaching tends to involve more group work, discussion, hands-on projects and multimedia elements to match different learning styles.
How Will I Find the Time?
Your life is probably very different from the last time you were in school. Adult learners are likely to be financially independent, work full time and have children or other family members depending on them. The idea of trying to juggle these responsibilities with your studies can be daunting, but college and university programs are more flexible than ever. From night and weekend classes to online degrees and self-paced coursework, there’s a wide array of options available to help you fit higher education into your busy schedule. And with many online programs offering rolling academic calendars with condensed course timelines and frequent start dates throughout the year, there truly is no better time than the present to start pursuing your degree.
For more information about schools and specialized programs designed to help you succeed, visit www.fopconnect.com/education-connect/.