Pursue Education as an Adult

How to approach the back-to-school experience.


More than two million American adults return to school every year. Going back to college as an adult can be both challenging and rewarding. You may be returning to school to finish a degree, earn a new degree, or complete work toward a technical or vocational certification. Maybe you are pursuing a new career or simply looking to gain personal growth. Whatever your motivation, it can always help to sharpen your financial management skills and learn how to best balance your school responsibilities with your existing job and family obligations.

Here are several helpful tips for managing the various tasks of going back to school as an adult:

Explore a few classes

Some colleges, universities, and online programs allow adult learners to take individual courses without registering as a full-time student. Compare evening classes to online and distance-education programs to see which best match your needs.

Attend a campus orientation

Many institutions hold student orientations or campus tours before each semester begins, sometimes offering an orientation especially for nontraditional students. These orientations often include information about campus resources, re-entry services, and study skills. They also help familiarize students with the campus and give them a good idea of what to expect when they start school.

Establish your educational goals

Ask yourself if you're looking to change careers, grow professionally, or finish a degree you started years ago. Focusing on your motivation can help you define your educational goals.

Decide on your desired program of study

  • Certificate
    • A certificate shows that you've completed of a specific number of courses, and is generally required for vocational or technical training.
  • Associate degree
    • An associate degree is generally obtained after completing two years of full-time study, or a total of 60 semester credit hours. Associate of Arts (A.A.) and Associate of Science (A.S.) degrees are often offered by community and junior colleges.
  • Bachelor's degree (undergraduate)
    • A bachelor's degree translates to the completion of four years of full-time study, or a total of 120 semester credit hours. Common bachelor's degrees include Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and Bachelor of Science (B.S.).
  • Master's degree (graduate)
    • A master's degree requires the completion of one to three years of full-time study beyond the bachelor's degree. Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Science (M.S.) degrees are two common graduate degrees.
  • Doctoral degree
    • These degrees comprise the highest levels of academic study, and are generally designed to take two to four years to obtain following completion of a master's degree.

Think about which type of school you will attend

  • Community, junior, and vocational colleges
    • Community and junior colleges commonly offer 2-year degree programs that enable students to earn an associate degree. The associate degree may be transferred to a 4-year college and be applied toward a bachelor's degree. Community colleges also offer certificate programs. Vocational colleges provide a variety of training opportunities in fields such as technology, business, culinary arts, cosmetology, graphic and fashion design, paralegal training, and health and medical training.
  • Four-year colleges and universities
    • Four-year colleges and universities enable students to attain bachelor's degrees in a wide variety of disciplines. They often offer graduate degree programs that lead to master's, doctoral, or professional degrees. Consider the size of the universities you're investigating; it could affect the size of your classes as well.

Take inventory of previous credits

If you're re-entering school after an absence, determine how many prior college credits you may have. Even if some subjects don't seem applicable to your major, they might count as elective credit toward a degree.

Make an academic plan

When you are ready to select the classes for your first semester, choose subjects in which you are interested and do well. As your confidence increases and you become acclimated to college life, you may try more difficult or unfamiliar subjects.

An academic plan will serve as a guide and timetable to keep you on course. Review your plan often and make sure it allows enough time for work, family, and other activities.

Testing, admissions, and financial aid applications

Once you identify which schools offer programs you are interested in, visit their websites or contact admissions offices for course catalogs and admissions applications, and request financial aid applications. Complete any necessary testing, as well as admissions and financial aid applications including the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Investigate the numerous financial aid programs and scholarships available for adult students.

Develop a financial plan

Most schools have a team of professionals in place to help students finance their education. Grants and scholarships are great resources to investigate, and many returning students find that taking out student loans is a good option for them.

Even once you have all your financing in place, continue to communicate closely with your college's financial aid professionals to keep abreast of your financial aid situation. Keep a monthly spending plan to help balance your regular expenses with your student costs. After each semester, re-evaluate your financial standing and discuss your situation with a school financial aid professional. With planning, financial aid, and support, it can be easy for you to enjoy a successful return to school.

Schedule your time

Many adults continue to work while attending classes on nights and weekends. Some companies have programs that reimburse employees for tuition costs — often requiring study in a work-related field and high academic performance.

After making sure they are supportive of your decision to return to school, talk to your employer about adjusting your schedule to accommodate your classes. If working full-time and being a part-time student is not the right move for you, consider enrolling as a full-time student while cutting back to part-time employment.

Most importantly — remember that you are returning to school because you want to be there. Be confident and enjoy the journey!