The Staples trip is kind of the easy part.

We so often hear the advice “Go back to school.” But what does this entail, exactly? It’s safe to say we don’t just show up at Harvard one morning and take a seat among the student body. There are many ways one can go about going back, though, and statistics show that more non-traditional students than ever before are finding a way in.

Today, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C., “more than a third of undergraduate students are over age 25,” and over the next ten years adult student enrollment will outpace that of traditional age students.  What’s more, 47% of current undergrads are considered “independent,” which means they’re over 24, married, parents, wards of the court, or veterans.

As someone who is, at the age of 49, a junior-year undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I will explain the steps I took and fill you in on some tips that can make it all easier, even if you have children still at home (as I did until recently).

Where to go first?

The steps vary if you have already completed some portion of work toward your degree at a university. If you are like me, with only an ancient, lackluster high school background, a great place to start is your local community college. They offer flexibility, easy entrance, and lots of friendly help. If you have a choice of several nearby, it’s a good idea to check their websites for the percentage of students who transfer to university. Those with high transfer rates tend to offer better quality professors, with a little less focus on vocational certificates.

Are my creaky skills college-level?

Once you have selected a community college, rest assured that there are no admissions requirements such as a minimum GPA or even, usually, a high school diploma. Just sign up to take their placement exam. This will determine your current skills level in mathematics and English. If you cannot remember a lick of algebra, no worries—you will be placed into whatever classes you need, and you’ll be up to college-level within a course or two. For details about the test, including tips and sample questions, check the College Board website’s “Accuplacer” introductory page.

Which course of study?

After you have your placement results, you are ready to register for your classes. The beauty of most community colleges is that you can attend full-time or part-time, or switch back and forth, days or evenings—as you like. A full load is usually 12 credits per semester. Each class is 3-5 credits each, so you can take one, or four or more, depending on your schedule.  There are academic advisers at every campus ready to help you plan your path, either to an Associate’s degree or for transfer to a university for a Bachelor’s.  In order to transfer, your first two years will usually be a slate of general education with some courses toward major preparation. But no matter what classes you are in, there are free tutors there to help you, so you need never feel you’re on your own.

How will I pay for it?

That first glimpse of the tuition schedules can be off-putting, but there is plenty of help out there, whether you attend half-time or full. Best of  all, the more you need, the more you receive.  The starting point for all of it is the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  It’s a simple form you can fill out any time, and it will tell you immediately how much your EFC – Expected Family Contribution – will be.  In my case, that was all I had to do. My college verified my attendance and checks began arriving for whatever I was qualified to receive. Here’s a helpful description of the grants and low-interest loans you will gain access to.  (Among other surprises, owning your own home does not count against you.)  If you do not qualify for federal aid, there are still many need-based or merit scholarships for mothers, women, and even for certain areas of study. A scholarships adviser on campus will help you find them. Whatever aid you receive at community college, the access to aid increases dramatically if you should transfer to university. In fact, the admission packet will often include a financial aid offer. Whatever amount that is, look into a Budget Appeal for additional help that is yours for the asking.

If you transfer for a Bachelor’s degree…

Maybe the best news out there is that if you transfer as an Adult Learner, you are often entirely exempt from taking SATs or ACTs. Your academic history at community college is your proof that you are able to do the work at the next level. Once transferred, you will have access to all the things young students have, including travel abroad opportunities (often covered by financial aid). There are also Career Center counselors and alumni networks to help get you working after graduation.

Will it just be me and a lot of 18-year olds?

Definitely not. In fact, I was often assured that universities love to increase the diversity of their campus with the life experiences of older learners. Even if you find yourself among many “kids,” you will get a chance to see how really marvelous and inclusive the youth of today can be, contradicting most every article or TV show you’ve seen. Besides, as you can see by the statistics at the beginning of this article, they’re becoming outnumbered, so they’re used to us by now.

A few tips: 

  • Look into your school’s Honors Program right away. Sometimes there is a window within which you must apply. Not only will your transcript shine if you transfer, you get the better professors, and it often comes with early registration benefits, which means you have your choice before things fill up – a must if you still have kids at home.
  • Google “What can I do with a major in…?” if you need additional info in  selecting a major.
  • It keeps getting better. The professors improve as you proceed—the best ones tend to teach the advanced courses. Regardless, as you start selecting your classes, take a peek at prospective profs on Rate My Professors and never get stuck with a lemon.
  • If you should ever fail a course, you can usually take it again and replace the D or F with a shiny new grade.
  • The occasional W you may receive if you withdraw from a class will not usually count against your grade-point average (GPA), so think strategically if things aren’t going well in a class.
  • Summer or Winter courses are a good way to swallow a bitter pill if you don’t like a subject, including remedial work. It’s usually several hours a day, five days a week, condensed into a handful of weeks. But it’s the only subject you’ll be taking. Get in and get out, and back to the subjects you enjoy.
  • Online courses are great if your schedule is very tight, but they are often harder and can be less engaging than in-person classes. Also, make sure yours will be accepted wherever you’d like to go after transfer. (For instance, Wellesley College does not accept them at all.)

Good luck! And let us all know how it goes.


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