Finishing your college degree can increase your career prospects and your earning power. That’s why nearly a third of today’s college students are 25 years old and older.

Sometimes, life gets in the way.

We’ve all experienced it: things happen, duty calls, changes occur and the next thing you know you’re on a different path, one you didn’t expect to travel. But since that’s life, we pivot on a dime and adjust as needed.

However, sometimes circumstances won’t let you pivot. Someone or something cements your shoe to the dime, and the dime to the floor—and until you either change your circumstances or change your shoes, you’re stuck where you are.

One area where many people run into this issue is their career—especially if their path led them away from college before they were able to finish their degree. They find that, even though they’ve worked hard to get where they are and would like to keep moving up—or find a new job, or even change careers completely—they’re cemented into their current position and unable to increase their earning potential because the positions they’re applying for require, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.

In fact, you may be thinking about going back to school yourself. The trouble is, you’re not sure how you’ll fit it into your life. You have a full-time job, and a growing family, and all the commitments that come with them. Not to mention the money involved! How can you take on tuition when you have things like house maintenance, kid sports and future college savings clamoring for their share of your paycheck? And—let’s be honest—there’s the unnerving prospect of being the only adult in a classroom filled with kids not much older than your own.

But the good news is, you won’t be alone. Not by a long shot. Consider the following:

  • In Fall 2019, 7.4 million of the 19.9 million students who attend college—more than a third—will be 25 years old and over.
  • In a 2017 survey, six out of 10 respondents between ages 23 and 55 have considered returning to school to complete a bachelor’s or associate degree, or a certificate.
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree is $1,173, while the median weekly earnings are $712 for someone with only a high school diploma.

As you can see, the outlook is positive for those who return to earn their degree. Plus, there’s one more piece of good news: thanks to the increased number of adult students, most schools have made it easier than ever for adult students to return to get their degree.

Online classes, evening and weekend classes at local universities within easy commuting distance, accelerated degree programs with shorter semesters and financial aid are all available to help you earn your degree faster and more affordably. In many cases, the relevant work and life experience you’ve gained since leaving school can be factored in along with your transcripts to reduce the number of classes you need to take. And don’t forget that a number of employers offer tuition assistance to their employees, if you’re taking courses or pursuing a degree that’s in line with your career path at work.

Where to Start

As with any big decision, the hardest part of returning to school can be taking the first step. So, here’s a general outline to help get you started:

  1. Decide which degree you’ll earn. The degree in anthropology you pursued the first time around may not be as germane to your current career plans. Take a close and honest look at your career path up until this point, and where you anticipate that path will take you next, before you make your final decision.
  2. Find a college that works for you based on where you are in life now. Put on your objectivity and ask yourself the following questions:
    • Does the school offer the degree programs you need?
    • Is the school accredited?
    • What’s the ratio of non-traditional/traditional students?
    • Do they offer shorter semesters and flexible semester start dates?
    • Do they have an accelerated program so you can earn your degree faster?
    • If you plan to attend school in person, is the commuting distance manageable?
    • Do they offer evening or Saturday classes?
    • If it’s impossible to make your schedule coordinate with your job and family, does the school offer an online option?
  3. If you don’t already have them, get a copy of your high school and college transcripts. They’ll give you a basis for determining which pre-requisites you’ve fulfilled, if you’re missing any basic classes, etc.
  4. Once you settle on a degree and school, talk to an admissions advisor. Most schools will have someone who specializes in advising adult/non-traditional students and will be able to help you with available options. Be sure to have your email transcripts handy for the meeting.
  5. Contact your employer to see if they offer tuition assistance. Since a more accomplished workforce only benefits an employer, many offer some type of tuition assistance to their employees. Generally, the classes or degree will need to be in your employer’s industry or must be a function that contributes to the company as a whole. As an example, a CPA firm probably won’t pay for an art degree, but a marketing degree may be eligible if there’s a marketing department.
  6. Consider your costs. Few people can afford to quit their jobs to go back to school full-time. You’ll need to figure out what level of employment will get you through school the fastest and allow you to keep up with your financial obligations.
  7. Figure out your financial aid. Once you’ve decided to go back to school, don’t wait to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online so you can start the financial aid process. It’s free to apply (and don’t worry, your credit score has no effect on your ability to qualify). You should also start researching scholarships and grants. Make an appointment with your school’s financial aid office so you can explore your options.
  8. Make sure you have support systems in place. You’ll be doing all the schoolwork but trust us, returning to school is not a solitary endeavor. Both at home and at school, you’ll need a network of people willing to help you out, answer your questions and cheer you on. Have a frank talk with your family and let them know what you need. Once you’re in school, find an advisor or other person you can contact with questions or challenges. Don’t discount your fellow students—both your contemporaries and younger. There’s wisdom of all ages in those ivy walls—or on the other side of a laptop, if you choose an online program.

Take the First Step Today

Decisions as big as returning to school are usually best supported with a plan. Hopefully, what we’ve laid out here will give you the beginnings of one. We also hope you’re reassured that you won’t be alone—that you’ll have a lot of company if you decide to return to school for your degree.

You’re standing at a crossroads, which—let’s admit it—can be scary. But it can also be exhilarating to know that just one step will put you on the path to the life you’ve dreamed about for yourself and your family.

Your future is waiting for you. Are you ready?

Looking for a small, personal university that will help you reach your potential and make a positive impact on the world? At Rochester University in Rochester Hills, Michigan, you’ll achieve the academic excellence, global awareness, character and leadership you need to succeed in a changing, exciting and inspiring world.

Sources:

‘I Need A Degree In Order To Move Forward’: Why Some Adults Choose College,” by Taylar Dawn Stagner, npr.org, March 12, 2019.

Fast Facts,” by the National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov, 2019.

Measuring the value of education,” by Elka Torpey, bls.gov, April 2018.

The Costs of Going Back to School as An Adult,” by Rebecca Lake, investopedia.com, November 5, 2018.

“Top Reasons Why You Should Finish College,” by Quenosha Payton, abound.college, undated.

Going back to college as an adult? Here’s what you need to know,” by Jillian Berman, marketwatch.com, February 7, 2019.

You’re Never Too Old to Go Back to School,” by Sally Kane, thebalancecareers.com, December 21, 2018.

Resources:

FAFSA®: Apply for Aid—Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa

Fastweb—Scholarship search site: https://www.fastweb.com/