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Balancing Act: Tips for Adults Returning to College

Nontraditional studentsConsidering going back to college?

You’re in good company. Nontraditional students now make up the majority of US undergraduates, and one-in-four college students are age 30 or older.

But although colleges are serving a greater number of adults, finding the right program—a place where you can balance your education with employment and family responsibilities—is key to your success.

Here are four questions every nontraditional student should ask when researching schools.

1: What is your college’s track record with nontraditional students?
Ask some tough questions: What’s the graduation rate of nontraditional students at your institution? Are adult students eligible for merit aid? How much debt do students typically accrue? What’s the average time to graduation?

Learning the answers can help you decide which college is right for you. It can also help you estimate how much time— and money—you’ll need to complete a degree.

2: What sort of flexible learning options do you offer?
Responsibilities at home and at work can change over your course of time that you’re enrolled in college. Choosing a school that provides a variety of course options—from in-person, to online, to hybrid—increases your odds of staying on track.

“A lot of adults have full-time work schedules or child care responsibilities,” said Amber Harnack, director of advising at Ivy Tech Community College (IN). “They often need more flexibility when it comes to scheduling classes.”

Also ask about student support services, such as tutoring, recommends Michelle Christopherson, director of the Center for Adult Learning on the University of Minnesota—Crookston campus.

“You want to make sure that you are going to be supported, and you want to make sure that those services aren’t going to end up costing you extra,” she said.

3: What will it take to get a degree?
The majority of nontraditional students have already accumulated some college credits by the time they re-enter higher education.

Before you enroll in any program, learn whether your credits will transfer and how many courses you’ll need to complete a degree.

“You want to make sure that from the beginning you have a clear understanding on how much it will cost and what your degree pathway will look like,” Christopherson said.

4: How will your institution help me meet my career goals?
Begin your college search with the end in mind.

What’s spurring your decision to return to school? Are you looking for advancement options in your current field, or do you want a career change?

Ask college officials about the types of jobs landed by recent program graduates. Inquire about the services offered at the campus’ career center.

“Make sure that your goals match up with what the college is able to provide,” Harnack said. “You want to be certain that the degree program you ultimately choose is a good fit.”