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Thinking About Returning To College? A Guide For Taking The Leap

Last updated: 01-25-2020

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Thinking About Returning To College? A Guide For Taking The Leap

Have you been thinking about going back to college? Perhaps you're looking to change jobs, make more money or simply finish that degree you started.

Maybe there's a program you've already checked out, or you're just starting to explore your options. Wherever you are on your journey, these six tips will help you take that leap.

Higher pay, a better job — economic reasons drive many people to go back to school. Research has shown that someone with a bachelor's degree will earn $1 million more over their lifetime than someone who just has a high school diploma. Other credentials — like an associate's degree or a technical certificate — can also help you move up, get a different job or change careers completely.

If you're returning to school because you want a specific job or because you want to break into a new field, do your research. You want to make sure the school or program you decide on will actually help you get where you're trying to go, job-wise.

"If we were to do a word-association game with somebody, and say, 'Give me the first word that you think of when you hear the word college,' there are a lot of people out there that would just say 'expensive'," says Becky Klein-Collins, author of Never Too Late: The Adult Student's Guide to College.

Yes, college can be expensive, but it rarely costs as much as the school website says. That's because most schools, states and even the federal government offer lots of ways to pay through grants, scholarships and loans.

To access much of this money, you have to fill out the FAFSA — that' short for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It's a form used to determine eligibility for federal student loans, but many schools and states use it to divvy up their money for college too. It's always a good idea to fill out the FAFSA — even if you think you make too much money or you won't qualify. You might be surprised.

"Before you actually start that first day of class, get some things in order at home," suggests Denise Whittaker, an advisor at the Graduate! Network in Philadelphia. When Whittaker went back to college in her 50s, she leaned heavily on her family. She says, "I had the support of my husband, who knew that on nights I had class, don't expect me to cook."

Remember, your pre-college life hasn't changed. You're simply adding on — and that's important because it means, going forward, life will be different. Letting people in on your schedule — and asking for help — can go a long way.

If you're nervous about re-entering the classroom after time away, Whittaker suggests "practice school." Maybe do a little extra reading, because you'll soon be doing more reading, in a different kind of way.

If you're scared about learning math — perhaps it's been years since you've done algebra — try a free online course as a refresher. Khan Academy offers a ton of videos to dip your toes back in.

"Go back to the basics to just kind of rejuvenate what's already in your brain and to bring it forward," says Whittaker.

"Do your homework and don't sign up for the first college that answers your call," says Klein-Collins. She suggests looking at a school's graduation rate and earnings data. You can find that information — and a lot more — using the College Scorecard.

Ask the admissions office very blunt questions and see what they tell you, she says. For starters: How do you serve students like me? How do you support somebody who is working full time? How do you support somebody who is juggling work and family?

"If they don't offer ways to support you, you might want to just keep looking," she says.

And don't forget community colleges. Many are doing innovative and interesting things. They can offer an affordable first step to an associate's degree and ultimately a bachelor's.

On the question of taking classes online or in-person, there's no right answer. Online courses have become far more sophisticated in recent years, with video components and mechanisms for feedback and questions in real-time. Check with the schools you're looking into, you may be able to try some sample classes or modules before enrolling.

You may be way closer to that degree than you think! Maybe you've had previous college experience, you were in the military or you've had a job where you've grown and mastered skills.

You can get college credit for all of that.

Nearly 3,000 schools accept CLEP, a standardized test offered for multiple college courses. If you have military experience, you can request a Joint Services Transcript that helps translate your training into civilian language. Some schools also use assessments like presentations or portfolio reviews to award credit for your prior learning from work or life.

"I knew I wanted this. I've wanted it for 20 years," says Janet Hubbert, who recently earned her associates degree from Shasta College in California. Her advice: Don't let anyone tell you you aren't college material.

"It's OK to be afraid," she says. "You have to take that leap of faith. You have to go for it, because if you want it, then it's up to you. Nobody else is going to make it happen except for you."

We'd love to hear from you — if you've got a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us atLifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

If you you want more Life Kit,subscribe to our newsletter.

Audrey Nguyen produced the audio portion of this story.


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