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Like 40% of students who enter college, life got in the way of Shawnteâ Cain completing her degree.
Cain, 39, began her college career in 1997 at Wayne State University in Detroit. She successfully made it through three years at the school, but just as she could see her degree on the horizon, her grandmother fell ill. School fell by the wayside as Cain cared for her and her own financial obligations rose.
âIt feels amazing. A lot of boundaries that were placed between myself and my dream job have been lifted.â
For years, Cain, who works as a casino host at the MGM Grand Detroit, toyed with returning to college, but work and family obligations kept getting in the way. âI was finding barriers to stop me from finishing,â she said recently.
But in 2018, Cain finally re-enrolled at Wayne State thanks in part to a new program at the school called Warrior Way Back, which forgives up to $1,500 in debt former students owed to the school if they return. Of course, coming back to campus after 20 years away wasnât simple.
Cain enlisted the support of her family to make sure someone would be available to watch her 5-year-old son while she was in school and at work. She found trusted advisors at the school who helped her navigate course work, locate the parking lot closest to her classes and get set up with networking and study groups.
Donât miss: This Class of 2018 graduate is 66 and one of many older Americans pursuing a degree
Nearly 40% of undergraduates are older than 25 and nearly one-quarter are raising children.
And in December of last year, she finally got that degree â fulfilling a promise to her late fiance that she would complete her education â and sheâs still on campus taking a few courses to enhance it. âIt feels amazing,â she said of graduating. âA lot of boundaries that were placed between myself and my dream job have been lifted.â
Cain may not fit with the image we often conjure when we think of college students â the co-ed lounging in the quad and grabbing a few beers with friends. But these days, the typical student looks more like Cain. Nearly 40% of undergraduates are older than 25 and nearly one-quarter are raising children, according to Lumina Foundation, an organization focused on increasing access to post-high school education.
More ânon-traditionalâ or independent college students attend college than a generation ago, according to the Institute for Womenâs Policy Research. âIt is important for promoting racial and ethnic equity in college attainment, given the relatively large share of students of color among independent students,â it said in a 2018 report.
There are likely millions more adults out there looking to start college for the first time or go back after years away.
Here are some tips to make that happen:
Choose a school that suits your needs
Working adults with family and other responsibilities have different needs than other students. They should look for schools that can accommodate those priorities, said Rebecca Klein-Collins, author of âNever Too Late:The Adult Studentâs Guide to College.â
âFind a college that really understands who you are at this stage in your life and doesnât make you try to apologize for who you are at this stage in your life,â she said.
âFind a college that really understands who you are at this stage in your life and doesnât make you try to apologize for who you are at this stage in your life.â
Schools that are particularly supportive of adult learners often offer courses outside of normal work hours and have rolling admissions and rolling start dates, Klein-Collins said. Theyâll also give students some credit for skills theyâve learned on the job.
Washington Monthlyâs ranking of the best colleges for adult learners can be a good place to begin a search for schools that fit this bill.
Another good resource for potential students: The people doing the job theyâre hoping to get after graduation, said Matthew Reed, the vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J. He suggests students talk with people a few steps ahead in their career journey and ask them what credential they got and where they earned it. Itâs not a question to ask schools.
âNo college will say, âWeâre not very good at X,ââ he said. âSo skip that entirely.â
Adult students need to be discerning when choosing a school. For-profit colleges often do a great job of catering to students with complicated schedules â and make a point of highlighting that flexibility in their marketing materials â but their outcomes are often poor and come at a high cost.
âGenerally speaking when in doubt go public, either community college or a local state university,â Reed said. âMost of the time youâre going to get a better deal.â
Prepare before you go
If youâve been to college before, Reed suggests pulling together your transcripts and bringing them to any meetings with representatives with the colleges youâre considering. That way, you can get as much credit as possible for work youâve already done.
Reed also advises students to ask about prior learning assessments, which essentially allow a college to evaluate whether they can give you credit for skills you can prove you learned on the job. âSomeone who as worked as an office manager may not need to take the intro to business class,â he said.
Adults who havenât been in school for several years may also need to brush up on their academic and other skills.
Before Tanganyika Washington returned to Wayne State at age 39 to pursue a teaching degree focused on middle and high school math, she went to online education sites like Khan Academy to brush up on her calculus and trigonometry skills.
âIt had been more than 10 years since I had cracked open a textbook and did math on the college level,â said Washington, who studied engineering when she attended Wayne State for the first time in the late 1990s.
Adult students who arenât tech savvy may want to brush up on their computer skills, given that so much of college these days, including turning in assignments, is conducted online. When Wayne State began bringing students back to campus as part of the Warrior Way Back program, administrators realized they needed to offer an orientation that specifically brought adult students âup to speed for skills that we expect students who are 18 to have, no problem,â said Dawn Medley, the vice president for enrollment management at the school.
Navigating the money piece
Paying for college can be challenging at any age, but for adult students who are likely entirely responsible for the cost â and may have other financial responsibilities â successfully navigating the economics of earning a degree can be particularly important.
Adult students who are working should explore whether their employer can help them pay for school, Reed said. About 90% of midsize or large employers offer some kind of tuition reimbursement. Even when thatâs not available, some employers may have an arrangement with certain schools that provide discounts to their workers, Reed said.
âThe best case is when the employer pays for it,â Reed said.
Students who have spent a long time away from school may be shocked at the cost of both tuition and some of the extras required for college these days.
Still, itâs likely students will also have to explore some other source of financing. To get access to government grants and loans, they should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or FAFSA). But students should be wary of any website trying to charge students to fill out their FAFSA, Reed said. âDo not pay for the FAFSA,â he said. âIf they charge you for it, theyâre scamming you.â
Students returning to college may also have to work through financial challenges precipitated by leaving school. Itâs not uncommon for students who leave college unexpectedly to owe a balance to their school â a sum the college may require back before theyâll allow the student to return or release their transcript to another school.
Wayne Stateâs Warrior Way Back program aims to help mitigate this problem, but itâs a rare approach, said Sherri Gonzales Warren, the vice president of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas, who has worked with students returning to school for years as part of a strategy to boost her regionâs economic viability.
Students who find themselves owing a balance should call up the school and ask if it has a fund for students facing financial emergencies that could be tapped to pay off the debt, Gonzales Warren said. They could also look elsewhere for resources such as a community-based scholarship or even turn to their employer for a loan.
Students who believe they can pay off the debt, but would struggle to do so in a lump sum, could also ask the college if theyâd offer a payment plan, Gonzales Warren said.
In addition to debts owed to the college, adult students may have a complicated financial aid history. Students who leave school without completing a degree are more likely to default on their student loans, a situation that prohibits them from taking on more federal debt. Fortunately, itâs possible to get your federal student loans out of default. Borrowers in this situation who hope to return to school should call their debt collector and ask about rehabilitating or consolidating their loans out of default.
Finally, students who have spent a long time away from school may simply be shocked at the cost of both tuition and some of the extras required for college these days. Washington said sheâs had to take on a part-time job to cover expenses like books, parking and the technology required to attend.
Determine how quickly youâre able to progress through school
Typically, the faster a student makes their way through school, the more likely they are to finish, Reed says. But for students with other responsibilities, like caring and financially providing for family, that can be a challenge.
âTaking an enormous salary cut or quitting your job outright,â to make it through college faster, âis not something that everybody is in a financial position to do,â said Klein-Collins.
Both she and Reed advise adults heading to college think about what they can do realistically to get through school as fast as possible, while also keeping in mind that they may still need to keep their full-time job or, at minimum, reduce their hours to part-time.
Have a support system at home
Both experts and students say having the support of family members and friends is crucial to finishing college as an adult. For Washington, who is the primary caregiver for her mother, that meant working with her family to take on some of that responsibility. âOther people have stepped up to help,â she said.
In fact, the support of her family is part of what encouraged Washington to head back to school. It was one of her siblings who first let her know, via text, about the Warrior Way Back program. âThey were in agreement with me going back,â she said.
âA lot of people have a fear of being the only adult in the room, but I think if they show up at most public colleges theyâll find out very quickly that thatâs not true.â
Have a support system at school
Reed suggests adult students find a point of contact at their school who they can talk with about any challenges â academic, logistical or otherwise â they come up against.
âGlitches happen and itâs easy to lose hope,â he said. âFolks within institutions have seen stuff before and so something that might seem overwhelming if youâve never seen it before, to someone who has been around the block is not that big a deal.â
Finding a point of contact at the university is particularly important for students who decide to pursue their degree solely or mostly online, Reed said. Having âat least one point of human contactâ can help students studying online if they get stuck or lost in the course, he said.
Support can also come from fellow students. Washington is still getting used to building relationships and study groups with students who are decades her junior. In the meantime, sheâs been able to connect and study with students closer to her age.
Reed said thatâs likely to be the case for many adults returning to school or attending for the first time. âA lot of people have a fear of being the only adult in the room, but I think if they show up at most public colleges theyâll find out very quickly that thatâs not true,â he said.
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