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​​​The Largest FREE Directory of Career Development, Scholarships, Financing Resources and Educational Information!

Returning to College

Look into getting a General Educational Development (GED) certificate if you don’t have a high school diploma; try searching online for “GED certificate” and your state’s name.

Research careers and the need for various jobs in the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Or, for an interactive tool, try the U.S. Department of Labor’s career search.
Use College Navigator to find the right school for your career intentions. Get tips on choosing a school.
 Ask employers to recommend schools that provide training in the skills you will need for the career you choose.
Ask your employer if assistance is available to help you pay for school.
Use the U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search to find scholarships.
Apply for federal student aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
Get to know the financial aid staff at the school you plan to attend; they can help you with aid applications and explain the types of aid available.

If School Starts Next Month

Apply for federal, state, and school financial aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
Ask the school you plan to attend what other financial help they can offer you: Do they have last-minute scholarships or payment plans available? Can you get a job on campus?
Be sure to keep in touch with the school regarding any paperwork you need to turn in.

If School Starts Next Week

 Fill out your FAFSA immediately. The site has many options, including live chat with a customer service representative, to assist you as you complete the application.
Talk to the financial aid office staff at the school you plan to attend. Ask whether there are other forms you need to complete, and find out how and when you will receive your financial aid.

What is a Re-entry or Adult Student?
Re-entry or adult students (also called non-traditional students) are generally age 25 or over, with ages ranging from 25 to 69 at many colleges and universities. Re-entry students are often female; but men are returning to college in record numbers to update professional skills and further career advancement. Some may never have attended college or started college and then stopped because of personal, financial, or other reasons. Many have spent time in the workforce, the military, or in raising a family, and want to go back to fulfill lifelong dreams or potential. Some are retired while others are single parents looking to achieve a better life. (The Department of Education recently reported that 13 percent of students now enrolled in college were single parents, up from 7.6 percent in 1993.) Economic reasons are a strong factor: students want to change careers or update professional credentials. Some adult students continue to work while returning to school while others attend part-time. It is never too late to go back to school. You may be just starting a degree program, returning to finish a degree, seeking a second degree or an advanced degree, or taking courses for occupational or personal enrichment.

Should I Go Back to College?
Millions of adult students successfully return to college to obtain a degree. However, they often have numerous responsibilities to consider when making the decision. These responsibilities can include marriage, children, work, community obligations, or care of elderly parents. The time and commitment needed to complete a degree program and balance these responsibilities can be a challenge.

Adults can also be concerned about fitting in with the younger, "traditional" students, or that they may be "too old." However, so many adults are returning to college that they are no longer being considered "non-traditional" students. Recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that adult students are the fastest growing educational demographic, and these numbers are steadily increasing. In 1970, 28 percent of all college students were 25 years of age or older. In 1998 the number of adult learners had increased to 41 percent. The number of students age 35 and older in degree-granting institutions has soared from about 823,000 in 1970 to an estimated 2.9 million in 2001 — doubling from 9.6% of total students to 19.2%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The Institute for Higher Education Policy reports that students aged 40 and older increased by 235 percent from 1970 to 1993. (Life After Forty: A New Portrait of Today's - and Tomorrow's - Postsecondary Students.) The Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education (ANTSHE) reports that students who are over 25 make up 47 percent of the new and returning student population on many of today's college campuses.

With increased longevity and an unstable economic future, more adults 55 to 79 are determining what they want to do in the upcoming years. The American Council on Education report, Framing New Terrain: Older Adults & Higher Education, shows more older adults are starting to return to college, pursue new career directions, start new businesses, and realize lifelong dreams. (For more inspiring information on these trends, please see our Special Reports section.)

The good news is, going back to college has never been easier. Many colleges and universities offer re-entry student services and campus childcare centers, and flexible course scheduling with classes one night per week, on the weekends, or in accelerated format. Students can now complete their degree program online on the Internet or through computer multi-media, broadcast television or correspondence courses. Statistics from the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) show nearly four million students taking college courses through distance education. (For more information, see Online Education Gets Accolades, How Do Employers View Online Degrees, Tackling Online Degree Programs, and Should You Get Your Degree Through Distance Learning, which includes tips on how to choose a distance learning program.)

Do I Really Need a College Degree?
That would depend on personal career goals, but in general the higher the education, the higher the salary, and the better the career options and security. According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual income for employees with a high school diploma was only $27,915; for a bachelor’s degree $51,206. Individuals with only a high school diploma were twice as likely to be unemployed as those holding bachelor’s degrees. Those without a high school diploma averaged a yearly income of just $18,734.

Individuals who earn a master's or doctoral degree received an annual average of $74,602 or more. Over a lifetime, the gap in earning potential between the high school graduate and those holding a bachelor's degree or higher exceeds $1 million, according to the College Board.

Statistics project that 75 percent of future positions are expected to require at least some type of certification or licensure, and professions that require a bachelor’s degree are projected to grow nearly twice as fast as the national average, making a college degree a good investment. Many adults find they need a college degree to enter their career of choice or for increased earning potential or advancement. Others are in career transition or find themselves back in the workforce because of divorce or economic conditions. With advancing technology and changing economic and employment conditions, many adults are experiencing an increasing demand to develop or update their knowledge and skills. (For more information on employment projections, see Career Planning.)

It is important to note that not all adults need to pursue a college degree. Certificate programs and vocational training can often provide the necessary professional training and expertise.

What Would I Earn with a College Degree?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the average full-time employee with a bachelor's degree earned approximately $53,300 a year, sixty-one percent more than an employee with a high school diploma or GED, with comparative yearly earnings of $32,552. Employees with a bachelor's degree also had a lower unemployment rate than individuals with a high school diploma (5.2 percent to 9.7 percent).

Educational Level
Median Weekly Earnings
Doctoral degree
Professional degree
Master's degree
Bachelor's degree
Associate degree
Some college, no degree
High-school graduate
Less than a high school diploma
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Education Pays 2010

How Much Will it Cost to Go Back to School?
The College Board reported average college costs for 2011-12 as follows:

Annual Tuition and Fees
Two Year Public College or University
Four Year Public College or University
Four Year Private College or University

Here's the good news: the majority of students receive some type of financial aid. In 2010-11, the average amount of aid given a full-time undergraduate was $12,455 (including over $6,500 in grants or gift aid.) For more information, see The College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2011 and Trends in Student Aid 2011.Can I Afford to Go to College?
To get an idea of how much it will cost to attain your degree, choose three of the schools you are most interested in and input the required data in the Institutional Cost of Attendance Worksheet. To find each individual college profile, use the free College Search provided by the College Board.

How Long Will it Take to Complete My Degree?
That depends on your academic goals. A certificate program for a specialized field or career (non-college credit or credit) generally takes one year. Examples of certificate programs are in the culinary arts, computer technology, childhood education, emergency medical technicians, office administration, pharmacy technician, real estate, teacher's aide, tourism, travel. (See Online Courses and Certificate Programs and Certificate Programs: College's Best Kept Secret for some examples.

An associate’s degree requires 60 credits and takes two years for full-time students to complete. A bachelor’s degree (120 credits) generally takes four years, but can be accelerated through several academic options.

I Don't Think I Can Afford College or Won't Be Able to Work and Attend Class at the Same Time.
Adult students have many options for financing their degree along with increasing academic flexibility. A first step is to visit the colleges or universities you are interested in attending and request a college catalog. Often classes are scheduled that enable students to attend classes at night and on the weekends, or programs are offered in accelerated format. Many colleges also offer programs via broadcast television, the Internet, multi-media, and video conferencing. (Please see Degree Programs for a directory of degree programs, traditional and distance.)

For help with tuition costs, many companies have tuition assistance programs or special scholarships for employees. To maximize your chances for aid, visit the financial aid office of your college to find out what grants, scholarships, low interest loans, co-operative education programs, tuition payment plans, and work-study opportunities are available. You can also research scholarships in libraries or through scholarship search services on the Internet, and take advantage of education tax credits such as the Hope Scholarship Credit and the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit. We have compiled a special report on associations, organizations and programs that especially assist the adult returning to college. Visit our Financial Aid section for more information about these resources and options. Some great tips on time management are also available.

What is the G.E.D.? If I Only Have My G.E.D. Can I Still Attend College? Where Can I Find my G.E.D. Transcripts?
The G.E.D., or General Education Development Test, certifies that the student has attained high school-level academic skills. 97 percent of colleges accept a G.E.D. diploma as equivalent to a high school diploma for admission purposes. For information on getting your G.E.D. or high school diploma, see Adult Education.

Need to find your G.E.D. transcripts? Information is available from the General Educational Development Testing Service.

Can I Attend College Part-time, or Do I Have to Go Full-time to Get Financial Aid?
There is no minimum course load; you can register for as many or as few classes as you like. Part-time students are also available for financial aid (however, the amount awarded depends upon the number of units being taken.)

I Doubt I Qualify for Financial Aid. Should I Still Apply?
Yes, you should! Never assume you don't qualify for financial aid. Many adult students believe they don't qualify and miss out on many sources of aid, including grants and low interest loans that are offered regardless of grade point average, financial need, or credit history. Most federal and state aid programs don't have age limits, although some scholarship programs might. For financial aid based on low income, all that is necessary is to demonstrate financial need, and some of the most eligible students are single parents. Also, it isn't necessary to be admitted to a college or university before you can apply for financial aid. Submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form as soon as possible after January 1 (don't wait until you complete your tax return, but use estimates of income.) Any errors can be corrected later, and most states need to receive the FAFSA by March 1 to qualify for state aid. (For information on how to apply for financial aid, or obtain and complete the FAFSA online, visit our Financial Aid section.)

What is College Accreditation, and Why is it Important?
Accreditation is a voluntary, independent review of educational programs to determine that the education provided is of uniform and sound quality. Being awarded accreditation ensures that an institution has been evaluated and that it met set standards of quality determined by the accrediting organization granting the accreditation. A college or university's accreditation is maintained by continued adherence to the set criteria. The most recognized type of accreditation in the United States is regional accreditation, in which a school is accredited by one of six geographically dispersed agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). (For more information, see the Accreditation FAQ. )

Can I Get Financial Aid for Distance Education?
If taking distance or online classes as part of a program at a traditional, regionally accredited institution, you will be assisted by the Federal and state financial aid received for the full program. If it's an online only program offered by a traditional institution, you may be eligible for federal assistance. For more information, see the Financial Aid FAQ. For additional questions about distance education, please see Should You Get Your Degree Through Distance Learning?, Online Education Gets Accolades and How Do Employers View Online Degrees?

I Want to Return to College, but am Not Sure Which College to Attend or What Career or Degree to Pursue. Where Do I Start?
To start on a program to earn a college degree, or to complete a course of study, you need to:

a. Take inventory. How many college credits do you have? What non-credit courses did you take? What are your skills? Even if the subjects don't seem applicable to a major, they might count as elective credits toward a degree.

b. Determine your goal. What field of study are you interested in? What kind of degree?

c. Chart your course. Research colleges and universities to find the best program for you, whether it is a traditional campus based program, a campus and distance based program, or full distance degree.

d. Outline your academic plan (each step to your goal.) What do you need to do? Transfer credits? Take remedial courses or exams? Have experience evaluated?

For more information, see Going Back to College: Getting Started.

How Do I Find Out What Education/Training I Need for a Specific Career Field?
Look up your chosen field in The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH). It provides educational and training requirements by occupation.

I Have Chosen my Major, but Need More Information on Careers in My Field Once I Graduate. Where Can I Find Information About Careers Related to My Major?
Visit the Career Planning section. It will help you find careers related to your chosen major, and locate employment statistics and salary projections for your selected field of study.

What if I Never Took the ACT/SAT or Had a Low GPA in High School/College?
Usually, adults aren't required to take admissions tests (i.e., the SAT or ACT), although they do need to take graduate admission tests such as the GRE or GMAT if attending graduate school. Many colleges offer a placement test instead of admission test scores for older students, and don't consider high school performance or outdated test scores, especially with transfer students from community colleges. Keep in mind that as a transfer student, most institutions will consider past academic performance and grade point average upon application, and often require a minimum grade point average for acceptance. (For frequently asked questions about the ACT and SAT, including old test scores, see the ACT and SAT Web sites.)

Some students ask if they can begin again with a "clean slate." Most colleges will require a record of previous coursework. If it is not provided by the student, it usually becomes known later (often through the financial aid system) and a student may be dismissed for academic dishonesty. (This issue has also been discussed in our online forums.)

If your past academic history is below par, don't despair. Colleges know that adult students often improve their performance when returning because they take their education seriously and are very motivated. Such students are often given the opportunity for a new beginning. Also, even though you may not have done well in the past, old courses can be a source of college credit to your new degree. Remember that the poor grades themselves won't transfer to the new school—only the credit.

My Skills are a Little Rusty. Where Can I Get Help for English and Math?
Many adults who have been out of school for some time feel they need a refresher in certain subject areas. Most colleges and universities offer learning centers or other academic facilities to help you assess your abilities, and also offer remedial programs that enhance your skills to help you succeed. Many of these programs are available on campus or online and through distance education.

Can I Keep Up with the Younger Students?
Adults are generally very motivated and view the college experience as a wonderful learning opportunity as well as a chance to fulfill their goals, whether it be personal enrichment or professional advancement. They usually want to get the most from their investment. Professors also enjoy and welcome the adult's student's input and experience in classroom interactions. Not only do adult student's "keep up", they are excelling in their studies. For more information, see the Special Reports and Features sections.

“Re-entry students are among the most motivated students. They want to contribute to the world in ways that utilize their talents and enable them to earn a living for their families, and they know from life experience the importance of education in obtaining these goals. Despite (their many) challenges, they often impress with their commitment and often perform at a higher level than other students." - Corinne Miller, University of California Santa Cruz director of Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students (STARS).

If I Begin a Program, Can I Take a Leave of Absence?
Some institutions have a policy requiring continuous enrollment, but many will give a leave of absence if needed. Adult students, balancing work and family, often find that they cannot attend every semester. Find out about your chosen college's policy.

The Admissions Office Says I Need a Transcript to Be Admitted. How Do I Get It?
As a transcript is a record of previous academic work, you need to contact the high school or previous college(s) attended and request that an official copy be sent to the admissions office of the new college or university. If the school or college you attended in the past is closed down, another school or state agency is storing your records. Call your state's higher education agency to assist you.

How Can I Translate International Higher Education Credits or Degrees into United States Equivalencies?
There are several services that evaluate international credits or degrees to U.S. equivalencies. The major services are AACRA0's International Education Services and World Education Services.

If I Work Full/Part-Time, How Many Courses/Credit Hours Should I Take a Semester?
A full-time college course load is generally 12 hours, though some students take up to 18 credit hours. Part-time study is generally 1 to 11 credit hours. Students are advised to study independently three hours a week for each credit hour. When you first begin (your first semester back), it is a good idea to attend only part-time. This will help you determine if pursuing a college degree is what you really want without committing a lot of of time and expense. According to Laurie DeFiore (, the number one cause of failure for adults returning to school is taking on too much. Many adults decide they want to go back to college and enroll in a full schedule, only to become overwhelmed with the responsibilities of family, school, and work. Consider taking only one to two classes to start to give yourself time to refresh study skills and get used to being in an classroom environment.

In regards to the the number of credit hours to take when working, these guidelines provided by colleges may be helpful:

Number of Work Hours Per Week Credit Hours Per Semester
Less than 20 hours 12-18
20 6-12
30 3-9
40 3-6

I've Heard About Getting Credit for Life or Work Experience and Testing. How Does That Work?
Many institutions grant credit through standardized exams. Exams such as CLEP or DANTES may be taken in several subject areas and students gain credit when they are successfully passed. Some colleges also grant credit for life or work experience, often termed "life experience credit". This normally involves compiling a portfolio that demonstrates the student has mastered the principles taught in a course. Colleges are guided by college credit recommendations made by the American Council on Education and the National Program on Noncollegiate Sponsored Instruction.

If you have accumulated a lot of credits from several institutions but haven't attained a degree, look into an external degree program. You can transfer in a large portion of your coursework, reducing the time it takes to get a degree. See Credit Options and Accelerate Your Degree Plan for more information about these options.

How Can I Locate Distance or Online Programs?
- Check your local college or university. A large percentage of colleges and universities are now offering expanded distance opportunities, including courses through broadcast television, the Internet, and correspondence. Taking distance courses through a local school is also more affordable as state tuition is usually less expensive that out-of-state tuition. To further lower tuition costs, check program offerings at public institutions first, then private universities.

- Browse our directory of degree programs, where you'll find resources to help you locate traditional or distance programs, including online degrees and online courses and certification. College Connection is a unique database of the top distance programs that provide American Council on Education college level credit for life experience and credit by examination.

- Search the Internet, specifying online or distance degree programs and the type of program you are looking for; i.e., a bachelor's degree in business administration.

- Browse distance and online education print directories. There are many of these guidebooks in print providing detailed information on schools, including admissions and financial aid information. You can view some of the most popular books in Bestselling Guides for Adults Returning to College and featured throughout the Website.

(For additional help in selecting a distance program, see Should You Get Your Degree Through Distance Learning? and Tackling Online Degree Programs.)

Will an Employer Accept a Distance or Online Degree Program?
If you choose a regionally accredited degree program, there should be no questions regarding the credibility of your degree. Most schools don't differentiate between degrees earned on-campus and degrees earned through distance learning. With increasing technology and the growing number of distance and online programs being made available, including those from schools like the University of Irvine and DePaul University, you probably will not have any problems with a degree received from a distance program. (See also, How Do Employers View Online Degrees? and Online Education Gets Accolades.)

I Have Been Out of College For Several Years. How Do I Get Letters of Recommendation?
Try to receive a letter of recommendation from a professor or advisor who knew you well during college. If you don't have this resource, professional recommendations from your employer or other sources are also acceptable. Submitting a recommendation from a family member or friend should be your last option.

How Do I Calculate My Grade Point Average (GPA)?
Your grade point average (GPA) is calculated by dividing the total amount of grade points earned by the total amount of credit hours attempted. (For example: A=4 grade points; B=3 grade points; C=2 grade points; D=1 grade point.) For a handy online tool to find your current and cumulative GPA, check out our GPA Calculator.

I Attended College a Long Time Ago. Are My Credits Still Good?
Some colleges have a time limit for transferring credits from other institutions, while others have no time limit as long as you passed the course. The answer depends upon your academic major and the university you want to attend, but usually most courses (core curriculum required of all majors such as English, History, Math, and general Science) will not need to be repeated. However, programs that have changed significantly over the years because of technology and other advances (i.e., Computer Science, Engineering, and similar disciplines), may require an upgrade of skills. Have your transcript submitted for evaluation by an admissions counselor and get a credit evaluation. As the number of adults going back to school after 10 or 15 years is large and continues to grow, universities are more accustomed to accommodating these requests. For more information on transferring old college credits, see Getting Full Credit and Roll the Credits.

I Have a Bachelor's Degree, and Am Thinking about Attending Graduate School. However, I Have a Low G.P.A. How Can I Overcome This Handicap?
Although a student's GPA is found to be the most reliable predictor of success in graduate school, most universities have multiple criteria for acceptance. Admissions officers often look past GPAs to student essays, faculty recommendations, interviews, and standardized tests. If you have a low G.P.A. (below the minimum admission requirements), you need to counteract not having a high G.P.A. by scoring high on the GRE and other admissions testing, providing strong faculty recommendations, and having employment, volunteer, or internship experience in your field of study.

It'll Take Me Forever to Get a Degree, So at My Age, Why Try?
Read our inspiring feature article, My College Years, if you are attempted to be dissuaded by this thought. All those years are going to pass anyway, so isn't it better to have your degree at the end of them than not? Too, many colleges have accelerated programs that allow students to complete programs in a shorter period of time. You can also shorten the time by receiving college credit for life and work experience, or testing and cooperative education programs, which sometimes provide credit for on the job experience. Our feature articles carry many more stories about successful older students.

Where Can I Find Reviews Submitted by Students that have Already Taken a Specific Course and/or with a Specific Professor?
Public forums inviting feedback on student's experiences can be found on sites such as Rate My Professors and ProfEval.

I Would Like to Find a Traditional Program with a High Ratio of Nontraditional Students.
For adult students looking for a traditional on-campus program, check out Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students by Carole Fungaroli. Fungaroli writes from her own unique experience as an adult returning student. She has also interviewed scores of adult students at colleges and universities across the country, including the University of California at Berkeley, Smith College, the University of Wisconsin- Madison, Bryn Mawr College, the University of Michigan, and Harvard. Other helpful resources are The Adult Student's Guide by Leigh Grosman and Lesly McBain, detailing more than 600 adult bachelor's degree programs by state.

Many traditional on campus schools offer adult programs within their curriculum. Women's colleges often provide programs targeted to older women going back to school, i.e. Smith College's Ada Comstock Scholars Program, Wellesley College's Davis Degree Program in Massachusetts, and Bryn Mawr College's Katherine McBride Scholars Program in Pennsylvania.

For a directory of tools to help you locate programs see the Degree Programs section.

Are There Any Services or Organizations Especially for Adult Students? What About Child Care?
Many institutions have reentry centers, special programs, and support services for adults, and colleges often offer child care facilities at lower rates. Be sure to take full advantage of these services as they are designed to provide counseling and help meet the special needs of older students. An example of this is Penn State University's Student Affairs Center for Adult Learner Services. The center provides information about campus services, child care, financial aid, programs for adult learners, and many other helpful resources. And because of the rising need for child care services on college campuses, Congress has approved a significant increase in program funding that provides child care for single parents in financial need. The Child Care Access Means Parents In Schools (CCAMPIS) budget rose in 2001 to $25 million from $5 million in the year 2000. In its first two years, CCAMPIS supported child care centers at 87 colleges, and includes nearly 300 additional college programs. In October 2001, the U.S. Education secretary launched 222 new grants totaling $10.5 million to assist institutions in providing low-income students (those eligible for Pell Grants) with quality child care. Information on the program and additional resources for child care are available on the Department of Education Web site. (See also, No Kids in Class: The Daycare Dilemma.)

Why are Textbooks so Expensive, and How Can I Reduce the Cost?
The College Board reported that due to the rising costs of textbooks, students spent approximately $853 on college books and supplies in 2004–2005 at public universities, which is nearly a $200 increase within five years. This issue is currently being investigated by policymakers who are seeking to ensure affordability. Methods to reduce costs include buying, renting, or swapping textbooks online, downloading free or viewing digital textbooks, checking the textbook out from the college library, and asking your instructor or professor if you can substitute an older edition of the book or one without any bundled additions, (such as CDs or workbooks). According to studies by the California Student Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), 65 percent of faculty rarely or never use the bundled add-ons in their classes, and many say that the practice of continually issuing new editions is justified “never” to “half the time.” Students are experiencing difficulty finding used textbooks, as expensive new editions are moving older, previous editions off the market. Because it is important to begin your search early to get the best prices, ask your professors before classes start what materials are required, or check your school Web site, as many colleges are providing listings of required course textbooks online. For more information, see Discount Textbooks, Sticker Shock and Textbook Buybacks.