Adult learners account for 40% of postsecondary students. While a returning student is anyone who has experienced some postsecondary education and wants to return to school for more, adult students are typically defined as those who are older than 25 years old. Adult students can also be returning students; the two are not mutually exclusive. In literature, returning and adult students are considered “nontraditional” because they aren’t 18-year-olds fresh out of high school and attending college for the first-time. This designation as “nontraditional” doesn’t mean much these days. The number of adult students increased 42% between 2000 and 2010 and adult students are projected to account for 61% of all students by 2019.


Benefits of Returning to School

Going to college as an adult is no different from going straight to college from high school, except that you’ve gained more life experience. All students, no matter their ages, gain access to unique opportunities while they’re at school: theater, comedy shows, famous guest lecturers, well-learned professors, the library, and sporting events. Of course, there may be fewer extracurricular experiences if you are considering an online-only or vocational program, but the idea is the same.

School exists not only to help you learn the subject matter, but to help you grow as a person and enjoy your time there. As a returning or adult student, you may be nervous but you have already developed the skills that you need to be successful in school: time management, independence, patience, and attention to detail. All that’s left is to find a program that works for you. Below are some common ways returning to college works for adults.

You can study on your time.

Adults lead busy lives between travel, work, and familial obligations. This shouldn’t impede anyone who wants to return to school, however, and it doesn’t. There are options to earn your degree completely online (working from home at your convenience), take only evening or morning classes, or be a part-time student. Just because you have a life outside of school doesn’t mean that you can’t further your education to improve job prospects, get a promotion, or just to learn for the sake of learning. You can schedule any courses that you need or want to take around your work schedule or a child’s daycare schedule. You may elect to take classes only in the summer. Though this will increase the length of your program, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that neither your home life nor your academics will suffer.

You can change your field.

Obviously, returning to school isn’t something that anyone does on a whim. It’s expensive and time consuming. Make sure that you want to go back to school for the right reasons: a new credential that will help further your career or a degree in a new field that will open up new opportunities.

If your current job is no longer fulfilling, returning to school for a subject in which you’re interested can make your work life more interesting. Since most people spend at least 40 hours at work each week, having a job that actually interests you is crucial. Not only will your productivity increase, but also your quality of life. Dreading going to work every day does not help you focus on your happiness, and not only you, but your family suffers as well.

By getting a certificate or degree in a new field, you have the chance to start over in something meaningful. You don’t necessarily have to spend four years studying, either. Depending on your professional interests, you may only need a certificate or an associate’s degree. Vocational programs last anywhere from a few months to two years, and associate’s degrees take only two years to earn. By 2025, U.S. employers will need 23 million more degree-holders than colleges are expected to produce. Depending on whether you study full-time or part-time, you could be starting your new career before the seasons change, and the job market should be ripe with opportunities.

Education Level Weekly Earnings
Less than high school $504
High school diploma $692
Some college $756
Associate’s degree $819
Bachelor’s degree $1,156
Master’s degree $1,380
Professional degree $1,745

You can make more money.

The simple fact of the matter is this: People who have more education earn more money. There is a direct correlation between education level and average salary. This makes sense, because the jobs you could work as a high school student are vastly different from many of the jobs that are open to professionals in their fields. Take nursing, for example. There are different levels of nursing. A nursing assistant makes approximately $27,650 annually and only needs a high school diploma. A registered nurse, however, makes over $69,000 each year and must have a bachelor’s degree. The salaries are vastly different and reflect the amount of training that is necessary for each profession. Returning to school to complete a degree or certification is one way to increase your monthly paycheck. The chart illustrates the differences in education and earnings for people over the age of 25 who were employed full-time in 2016.

Other Things to Consider Before Returning to School

Every person has a different family situation, different work obligations, and a different financial situation. This means that the decision to return to school is one that only you can make, in conjunction with your family, if you have one. Consider which of the following points are applicable to your life when making the decision to return to college.

How will you balance your obligations?

As an adult student, you have more on your plate than the average 18-year-old college student. You may have a job and a family, both things that need plenty of your attention. When you are deciding if you should return to school, be aware that full- or part-time school, a full-time job, and a family will be hard to balance. Something doesn’t necessarily have to give, but you will need to become an expert at balance.

Find the balance between commitments that you already have and commitments that you are planning on making. If you have a rigid work schedule, realize that you will have to study around your job. Errands may have to all be done on the weekends instead of during the week. If you have children, are you planning on enrolling them in school or daycare, or are they so young that you or another person will always need to be around? Some schools offer child care services for parents who are also students; look for schools with this option if it will be necessary for your family.

How will you manage your time?

Try to plan out your entire schedule before applying for and enrolling in classes. How many credits are necessary to complete your degree or certificate? Will you have to retake any classes? Will you be enrolling on a full- or part-time basis? You need to determine how many years it will take you to complete your degree. Are you willing to sacrifice this time with your family to complete your education? Can you afford to leave the workforce or reduce your hours to part-time for the duration of your degree or certificate program? If a full-time class schedule is not feasible with your current lifestyle and work habits, consider extending the length of your program so that you can continue to fulfill your current obligations.

Will your finances allow you to go back to school?

If you don’t already have one, it’s time to make a household budget. What are your sources of income, and will you have to give them up when you return to school? Will you work part-time instead of full-time? Once you know what you have coming in, you’ll also need to calculate your expenses. How much does your rent or mortgage cost each month? About how much do you spend on utilities, groceries, date nights, clothing, transportation, and on your children or pets? Ideally, your monthly income will be higher than your monthly expenses, or at least they balance each other out. School costs money, however, and if you’re cutting back on work hours to attend school, your monthly income is also going to suffer.

If you’re returning to school because you’ll get a raise at your job if you’re more qualified or because you want to find a new, higher paying job, you can factor this into your future budget. Will college pay off in the long run? Assuming you work through retirement, will your new salary be enough to pay off your monthly expenses and the cost of college? It’s okay to take out loans for education, especially federal loans from the U.S. Department of Education rather than private loans from a bank. Learn more about repaying federal loans and the different repayment plans that are offered to students here.

Loans aren’t your only option for financial aid, though, and there is some free money (that doesn’t have to be repaid) out there for students. Federal aid packages are based on financial need, which is the difference between the cost of attending an institution and the amount that you can afford to pay. Fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and have the report sent to the schools you are considering. You’ll receive detailed financial aid offers showing what you qualify for in grants and loans. If you’ve filled out a FAFSA in the past, you know the drill, but the good news is, you may actually qualify for more money as an independent student or as a student with dependents of your own. For more information about applying for federal financial aid, click here.

Page last updated: 07/2017