College  |  August 17, 2020  |  Connor Peoples

Undergrad or Grad: Here’s How Adult Learners Can Earn Their Next Degree

What you'll learn
  • How to adjust to going back to school
  • Resources for adult learners
  • Ways to pay for school

Gone are the days where the “typical” college student is a recent high school grad. Adult learners — or students aged 25 or older — are starting to occupy a significant portion of the overall higher education student population. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 7.4 million students enrolled in college in the fall of 2019 were 25 years old or older. Whether your goal is to finish your degree, gain credentials to embark on a new professional journey, or earn an advanced degree, if you’re an adult looking to hit the books, you’re not alone.

Below are some tips to help you dive back into your higher education journey.

Tips for completing your undergraduate degree

Maybe you suffered a job loss, a family tragedy, or lacked the funds to help you complete your degree. Or maybe you put college on pause to pursue a good job that didn’t require further education. Life happens. If you’re thinking about going back to school, it doesn’t matter if you’re 30, 50, or 70 years old. It’s never too late to finish your undergraduate degree.

Use some of these tips to help you earn that college diploma:

1. Find a school that fits your needs

Now that you’re a little older than you were when you first started your courses, your needs may have changed. Maybe instead of campus benefits, you’re looking for financial aid resources or different learning options. How about evening classes? Or credit for skills you’ve already learned on the job?

There are resources available, like the “Best Colleges for Working Adults” list to help weigh your school options based on criteria like flexible scheduling options, affordability, and much more.

2. Attend orientation

Whether it’s virtual or in-person, an orientation session will help you feel more connected to your school by providing you with the necessary resources and contacts to take your educational experience to the next level, regardless of your age or experience. You’ll learn how to fill out financial aid forms, submit assignments, and even more detailed things like how to connect to campus Wi-Fi, and find out where your classes will be held. If you have children or grandchildren, orientation is the perfect time to also learn about your school’s childcare options.

At some schools, you’ll be introduced to your academic advisor during orientation. If possible, take this opportunity to talk to them about your current situation, previous educational experiences, and future goals. Your academic advisor will be able to help you tailor a class schedule that will fit perfectly into your learning style and busy schedule.

3. Develop a plan

As an adult learner, you may have other responsibilities like raising a family, building a business, or caring for a loved one, and it can be hard to find the extra time for schoolwork.

Even if you’re just easing yourself back into the swing of things by taking one class a semester, school can sometimes feel like a part-time job, so it’s important to make it a priority, too. Planning can help. Map out time each day that can be dedicated to school, specifically for attending classes and studying. This might mean reducing some of the time you spend doing things you enjoy, like watching TV, or browsing social media. For the time being, the majority of your free time should be spent with your head in the books to be sure your investment will pay off in the long run.

You also need to make sure you find a reliable place to do your work — or attend class if you’re an online student. This study spot should be quiet, free of distractions, and a place you enjoy. It could be as simple as a corner of your kitchen, your school’s library, or the local coffee shop.

4. Consider online class

The higher education environment is forever evolving. To help accommodate students’ busier schedules, more and more colleges offer online classes. In fact, nearly 7 million students enrolled in distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions last academic year. That number has risen in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, so you can expect colleges to offer even more classes online in the near future.

5. Find your motivation

This is one of my favorite tips. Finding your motivation means searching for the things in life that make get you going. What do you strive to be? What helps you get out of bed in the morning? Some adult learners can experience a sense of anxiety about starting school again. Among other things, they’re worried about being the oldest person in class or not being able to balance their real-world responsibilities and schoolwork. By finding what really motivates you early in your back-to-school journey, you’ll be able to use that as a rallying cry when you start to feel discouraged about returning to school.

Tips for completing your graduate degree

You’ve graduated from college with your undergraduate degree. You’ve worked in your respective field for a number of years. And now, you’ve come to the conclusion that you’re ready to take your academic and professional career to the next level. Graduate school is the perfect way to invest in your future, get noticed in today’s job market, and advance your professional network.

Here are some tips to help you navigate through grad school.

1. Research different funding options

Some of us may still being paying back student loans from our undergraduate degree, and that’s okay. There are a variety of different options to pay for graduate school. For example, Sallie Mae’s Graduate School Scholarship Search has free access to nearly 1 million graduate scholarships, worth up to $1 billion. That’s 1 million scholarships specifically for graduate students that are potentially free for the taking!

Does your company offer any tuition reimbursement programs? If you’re not sure, ask. This is a great way to earn extra $$$ toward your degree. Some schools will even let you defer your tuition payments until after you receive your grades, so your employer has time to reimbursement your expenses. That means, as long as you’re getting good grades, you potentially won’t have to pay anything or as much out of pocket.

There are also tax credits and benefits available, too. Grad students with qualified tuition reductions do not have to report the value of the reduction as taxable income. Tuition waivers may be taxable above a certain limit and not all employment types qualify, so you should still consult with your school to see if your waiver is reportable as income.

2. Network, network, and network some more

When you’re completing your graduate degree, nearly all of your classmates have some of the same goals as you. They are willing to learn and eager to succeed. Find yourself a study buddy, or a small study group, to help you prepare for class assignments and exams. Use group projects or your free time before and after class to get to know your classmates. You never know, you could be in class with someone who can help connect you to your next job.

Don’t be afraid to network with your professors, too. Professors are experts in their respective fields and can be a wealth of knowledge. Visit their office hours, schedule a video chat if you’re an online student, invite them to coffee or lunch, or engage in brief conversations after class. Professors enjoy teaching — that’s why they’re in the business in the first place. They may be happy to offer their guidance on any number of different topics.

Even if you decide to pursue your graduate degree online, you can utilize your class discussion boards and virtual meetings to advance your professional network.

3. Become an expert in prioritization

Procrastination in grad school won’t do you any favors. Just like undergrad, you’ll need to map out a schedule for each class, and develop a schedule for your job, too.

Find out your key dates early. When is your first exam? When are midterms? Do you have a capstone project due? How often does your professor assign homework? Keep track of work deadlines, too.

By figuring out your professional and academic workload early in your semester, you’ll be able to prioritize your time each day to devote specific time slots to your job, your schoolwork, and even to life’s other needs, like friends and family.

4. Make time for yourself

For some of us that are always on “go,” this may be harder than it sounds. Balancing a job and schoolwork, among other activities and responsibilities, can be taxing on your body and cause increased amounts of stress. Stress can lead to fatigue, procrastination, or even failure.

To avoid burnout, try setting aside time each week to focus on yourself. Even if it’s just a short walk outside, or watching a few episodes of your favorite show, putting a focus on your health will pay dividends throughout your academic and professional career.

5. Don't hesitate to ask for help

If you want to become a “master” of anything, you will be challenged. At times, grad school may feel overwhelming, and that’s okay. You’re not alone and you’re certainly not the first to balance grad school with other responsibilities. If you’re feeling stuck, talk to your classmates, recent graduates, faculty, or even your coworkers that have advanced degrees. They may be able to share some tricks that helped them succeed.

Whether your graduate program is online or in-person, most schools offer study help. And, in some cases, tutoring can be free. Additionally, the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students offers a variety of different tips on their website. From study help, to resume pointers, and finding scholarships and fellowships, they showcase a number of different useful resources.

With the right resources, and a positive mindset, you’ll be able to breeze through college like a true scholar!

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

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