Can I Finish a Degree at a College Years Later?

by Gail Radley
College degrees aren't just for college kids!

While adults readily send their high school grads off to college, they are sometimes hesitant to enroll themselves. Do they still have what it takes? Has education changed too radically for them to catch on? Will they have to begin all over again, even if they began working on a degree years before? They may even wonder if they’ll fit in. In reality, they will have plenty of company. According to Daniel Luzer of Washington Monthly, “nontraditional” students have been the majority since Reagan was in office.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Many 18-year-olds enroll in college because it’s the logical next step; it’s expected of them. They may have a fuzzy idea of their future work or none at all. Often, they are hoping college will help them discover their career goals. Older students, though, generally return because they have a specific goal and college is necessary to achieve it. Professors attest that nontraditionals are often more focused and committed to their coursework. Getting back into study mode may take some adjustment as may new approaches to learning -- the information technology explosion, for example. However, the drive and maturity of older students usually carries them through. And in their anxiety to keep up with their younger counterparts, adult students often surpass them.

Fitting College In

Because nontraditionals make up some 71 percent of the student body, colleges are learning to cater to their needs. Adults are more likely to work, often full-time, be married, and have children. College work is just one of several major priorities. Such students may pursue degrees part time to manage all their responsibilities. As Professor Jovita M. Ross-Gordon, points out in her article on adult learners, "innovative adult learning practices—such as distance learning, accelerated course formats, and prior learning assessment … are increasingly commonplace today in traditional universities.” In addition, there are night classes and online universities.

Credit and Requirements

Chances are previous coursework will take care of some of the general requirements no matter the major. Requirements change, though, and schools have differing requirements, so it’s possible that all previously earned credits may not apply. But though some credits may be lost, others can be gained through life experience. According to Ross-Gordon, the Council on Adult Experiential Learning (CAEL) studied colleges' evaluation process in 2006 and “found that 87 percent of responding institutions accepted College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams, … 70 percent accepted credit for corporate or military training ... and 66 percent made provisions for faculty evaluation of student portfolios demonstrating prior college level learning.”

Financial Aid

Financial aid is not only for the young. According to the Federal Student Aid website, "Your age...won't affect your eligibility for federal student aid." There are also fellowships and scholarships offered for older students. While some schools will offer financial aid only for a first degree, they may make exceptions for a career changes. Although private scholarships are less likely awarded for adults, Pell grants are more likely – and senior citizens often get significantly reduced tuition.

About the Author

From elementary school students to adults, Gail Radley has been teaching since 1991. The author of 21 books for young people, she has also contributed to "NEA Today" among other publications. Radley earned a master’s degree in English.

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