August means back to school time, and not just for grade schoolers with backpacks filled with new crayons and loose-leaf paper. More and more adults are headed back to school this fall as well. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “nontraditional” (or adult) students make up over half of undergraduate college populations in the United States.

Women back to school

Nontraditional students display qualities that are not typically associated with traditional participation in college: being 25 years or older, having children, being married, working full-time, and/or attending college part-time. Much of these students are women—mothers who are juggling careers and families as they pursue their education as well. Taking the plunge is not an easy decision to make when considering how it will impact other major forces in life, and all options should be weighed with consideration.

Beth Hodges, director of education at Growing Minds Educational Services in Fort Wayne, encourages women returning to college to follow their dreams. “Now that you’ve had life experience it puts you at an advantage to really do what you love,” she said.

She is self-directed + motivated

Nontraditional students usually exhibit characteristics that set them apart from traditional collegeaged students. Adult learners are assumed to be self-directed in learning, bring along life experiences, prefer task- or problem-centered learning and usually exhibit a relatively high degree of internal motivation (aacu.org).

How does she get started?

At Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne there is a Division of Continuing Studies committed to assisting adults returning to college. They provide adult-friendly services, flexible schedules, professional development programs and a degree completion program—all at an affordable cost (ipfw.edu). Students can create a flexible program that fits their busy lives, including online courses and weekend class options. According to Julie Hook, director of general studies at IPFW, flexibility is key for returning adults. “We have very flexible course options, offering classes during the day, evenings and on weekends,” she said. “There are also online courses and hybrid courses available, where students meet as a class one time, face to face, and the rest of the course is taken online.”

Hook explained that the reason adults return to college varies with each case. “There is usually some type of event that occurs—kids going away to college, a death in the family, a job change—to cause the person to make a decision to go back to school,” she said. Assessing each student’s life and work demands is key in determining the kind of college schedule that will work best for them and life’s demands and responsibilities.

What her class load should look like

“If someone is working a full-time job, we suggest taking just one or two classes at a time to see how that fits into their life,” Hook explained.

Hodges agreed. “Begin slowly with one or two classes, perhaps online, to ease back into it and keep the balance of your life steady,” she advised. “Once you’ve found a career path that is your passion, the balance comes easy.”

What costs should she expect?

Recently, the College Board reported that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college for the 2014–15 academic year averaged $23,410 (collegedata.com). When it comes to the cost of college, there are several financial aid options available for returning adults, the same as for traditional college students. At IPFW and most other institutions, costs are incurred by credit hour. There is usually a minimum hour requirement for a student to be eligible for financial aid. “There are several scholarships available to students, and we have some specifically geared toward adults,” Hook said.

What steps should she take for funding?

Adults who are thinking about going back to college should first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is necessary for all federal grants and loans and federally subsidized work-study jobs (forbes.com). There are also websites like scholarships.com that allow students to search for available scholarships based on gender, age, location and other variables. Many employers also offer their employees financial assistance to further their educations, so it may be worth it to research your employer’s policies.

She must master a balancing act

Once you’ve made the decision to return to school and have determined a plan to pay for it, it’s important to balance the responsibilities of family, children’s schedules, work demands and other factors that come into play. See what works best for you and your family—make sure that your new education endeavor won’t compromise the time and energy you need for your family and work life as well. While it’s important to stay focused on your goals for school, remember the many facets of your life that need just as much attention as college. As Hook mentioned, start slow with a class or two to see how that works in your life. If it’s manageable, add another to your course load next semester. And if it seems like you have too much on your plate, step back and reevaluate your load. Maybe take a semester off to regroup and discuss other options, such as online courses that can be accessed from anywhere.

Tips for Going Back to School

  • Fully research your options
  • Develop a timeline
  • Rely on your support system
  • Make yourself and your goals a priority
  • Be realistic and patient

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