How To Go Back To College: Life Kit "Should I go back to college?" If you're asking yourself this question, here are tips to help you figure out how to do it — whether it's to change jobs, make more money or finish something you started.
NPR logo

Thinking About Returning To College? A Guide For Taking The Leap

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/797273533/797308961" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Thinking About Returning To College? A Guide For Taking The Leap

Thinking About Returning To College? A Guide For Taking The Leap

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/797273533/797308961" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Do you remember a moment for you when you were like, OK, I'm going to go back?

DENISE WHITTAKER: Yes, I do, actually. I felt like it was my birthday present.

NADWORNY: Denise Whittaker's son had just gone off to college. She was living in Philadelphia with her husband and was doing administrative work at an office.

WHITTAKER: I had gotten a call one day at home about going back to school.

NADWORNY: Really? From who?

WHITTAKER: It was a recruiter (laughter). But I felt like it was from the universe because I had already had the thoughts in my mind.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

WHITTAKER: I'm one of those people that think things happen because they should at a certain time in one's life.

NADWORNY: For Denise, returning to college, it wasn't about making money or getting a new job, though she was excited about both of those things. For her, it was personal.

WHITTAKER: I always did want to go back and complete.

NADWORNY: About 30 years earlier, fresh out of high school, she had started college, but it didn't go as planned.

WHITTAKER: I stopped out. I didn't quit. And then life continued.

NADWORNY: She had dropped out because she had gotten really sick. And when she recovered from her illness, she felt like it was time to start making money, so she went to work.

WHITTAKER: Life continues again.

NADWORNY: She got married. She had a son.

WHITTAKER: Life continues.

NADWORNY: The thing is, Denise isn't the only one. Thirty-six million Americans have some college and no degree. Many of them, like Denise, are going back. Nearly 40% of college students today are working adults, and some might be closer to that credential than they realize.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: I'm Elissa Nadworny. I'm reporter here at NPR covering higher education. And this is NPR's LIFE KIT.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: If you've been considering going back to college, think of this episode like the sign from the universe you've been waiting for. Perhaps you're looking to change jobs, to make more money or simply to finish something you started. Maybe there's even a college nearby that you've checked out or you're just starting to explore your options. Wherever you are in your journey, NPR's LIFE KIT is here to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: Three years after that birthday phone call, Denise ended up finishing her bachelor's degree. Today, she works with The Graduate! Network, an organization that helps adults return to college. They call those students comebackers (ph).

WHITTAKER: As a comebacker myself, I do reach back and, you know, use my story as an inspiration.

NADWORNY: She usually starts with her why.

WHITTAKER: When I returned to school, it was personal. It was something that I had started and wanted to complete.

NADWORNY: It's different for everyone, and there's a lot of reasons to go back. So that's takeaway No. 1 - figure out your motivations. Why do you want to get your degree?

WHITTAKER: I've had people say, my supervisor would like to promote me, but I don't have a college degree.

NADWORNY: Higher pay, better jobs - economic reasons drive many people to go back. Research has shown that getting a bachelor's degree means you can earn nearly a million more dollars in a lifetime. Other credentials like an associate's degree or a technical certificate can help you move up or get a different job or change careers completely. If you're returning to school because you want a specific job or because you want to break into a new field, do your research. You want to make sure the school or program you decide on will actually get you where you're trying to go job wise.

Takeaway No. 2 - college might not be as expensive as you think it is.

BECKY KLEIN-COLLINS: If we were to do a word association game with somebody and say, give me the first word that you think of when you hear the word college, there are a lot of people out there that would just say expensive, right?

NADWORNY: That's Becky Klein-Collins. Last year, she was blown away at the number of books that helped high school students think about going to college. But she wondered, where are the books for working adults? So she wrote one.

KLEIN-COLLINS: The book is called "Never Too Late: The Adult Student's Guide To College." And there are a lot of considerations that adult working learners have that a traditional-aged student - someone who's a junior or senior in college - may not have.

NADWORNY: She says, yeah, college can be expensive, but it rarely costs as much as the school's website says it is. That's because most schools and states - even the federal government - they offer lots of ways to pay, through grants, scholarships and loans.

To access much of this money, you have to fill out the FAFSA. That's short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It's the form you fill out to tap into that federal money for college. But many schools and states use it, too, to divvy up their money. When Denise Whittaker meets with her comebackers, the first thing she asks - have you filled out your FAFSA?

WHITTAKER: And if the answer is, no, well, you do that first...

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

WHITTAKER: ...Let's find out what you're eligible to receive to go to school.

NADWORNY: Denise says even if you think you make too much money or if you're sure you don't qualify, fill out the FAFSA anyways.

WHITTAKER: You know, people have this automatic fear. I don't want to do this thing. But now, first thing I tell them is, it's not like it was when you went to school. Now it's all online. We can get it done in 20 minutes.

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Let's take a moment to talk about student loans here. It's commonly referred to the student debt crisis. About 45 million Americans hold more than $1.5 trillion in student debt. And this may make you wary of taking out loans to pay for college. But research has shown that taking out small federal loans can be a good thing because it helps you finish your degree. It allows you to work less, take more classes and, ultimately, graduate, which leads to a higher-paying job.

If you fill out the FAFSA and the amount of money you're offered in financial aid leaves you with a gap that you still have to pay, don't forget about scholarships. There can be some pretty silly ones out there.

WHITTAKER: You can perhaps find a scholarship because you have freckles and red hair...

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

WHITTAKER: ...Or you're seven feet tall and left handed.

NADWORNY: There's even some scholarships specifically for bagpipers.

Takeaway No. 3 - get prepared and set up your network.

WHITTAKER: So I like to tell my comebackers, before you actually start that first day of class, get some things in order at home.

NADWORNY: When Denise went back to school at age 50, she leaned heavily on her family.

WHITTAKER: I had the support of my husband who knew that on nights I had class, don't expect me to cook.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITTAKER: You know, dinner may be leftovers from the day before. But I now have to carve out that little corner in the house for me.

NADWORNY: Remember, your pre-college life, it hasn't changed. You're simply adding on. And that's important because it means, going forward, life will be different. Letting people in on your schedule and asking for help, it can go a long way.

If you're nervous about re-entering the classroom after time away, Denise suggests practice school. Start reading regularly. That's what Denise did to get her brain used to having nightly reading assignments. Maybe taking a math class for the first time in ages is making you super anxious. In that case, try taking a free online course as a refresher. Khan Academy offers a ton of free videos to dip your toes back in.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "WHAT IS A VARIABLE?")

SAL KHAN: Ten plus t, where t represents the tips that we get in an hour. And so then we would say...

WHITTAKER: Go back to the basics to just kind of rejuvenate what's already in your brain, to bring it forward, you know, because it's in there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: One more thing here. If you've tried school before, it's possible that what caused you to stop out in the first place, it might still pop up again - the style of the classroom, the time commitment, the money woes - so it's important to do some introspection. Figure out the strategy for dealing with that stuff again.

Takeaway No. 4 - pick the right school or program.

How do you advise folks to start picking a college or how important is picking a college?

WHITTAKER: Very important, especially for adults.

KLEIN-COLLINS: So, you know, look under the hood.

NADWORNY: Klein-Collins suggests finding out a school's graduation rate and how much their graduates earn after they get their degree. You can find that information and a lot more using the College Scorecard. Just Google College Scorecard and enter the schools you are considering.

KLEIN-COLLINS: And don't sign up for the first college that answers your call.

NADWORNY: Another tip from Klein-Collins - ask a ton of questions upfront.

KLEIN-COLLINS: How do you serve students like me, right? How do you support somebody who is working full time? How do you support somebody who is juggling work and family? Ask those very blunt questions and see what they tell you. If they don't offer ways to support you, you might want to just keep looking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: College marketing or posters on campus, it might make it seem like a lot of schools are designed for students coming from high school. But more and more are thinking about how to better serve working adults.

BUFFY TANNER: Shasta College ACE and BOLD - this is Buffy. How can I help you?

NADWORNY: Shasta Community College, located about 2 1/2 hours north of Sacramento, Calif., is one of those colleges. For a long time, they were focused on those traditional-age students. But when they looked around at the community they were trying to serve, they saw 1 in 3 were adults with some college and no degree. The school, it wasn't doing enough for them.

KATE MAHAR: It's not on the individual that there were systematic barriers that were put in front of them that now we're working really hard to remove.

NADWORNY: That's Kate Mahar, who was part of the team that realized they had to make some big changes.

MAHAR: Classes only offered in the middle of the day when you had to work doesn't work. Changing the schedule from semester to semester so that you have to constantly juggle your schedule for child care and your employers doesn't work.

NADWORNY: The redesign started with class times, moving them to every Tuesday and Thursday night - predictable and good for people working during the day. They shortened the course length to eight weeks. Classes are more intense, but you only take two classes at a time instead of four. They also limited the degrees they offered so they can map out the coursework and guarantee that classes would be available when students needed them. To students who'd been unsuccessful before, their message was, we're sorry. We've changed. Come back.

MAHAR: So we're not just saying, give it another chance and everything's going to be exactly the same. We're saying, we listened. We've evolved. We've adapted services. Give us another chance. The two of us together can get us through.

NADWORNY: The changes at Shasta mean that taking just two classes qualifies you as full-time. That means you get more financial aid. Plus, research has shown if you enroll full-time, you're more likely to finish. Of course, that can be really hard for adults with lives.

TANNER: If you're working full-time and you've got kids and then we say, here; juggle four or five more balls on top of that, basically, it's cruel and inhuman punishment, right?

NADWORNY: That's Buffy Tanner, who runs the program at Shasta. She says if you can't go full-time or you don't have a school nearby like Shasta, then look for schools that offer additional supports for part-timers or work with a counselor to plan out your part-time schedule. Be realistic about the time commitment. We call them two- and four-year degrees, but they rarely actually take just two or four years to earn, especially if you're not a full-time student.

JANET HUBBARD: I knew I wanted this. I've wanted it for 20 years.

NADWORNY: Janet Hubbard was one of those returning adults Shasta College was looking for. She'd lived in the area with her husband and kids. She tried college a few times, and it was always in the back of her mind that she wanted to finish.

HUBBARD: I always kept telling myself, oh, until this happens, until this happens, until this happens. And there's always something that's going to happen.

NADWORNY: But when she came to Shasta and enrolled in their program for working adults, it was different. She had a plan. She knew where she'd be every Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. for two years. She could do that.

HUBBARD: It was almost - it was a relief because I could see - like, I knew when it was going to be over. I knew there was an end point. It's easier to get yourself motivated when you have that plan.

NADWORNY: The other thing that surprised her - her classes were full of students like her, working adults. She wasn't the oldest person in the class.

HUBBARD: For students, do not feel that you're alone in this process, especially for returning students. And it is a trend. It is - we're actually - you know, we're trending right now. The working adult, we are trending - going to back to school and getting our degree.

NADWORNY: If you're thinking about taking classes online, some schools will offer sample classes, so you can try it out and see if you like it.

Takeaway No. 5 - get credit for what you've done. You may be way closer to that degree than you think. Maybe you've had a previous college experience, or you were in the military, or you got a job where you've been a leader and you've grown and mastered skills. You can get college credit for all of that. Let's start first with the college classes you've got under your belt. You've paid for them, and you've learned something, so they should count. To get credit, go back to the schools you've attended in the past and request a transcript. That's a piece of paper that lists the classes you've taken, how many credits they were worth and how you did in them. Bring the transcript with you when you're inquiring upon starting up again.

KLEIN-COLLINS: If at all possible, you should really try to find a college that is going to recognize that learning and award you the credit and make that credit count towards the degree you now are wanting to pursue.

NADWORNY: Is there an expiration date on transcripts?

KLEIN-COLLINS: There can be. There can be.

NADWORNY: Some classes like English or math, they haven't changed much over time. But health care classes or computer science classes, they're constantly evolving, so you might have a harder time getting those courses to count now. And don't forget the learning you've done working and living. Becky Klein-Collins calls this the college of life.

KLEIN-COLLINS: Think about the college of life as being something that, you know, you've learned from and that you have gained some valuable experience that you may not even realize is relevant to what you'll be learning in the classroom.

NADWORNY: Colleges and universities have all sorts of methods to award credit for what you already know. They use a bunch of names, like prior learning assessment, credit for prior learning or recognition of learning. One more consistent method is something called the CLEP test. That's spelled C-L-E-P. They're standardized tests administered by the College Board in all sorts of college classes. Nearly 3,000 schools except CLEP credit. And the test, which costs less than a hundred dollars, can be far more economical than taking a full-semester class. In addition to CLEP, many colleges allow you to submit presentations, essays or a portfolio documenting what it is that you know and can do.

KLEIN-COLLINS: And along those lines are all the credit that you could be earning if you have had some military service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We understand the unique needs of military service members, veterans and their families. You'll find affordable, flexible, convenient degrees and certificates that can help you turn your military experience into college credit.

KLEIN-COLLINS: Because there's a lot of military training that is provided in the armed forces just as part of your regular duties.

NADWORNY: If you've been in the military, you can request a joint services transcript. It essentially translates your military experience and training into civilian language. About 2,300 colleges and universities use it to award college credit. In addition, lots of schools and states offer resources for veterans and active-duty military. The state of Tennessee just launched what they call a service member opportunity portal, where you can see what colleges in the state offer credits for your specific service.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: Is it just, like, smooth sailing from there?

WHITTAKER: Of course not.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

WHITTAKER: I had, you know, nights - what am I doing? Why did I get myself into this? Was I crazy (laughter)? But then I say, OK, you're here now. You might as well finish.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

Takeaway No. 6 - it's OK if the plan changes.

WHITTAKER: Nothing ever is smooth sailing, right? You're going to hit some bumpy roads along the way. But if it's what you want to do, regardless of the bumps, you know, you just keep pushing through it.

NADWORNY: She remembers nights staying up until the wee hours of the morning writing papers and then, a few hours later, heading into work. In those moments, she'd think back to her younger self out partying with friends, and she'd smile.

WHITTAKER: And I figured, well, if you did it then...

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

WHITTAKER: ...You know, and sometimes you ended up with a hangover, you might as well do this and end up with a degree.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

When memories or logic games failed her, she'd read herself a quote she once read in a book.

WHITTAKER: Within every adversity, there is a seed of an equivalent or better.

NADWORNY: She'd repeat that over to herself like a mantra.

WHITTAKER: It got me through the bad time because I knew that, OK, I'm getting through this bad time, but something good is still on the other side. It's not going to last forever.

NADWORNY: For Janet Hubbard, being able to see the finish line, having a plan - it kept her motivated.

HUBBARD: It's like taking a road trip, you know? You have your GPS from here to wherever you're going. And then all of a sudden, you're 300 miles in, and then there's an accident. They have a detour. All right, well, let's take that detour.

NADWORNY: And when a problem arises that's just too big or too disruptive to fix with a reroute or a poem in a book, Denise tells her comebackers it's OK to take time off.

WHITTAKER: I encourage them to take the time away from school because I don't want to set someone up for failure because your focus is not going to be on school. When you can put your focus back on that ultimate graduation day, then come back to it. It's not going anywhere.

NADWORNY: If you have to leave school even for just one semester, be sure to tell the right people. You want to make sure your leave is documented so you don't get charged or have any outstanding classes or grades on your record. You can work with a counselor to make sure you have a plan or even a class schedule for when you return.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: Janet Hubbard went on to complete her associate's degree from Shasta. She's now working on her bachelor's degree online. Her final piece of advice - don't let anyone tell you you aren't college material.

HUBBARD: It's OK to be afraid. You have to take that leap of faith. You have to go for it because if you want it, then it's up to you. Nobody else is going to make it happen except for you. You have to be willing to work for it.

NADWORNY: OK, let's recap. Takeaway No. 1 - figure out why you want to go back. Takeaway No. 2 - college is not as expensive as you might think. Takeaway No. 3 - get prepared, and set up your support network. Takeaway No. 4 - pick a program, and don't rule out community colleges like Shasta. They're doing really interesting and innovative things. Takeaway No. 5 - make sure your credits count. Takeaway No. 6 - if the plan changes, figure it out. Don't let anyone tell you you aren't college material.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADWORNY: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other guides. I've got a whole bunch on college - how to pay for it, best ways to study, even how to get a job after you graduate. You can find all of those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and you want more, you can subscribe to our newsletter.

And here as always is a completely random tip - this time, from listener Caroline Herschbach.

CAROLINE HERSCHBACH: I am terrible with names and faces. So before I put away the Christmas cards for the year, if they've included a family photo, I take a picture of that picture, and I add it as their contact picture in my phone. I found that this is particularly helpful for work contacts because I can pull up their family photo before an event, such as a company party, and be refreshed on what someone's spouse looks like, what their name is and who their kids are.

NADWORNY: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or you can email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. This episode was edited by Steve Drummond with help from Lauren Migaki. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. I'm Elissa Nadworny. Thank you for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.