Going to College as an Adult: How to Navigate the Experience

by Stephanie Thurrott

Back when you graduated from high school, college wasn’t the next step for you. Maybe you wanted a break from academic life, you needed to work full-time to support your family, or you were eager to join the working world.

Whatever your reasons, if you’d like to start your higher education journey now, it’s not too late. Continuing education can help you compete with others in your field or change career directions to land an opportunity with better long-term growth. Read on to learn how going to college as an adult can help you achieve your goals and some tips to approach this next chapter with confidence.

Tips for Going to College as an Adult

Going to college as a mature adult is different from enrolling at age 18. Here are a few things to help you get started on the right foot.

Know You’re Not Alone

It’s true that most people start college right after (or soon after) high school, but according to the Education Data Initiative, just over 20 percent of college students are 25 or older. So, you can expect to find other people in your classes who are more your speed and may have similar responsibilities, like working or caring for a family.

Start with the Basics

If you didn’t finish high school, you’ll want to take the General Educational Development (GED) or High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) since almost all colleges and universities require a high school diploma or its equivalent. Studying for and passing one of these tests can also help you get a feel for academics after you’ve been out of the classroom for a while.

Consider Your Options

If you finished high school before 2020, you probably had a traditional education: you went to a classroom with other students your age and learned in person. While some online options were available before 2020, the pandemic drove many schools to expand flexible learning offerings.

Today, you can still get that in-person educational experience if that’s best for you. But you can also choose online-only continuing education options. In some programs, you meet on a video call with your professor and classmates at set times. In asynchronous learning formats, you complete online lessons whenever it’s convenient for you. Finally, hybrid courses and programs offer a mix of in-person and online education.

Go at Your Own Pace

If you’re going to college as an adult, returning to school full-time can be overwhelming due to other responsibilities in your life. Even if you could manage four or five classes most of the time, when midterms or finals come around, you may not have enough time to study.

One to three classes at a time might be more realistic. You can also look for self-paced programs that give you more flexibility. Some schools offer shorter terms or provide options for when to begin classes so you don’t have to wait until September or January to get started.

Recognize Your Value

Younger college students may be unsure of what they want to study, see professors as authority figures, and can be inclined to simply do what they need to do to earn a passing grade.

More mature students are likely to know exactly why they’re returning to school, view professors as peers, and be eager to get every bit of knowledge out of their experience. You bring a valuable worldview, enthusiasm, and energy to the classroom.

Get the Credit You Deserve

If you took advanced placement (AP) or dual enrollment classes in high school, you might qualify for college credit. And if you attended college for a semester or two before your plans changed, the credits you earned for those classes could speed up your time to graduation. Depending on the school you choose, you may also receive credit for workplace training, professional certification, exam scores, or military experience.

Explore Financing Opportunities

Students who are fresh out of high school are usually dependent on their parents, so their financial aid is based on their parents’ income. Older students are typically independent, so your own income and expenses are taken into consideration for grants, scholarships, and loans.

You can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what aid you might qualify for—there’s no age limit. Many states have grant programs for older students who attend in-state schools. For example, California offers financial aid opportunities for students of all ages.

Seek Support

Adding continuing education coursework to your busy schedule will likely necessitate some changes. Think about where and when you’ll attend classes and how you’ll get your homework done. Then, talk to the people in your life who can help make that happen.

Maybe you can talk to your boss about building some flexibility into your schedule to make balancing school and work easier. Or perhaps your partner can handle specific household or family responsibilities so you can focus on your studies at certain times. When people understand your goals and motivation for going back to school, they’ll be more likely to help you achieve them.

Reaching Your Goals at Any Stage of Life

Going to school as an adult can feel intimidating. But if it fuels your passion or your future, don’t let fear hold you back. Imagine your life a few years from now and envision that diploma hanging on your wall. How might it be different?

Azusa Pacific University embraces adult learners and recognizes the challenges older students face when they go back to school. Learn more about APU’s undergraduate programs and take that next step toward the future you envision.