5 tips for returning to school as an adult student

Over 3 million students over the age of 35 were enrolled in college courses in 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. If you're considering returning to school as an adult, get ready to join a large and growing trend, but also be sure to arm yourself with a few key skills to help you succeed. Here, two non-traditional students share their secrets of success for returning to school as adults.

Tip 1: Create a support network

For Karen Southall Watts, a mother of two who made the decision to go back to school to earn a master's degree in management while dealing with a separation from her partner, self-motivation and a support network were the keys to success. "I recommend adult students build their support network and then jump in with as much confidence as they can muster," she says.

Some schools, like California State University Fullerton, offer cohort programs where students progress through the program together--automatically building in a support network. If your dream school doesn't offer such a program, one thing adult learners can do is look for students who share their class schedule or have similar interests and suggest they meet to study together.

Tip 2: Make education a family affair

In Karen's experience, including family as an active part of her education helped to balance the load. She reached out to her children in particular, telling them that her available hours were going to shift while taking courses from home.

If you have young children, setting study time to coincide with their activities can keep everyone occupied. A bonus technique is to set up a timer with a promised treat when it buzzes so that kids will stay out of your study space for short periods of time.

Tip 3: Conquer your high-tech fears

"Most returning/adult students are concerned about things like rusty skills and lack of technological savvy," Karen says. "Both of these are manageable, but sometimes the anxiety of getting started can be overwhelming."

Support systems in some schools will stay on the phone with students when they speak with tech support representatives, making sure tech issues are understood and solved. Additionally, students who are considering online schools should look for programs that have 24 hour technical support, and should also try to talk to other students about their support experience.

Tip 4: Get real about a budget

Adult student Laura Mokelke left school the first time in 2003 for health reasons. She returned because she needed to support herself and pay her medical bills. While Karen used student loans to cover the cost of her education, Laura chose to balance school with a full-time job. "As an adult, you have larger financial responsibilities," she says. "The standard of living is increased, as are the pressures of a real job during the day."

Budgeting for education is serious business. Online budget programs like Mint.com can help you visualize where your spending habits can be found. Creating a strong budget doesn't mean cutting out all the fun in your life, but it might mean a few less gadgets or vacations each year.

Tip 5: Break out of your rut

While older students enjoy the benefit of experience, they can also be limited by ingrained working and study habits. "Older students are more set in their ways," Laura says. "Examples in the book need to be more realistic and applicable instead of broad strokes or [they] will not be able to relate to them." Adult students would be advised to make an effort to be open-minded towards new ideas--and, potentially, much younger professors.

Returning to school older and wiser has its benefits--for starters, you're likely more focused and goal-oriented than you were 10 or 20 years ago. "It helps to let adult students know that they often do much better than their younger counterparts," Karen notes. Choose your own de-stressing techniques and enjoy a rich education that you might not have appreciated back when you were fresh out of high school.

Non-traditional education at a glance

  • 3,193,000 students age 35 and over were enrolled in higher education courses in 2009 in the U.S.
  • Of that, there were about twice as many women as men--1,069,000 students were male and 2,124,000 were female.
  • In the 2007-08 school year, 23 percent of undergraduate students and 48.7 percent of all graduate students were 30 years old or older.

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