While most of his friends were going to college, Tom Pratt was moving up in the workplace. He landed a sales job right out of high school and kept climbing the career ladder. He's now pushing 28, surrounded by co-workers who mostly have degrees, and is pondering going back to college in the next few years. But he's hesitant to do so.
However, he's not alone. Nontraditional students, including those over age 25, are the new majority when it comes to higher education. Here are three common challenges that Pratt and others face when going back to college around age 30 and how to overcome them.
1. Finding motivation
Pratt says it's difficult to get up enough enthusiasm to even enroll.
"I have a low motivation for it right now due to work and time constraint," says Pratt, who lives in Santa Clara, California. "I need to learn how to be motivated and have a plan."
According to Bari Norman, co-founder and president of Expert Admissions, older students often fear they won't be driven enough to succeed if they go back to college — but, oftentimes, they're the hardest-working students.
"My experience working with older students (relative to the typical freshman age) is when they go back to school — go through the process and make all the sacrifices — they're quite motivated and ready," she says. "I think these people get a tremendous amount out of the college experience go and really suck everything out of it."
Recognizing that your motivation may change once you start school is important. Just because you've been out of the classroom for years doesn't mean you can't be a successful student. Take it one step at a time, by getting yourself ready to apply, recognizing your goals and priorities, setting deadlines for yourself and just doing it.
2. Balancing school and work
Once Pratt can find the motivation to go back to school, he's concerned about being able to balance school and his full-time job.
"Adding college to my life is a big commitment," Pratt said. "It's kind of inconvenient when the classes I can take are available from 7 to 9 p.m., two to three days a week. Pretty much my whole week is shot."
But balancing school and work is not impossible, and there are many ways to go about it.
Keisha Carr, a student writing for Unigo, explains that she balances the two by focusing on being organized and prepared. She makes a weekly and monthly schedule on a spreadsheet and has a plan if it all becomes too overwhelming (such as asking for time off at work and starting on class work earlier). You can come up with a system that works for you.
Norman says one of the best ways to balance school and work is by "picking a school that's complementary or conducive to whatever your primary objective will be." One of the most important steps for going back to college is finding a degree program and a school that works for you. Whether that means a flexible online degree program, an adult program that fits your schedule or night classes at the local college is up to you.
3. Feeling too old to return to college
Pratt says he can't even imagine how old he'll feel going back to college at 30.
"Ideally, it'd be awesome if there were a college for old people," he laughs. "I guess this is just part of the deal of waiting so long."
Enrolling in a continuing studies program or adult program at a local college may help ensure you're around people your age, Norman says.
"These schools will have more social support for you and good advisors," she explains. "You may also find a place that draws a more diverse crowd, like a community college. There, you're going to see people at all points of life and backgrounds. If you're among a more traditional undergraduate population, you may find it's harder to relate and it may feel less comfortable."
Check to see if any schools near you cater to nontraditional students. Online schools also often work well for older students going back to school, with the flexibility to complete schoolwork at your leisure and a demographic that's less dominated by traditional students. Some examples of great schools with online programs include Arizona State University, Walden University and Colorado State University's Global Campus. Otherwise, if you do go to a college with a more traditionally aged undergraduate population, and that makes you uncomfortable, Norman recommends finding a community of people at that school who are similar to you (like joining a club or study group).
In the end, despite the challenges, it's often well worth it for returning students to take the plunge and go to college. Though Pratt says he wishes he had gone back to school sooner, he's more worried about where he may end up if he doesn't get the degree.
"Who knows, maybe 20 years from now, the degree will be the only way I get hired anywhere," Pratt said. "I just need to get it done."
"Creating a Work/School Balance (A College Student Perspective)," Keisha M. Carr, Unigo.com,
Bari Norman, Co-Founder and President of Expert Admissions, Interviewed by the author, Aug. 13, 2014
Tom Pratt, Interviewed by the author, Aug. 13, 2014